Archived Story

FF swimmers pass on appreciation

Published 11:14am Thursday, February 7, 2013

There are a million different parallels drawn between life and athletics, many of which are a fixture for commentary during any big game on television. But as the Fergus Falls swimming and diving team prepares for their upcoming Central Lakes Conference meet, they will look specifically to one of those parallels: war and sports.

This year’s team has continued a tradition of meeting with residence at the Minnesota Veterans Home, something that has proven to be more than just an opportunity to give back.

There are no discussions of strategy, no advice on anchoring a relay or tapering for meets. All the team hopes is to pass on their appreciation to past generations that have sacrificed for their country.

There are, however, plenty of lessons.

When the group made their first visit this year, swimmer and veteran alike struggled to get past their initial hesitations in opening up to one another.

“They talk about their families, where they’re from, just to get things going,” explained Mark Kitzman, who has organized the meetings for the past several years. “Then things do get going and they talk about girls and the old guys tell them jokes. So it turns into a really nice relationship.”

Kitzman, the Recreation Therapy Coordinator at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Fergus Falls, first started connecting athletes and veterans after discussing Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation” with area football coach Richard Risbrudt. Having had his own children swim in the Fergus program, Kitzman brought the idea to swimming and diving coach Tom Uvaas. Now, four years later, the opportunity to build lasting relationships with local veterans is a staple for the team each year.

As a parent, Kitzman, whose son Joe is a junior on the team, hopes the two generations carry a vision for the district’s athletic programs.

“It’s really not all about wins and losses, but how your kid is going to benefit from the sport,” said Kitzman. “So these swimmers come and learn from these guys. I think that these young men can be the next ‘Greatest Generation.’”

With the initial distance broken between the two generations, each room echoes with chatter and, often, the heft of laughter. The faces of men who have known the hardest of circumstances regain the slightest bit of their youth.

For captain and sole senior swimmer Clay Danielson, that is a reward in itself.

“A lot of these guys have really been through hard times and you realize how much of a privilege it is for us to swim because of what they’ve done for us. So it’s nice just to pay it back a little bit.”

But with the opportunity to meet with men who define leadership, courage and dedication, the experience has not been lost on the team’s focus in the water.

“One thing I’ve taken away is that nothing is easy and you have to work for everything,” said Danielson. “That really carries over into swimming and into life.”

Coach Uvaas also sees these lessons outside the pool as ones that will stay with the swimmers for the rest of their lives.

“I know that they will forget years from now their times or scores in swimming and diving, but they will always remember those special days at the Veterans Home.”

At the end of the day, as the boys exit the front doors back to their busy lives, a familiar calm returns to the rooms around the Veterans Home. But for each one of Kitzman’s veterans, something from the team’s presence has stayed behind.

“When I was down there talking to one of the vets he said, ‘I want to go swimming now. I haven’t swam in thirty five years,’” said Kitzman. “So, we’re going to take them swimming at the Y.”

The Otter divers compete first in the Central Lakes Conference meet on Thursday. The following Saturday, February 9th, the swimmers will take to the pool for individual and relay races. Both events will be held in Alexandria.

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