You should be the best of the best or the worst of the worst. Never mediocre.
The rest of the house was still quiet, still shrouded in night when my father would wake me up at 5 a.m. to swim.
I was a slow starter in the mornings. Like any 8-year-old, I occasionally let sleep drag me back down to the bed, but the thought of my father coming in and finding me out was enough to unglue me from my sheets. My father helped put me in the right frame of mind for this daily chore. By the time I was dressed, with my swimsuit under my school uniform, he had already cooked breakfast and had my 10 energy pills of wheat germ set out for me on the kitchen counter. Yes, it was brutally early.
At that early hour the other members of my swim team were probably still in
bed. I thought about them, warm in their sheets, as we drove to the Olympic-sized pool on the campus of the University of Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. They were hours away from waking up for school.
Once facing the pool, I dreaded going into the cold water. But to my father, there was no use wasting time to ponder the issue.
“Don’t stick your toe in the pool, Mari,” he would tell me. “If you think it’s too cold, you’ll never jump in.”
Even though I was so young, I knew he was right. So I would take a deep breath and count down. Five %u2026 four %u2026 three %u2026 two %u2026 one %u2026 splash!
Hesitation is for the average and I’m not raising you to be average, he would say. It reminded me of the time I brought home a %u2018C’ in my report card. He looked at it silently for a couple of minutes and then sat me down for a brief, but lasting lesson.
“Bring me an %u2018A’ or an %u2018F.’ Never a %u2018C.’ You should be the best of the best or the worst of the worst. But never mediocre.”
I knew he was serious. He had endless duties as Chancellor of the university, and the fact that he made time to be my personal coach was not lost on me. Whenever I won a competition, whenever I beat my own time, his eyes would twinkle with pride, making me feel that the sacrifice was worth it. He never stopped feeding me information. He bought videos of Olympic
Champions filmed with underwater cameras showing off their swimming techniques and we studied them together. He was on top of all the latest trends and thanks to his vision, our team was one of the first in Latin America to exchange nylon swimsuits for ultra-light Lycra ones that absorbed less water and had less drag. He was also the first person on the island to own a digital stopwatch. He had ordered from a catalogue and I remember it being incredibly expensive at the time. He always taught me that in order to achieve greatness you must push yourself beyond your comfort zone. That without pain, there’s no gain. So, if I complained after a swimming workout that my arms were sore, he would say “Mari, the only way to excel in this sport is by training your thoughts to be stronger than your muscles. If you want the gold medals, go get them!” His dedication made it easier for me to endure the body aches and the chlorine, which stung my eyes and turned my hair green.
His mood on our drive home was dictated by how hard I worked at practice. The day he received the stopwatch, he and my coach reprimanded me more than once because instead of practicing for an upcoming meet, I was goofing off in the pool with my friends. My father ended up smashing his brand new stopwatch against the ground, and I remember watching the springs fly in different directions. In the next event, I not only raced my best, but set a record in the 50-meter backstroke for my age group. My father was bursting with pride and I thought I had finally pleased the man who always challenged me to do more.
The next morning, we were back at practice at 5 a.m. and before I jumped in the pool, he took a new, white-faced analog stopwatch out of his bag.
“This,” he said, dangling in front of me, “is your new rival.”
In the summer of 1971, I earned a spot on the Puerto Rican junior national team for the Central American Games in Havana, Cuba. I went with my mother, since my father could not abandon the University for the two entire weeks we were required to stay there. I was 11 and it was the first time I had traveled overseas for an international competition. My girlfriends and I were way too excited to be there. At night, we had pillow fights and stayed up talking, sometimes until dawn. I earned three medals: one gold, one silver and one bronze. But when my father heard about the results, he was so disappointed that he didn’t even show up to pick up my mother and me at the airport.
I joke with him now that in today’s society that would have been considered
child abuse. But even as a girl, as hurt as I was by his absence, I understood deep down why he was so upset. He didn’t show up that day because he knew I had everything I needed to win three gold medals. I was in great shape and my times in practice were superb, and he understood that if I didn’t bring home all gold, it was because I had done something wrong.
He was right. Those late nights chatting with my girlfriends caught up to me, affecting my performance at the races. Understandably, he was disappointed that I had lost my focus and not given my maximum effort. He always wanted me to shoot higher, not for him, but for myself. If I was the best in my town, he challenged me to be the best in my country, then the best in Central America, and then the world.
There is never an end of the road when it comes to personal achievement. My father always laid out a new challenge the way life often does in the real world. I thank him for preparing me.
I will never forget those mornings by the pool, the smell of chlorine in the air, and I can still hear that stopwatch tick-tick-ticking in my head. My father was right: Anybody can be good, but it takes discipline and hard work to accomplish great things. I was fortunate to be blessed with such a wonderful cheerleader, but I realize he’s not always going to be around. At the end, all we have is ourselves. And like my dad said, your toughest rival should be you.