As I was passing alongside New York’s East River recently, taking a break from my busy schedule and enjoying the view, I began thinking about the experiences I have encountered from the early years of my life as “Daddy’s Little Girl,” being his first born. All of a sudden, I felt such a huge hole in my heart thinking about how fragile he has become as a 90+-year-old man. I wanted to jump in the water and swim my tears away, but instead held them back by focusing on the many wonderful memories of our time together.
An electrical engineer and college educator by profession, my father, Leon Katz, made swimming his avocation for most of his life. From the time he was an undergraduate, swimming for the City College of New York (EE ’47), through his work as swimming coach (and daily fitness swimmer) at the Sol Goldman 14th Street YM-YWHA, my father devoted almost three-quarters of a century to teaching and coaching the sport.
After being rescued from a near drowning at the age of 14, he chose to return the life-saving gift of swimming to multitudes around him. His volunteer activities include developing community swim teams (Lower East Side Neighborhood Association, East New York “Y”), structuring adult swim fitness programs in community facilities, and providing water rehabilitation for injured war veterans long before hydrotherapy was in vogue. Perhaps his most extensive community service was his part in implementing the New York City Department of Parks Learn-To-Swim Program, which kept thousands of New York City boys and girls in the swimming pools and off the streets.
Leon Katz coached the adult fitness swimming team at the “Y” until he was 85 years old. Perhaps his greatest joy in life was having his four children, including his three daughters and son -- an NCAA swimming champion – and his four grandsons and granddaughter, join him for a family swim.
It was only natural for me to follow in his footsteps, or perhaps I should say “swim strokes.” After all, my dad taught me to swim before I could ever walk.
In fact, I turned swimming into a career by earning my advanced degree of both Health and Physical Education, and Genealogy. Adopting my father’s love of teaching, I became a professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Borough of Manhattan Community College, and taught swimming classes at many facilities throughout the United States as a volunteer. But my dedication remains to the local center where my dad used to teach, and I still encounter some of his swimmers who continue to participate in the program he created.
It is an honor to continue his legacy. But I know the time has come for me to be realistic. My father, though still strong in spirit, has grown physically frail. I know that the first man I ever loved in my life will be swimming to heaven soon and I need to prepare for his departure. I want him to know that although I love swimming from deep within my soul, these days I swim with a heavy heart. I love him more than any words could ever describe or any waters could hide. Dad is still with me, but when he departs it will leave a hole in my heart.
I am 69 now, and my pledge to dad is to continue to volunteer and teach the art of swimming. If I’m lucky, I will be able to do it well into my 80’s, as he did. I know that no one ever wins the competition with Father Time. But, dad, no matter what lies ahead for the both us, I promise to remember the mantra that I heard you espouse so many times: “Keep swimming, keep laughing.”