One morning, shortly after moving to Colorado Springs to train at the Olympic Training Center, my six teammates and I were kicked out of swim practice. It was fall of 2007. We were in the middle of a hard training period before resting for the Can-Am, a dual National level meet with Canada. This meet would be telling as to how we would all compete at Trials for the Paralympic Games taking place months later in April, 2008. Some of us were still adjusting to altitude. We were all exhausted, and although the workout shouldn’t have been incredibly difficult, we were either barely making or just missing the times set for us.
I will never forget the calm in my coach Jimi’s voice when he spoke to us. He said he wasn’t going to watch us do the workout with half the effort. He told us to remember we were at the Olympic Training Center. I panicked. I asked if I could have another chance, to which Jimi told me no. My mind began racing. How could I become successful if I got kicked out of a practice in the first few months I was at the Olympic Training Center? I was supposed to be an elite athlete.
Once I moved past the unrealistic view that I should be a perfect swimmer who never needed any serious critique, I realized that what Jimi did that day set the tone for the team in a way that was far more powerful than if he had allowed us to continue barely making the intervals. He didn’t kick us out because we were failing—he kicked us out because we were focusing on being tired and not on becoming better swimmers. He kicked us out to stop the team from growing complacent. In not allowing us to finish the workout, he sent the message that he not only took us seriously, but expected excellence from us.
Jimi Flowers was the kind of leader who didn’t have to demand respect in order to get it. By genuinely believing the best of his athletes and holding us to high standards, it came naturally. In general, he was as positive and enthusiastic as he was intentional and caring, which caused us all to look deeper at the kind of athletes we wanted to be. Thanks to Jimi’s coaching, I went on to break a world record at Olympic Trials in April, which would subsequently help me become a nominee for ESPN’s Excellence in Sports Performing Yearly (ESPY) award later that year. Five of the seven of us who were kicked out of practice that day would go on to earn a medal in Beijing the next year. Unfortunately, Jimi passed away in 2009 as a result of a mountain climbing accident; however, as a coach and leader he continues to make an incredible impact on those who knew him. The lessons I learned while swimming for Jimi follow me in life, and continue to do so in the Fellowship. Much like training to break world records, excellence is expected of the Fellows. We are held to a high standard, because there are leaders who genuinely believe in our potential to make a positive impact in our communities. I have found it is often the leaders who do not merely allow you to settle for anything less than great, those who challenge you to rise above your circumstances and strive for improvement, who make a positive impact.