I was given the opportunity to speak at my former coach, Jim Donoghue’s service today. Below are my words:
My name is Drew Millikin, and I am Jim and Martha’s fifth son. I used to be their fourth, but then Meg got married and Mike bumped me down to the 5th spot.
Jim arrived my sophomore year at Saint Michael’s. I swam for him for three years and was one of his captains for two. After graduating, I coached for his team, Green Mountain Aquatics before joining Jim on the Saint Michael’s pool deck, coaching a team we both love deeply from 2006 through his penultimate season.
It goes without saying that I have been thinking of Jim a lot these last two weeks and reflecting on the special relationship we shared. I have always resisted saying that Jim was a second father to me. I’ve hesitated for two primary reasons, one, Jim and Martha have four wonderful kids; they didn’t need another. And two, I have a wonderful father and I never wanted to take anything away from him. As much as I may have resisted saying, Jim was like a second father to me. And as news of Jim’s illness and eventual passing began to spread, I saw that phrase everywhere, and it came from people whom I had no idea even knew Jim.
What was it about Jim that led so many to look at him in this way? What was so special about this big, stubborn, bear of a man who could never be told that he was wrong? A man who was always ready for a hug, or a congratulatory handshake/high five grasp after a race. A man who did not burn bridges; he nuked them.
Why were so many of us impacted so deeply by this man?
Out of curiosity, how many of us are teachers? Coaches? Educators? Please keep your hands up, if in some way, large or small, Jim Donoghue had an effect on your decision to enter that vocation.
What was it about that man?
I can’t speak for everyone who ever swam for Jim, but I can share with you my theory: It is that Jim saw all of us through a lens, which we could not.
He saw us in our true potential—our full selves. And he demanded that we live up to and carry ourselves with the self-respect and dignity we deserved.
I certainly experienced this as a student athlete at Saint Michael’s, and I witnessed this coaching with him in those years we coached our beloved team together.
One of those moments was what I consider one of the greatest teaching moments I have yet to witness. We were coaching a certain team on a certain training trip in Florida on a certain New Year’s Day. It was quite evident that watching warm-ups that a number of them had been celebrating the night before. It was actually clear that from the stench in the vans on the ride to the pool that they had been celebration the night before and perhaps into that morning.
Jim asked me to stop warm-up, which I did, puffing my chest, awaiting a red-faced, full on, chewing out.
Instead, Jim spoke calmly and coolly. He did not raise his voice. He did not admonish. He did not shame, although I suspect that many of them felt ashamed. Jim instead talked about self-defeat. He shared his belief that every practice is an opportunity to improve, as is every set, as is every stroke. They owed it to themselves to take advantage of each of those opportunities and that through their poor decision-making, they had deprived themselves of that opportunity and disrespected themselves in the process.
Jim easily could have torn them down. After we started them on the pre-set, I told him that his reaction was the exact opposite of what I was expecting. His reply was that all that would have done was make him feel better while making them feel worse than they already did. He would not allow those swimmers to deprive themselves of the opportunity to achieve their best. And there were many times when his idea of our best, seemed so out of reach that they seemed ridiculous. I remember that swimming for him. I didn’t understand until I began working with him, coaching with him, that he truly believed in us. And he would try like hell to convince us of the potential that he saw. For Jim understood that the opponent was not the team on the other side of the pool. It was not the swimmer in the lane next to us. Our biggest opponent was that black line on the bottom of the pool—that voice inside our own heads. Our own self-doubt.
I reached out to a number of Jim’s former swimmers asking for anecdotes and memories in preparation for this knowing that there is no way I can speak for all of them. The response was overwhelming and beautiful. And most of the stories, spoke of the same common theme demonstrated on the pool deck that New Year’s day. It is that, above all else, Jim valued and taught self-respect, dignity and kindness.
It was privilege to swim for Jim Donoghue. The opportunity to coach team that I love was a true gift. Coaching with my coach, my friend and my mentor was a remarkable life shaping experiences for which I will forever be grateful
I said that I don’t want to speak for his swimmers, and I won’t. I will however, speak for him, and all of the messages of love and support I received and witnessed confirm what I am about to say. Jim Donoghue loved you all. It didn’t matter if you swam for him for one year or your entire lifetime. He loved every one of you.
Actually, I am going to speak for all of us who swam for Jim. We will miss you, coach.
*Updated 2/1/16 to include some ad-libs.