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The Myth of the Hero . . .
Redemption through Supernatural Speed & Skill in the Water . . .
The Man who 'Let' Spitz Win . . .
Jerry Heidenreich died by his own hand on April 18, 2002. He had been my swimming coach and friend for twelve years. I was not surprised to learn of this news, as I had been awaiting it for some time.
Let's go back.
I will not repeat the well known Spitz/Heidenreich stories. They can be found elsewhere. It is enough to recall that after the 1972 Games, Jerry came home almost unknown to a still somewhat provincial city, Dallas, Texas (some would argue that not much has changed, but I would differ), while his teammate Spitz went home to California and adulation, posters, endorsements and millions. Jerry was 'in trouble' with his Dad for 'letting' Spitz beat him. Enough, enough.
Jerry got married, got divorced. Moved to California. Started businesses that failed. He partied, hard. He made a mess of himself, and his life began to fall apart. He straightened up a little, got married again, to a nurse, Rhonda. They had a son, Austin, who is now fourteen. Jerry got divorced again, and he married Sherry, a woman he met on our Masters club, SWAM, at the Cooper Fitness Center.
I met Jerry in late 1989 when I answered an ad for his swim club in the paper. (See my article, In Searching For Adrenaline, I Found Water) He was a pushy, sarcastic, angry wiseguy. We hit it off immediately. Shortly after one of my first workouts with him, I overheard one of the other swimmers in the locker room asking Jerry 'who is that new guy?' Jerry said, 'Name is Dolan or something, sez he's some kinda shrink or psychologist or something' in a very sarcastic, off hand tone. I stepped around the corner, and said 'Better watch it, or I'll shrink your head.' He looked at me, startled for a minute, then laughed.
We got on fine from that point on. But even then, I could sense his depression, sadness, anger. I knew all about it, as I was no stranger to these myself. Jerry immediately began to give me a lot of attention in the pool, and I progressed very rapidly in my swimming. Those early 60-70 minute workouts were some of the toughest I had ever encountered in any sport, and it was the difficulty of it that kept me coming back.
In the first year of swimming, I attended several meets, which like all new swimmers, I found to be enormously intimidating, but then, I was a confirmed hard core adrenaline junkie, and these meets provided me more of my main jones than just about anything, even bicycle criteriums.
At my first Zone Championships, Jerry, drunk on his ass, came up to me at the pre-meet social in the hotel in Austin, and said 'Ya gonna shave down tomorrow? Ya gotta shave down' very aggressive, very sarcastic. I said, 'No, I am gonna just let this be a practice meet for me', but later on, I did try and failed to shave, not having clippers for the preliminary clip down. My wife said to me later on, 'I cannot believe you like that guy.' To tell the truth, i didn't know what i felt, as he was so hard to deal with. In the 100 free the next day, Jerry, age 40, chain smoker, little or no training behind him, still basically drunk, swam the fastest time of the meet, 49.1.
His marriage to Rhonda was already in trouble when i met Jerry, and it wasn't too long after I joined SWAM that Jerry and Rhonda separated and eventually divorced. He and Sherry began seeing each other a lot during that period. Our club, being populated at that time by a number of twenty and thirty something former college swimmers, had a notable culture of heavy drinking. It was the 'athletic drinking thing.' You train hard, stay in superb physical condition, but you drink hard. It was a lifestyle Jerry had lived since his days at SMU in the late 60's. He had always been a bad boy who redeemed himself with his supernatural speed and skill in the water.
In early 1990, a bunch of us flew to Houston to participate in a club meet at the exclusive Houstonian Club. It was the official residence of then President George Bush, Sr. At the end of the meet, there was a beer relay with kegs set up at the far end of the pool. Each swimmer had to swim to the other end, swig a beer, and swim back. That kicked things off, and from there we were sending out for twelve packs after floating the kegs. Each and every one of us climbed back onto the Southwest flight back to Dallas, very, very drunk, including our illustrious leader, Mr. H.
I had myself lived the athletic drinking thing for many years, noticing that three or four or more beers after a strenuous workout produced a very mellow state of inner calm, keeping the demons temporarily asleep. I had been avoiding noticing for years that my drinking was steadily increasing year by year. I fit right in with my new coach of SWAM.
Towards the end of 1990, Jerry had a personal crisis related, I think, to the demise of his marriage to Rhonda. He decided to enter a treatment center for alcoholism, Brookhaven Psychiatric Pavilion. He called me one day and asked me to come over and see him. We went to a private consultation room, and he appeared to be in a very extreme condition, his drinking having been so heavy prior to admission that he required de-tox. He told me that he 'has a million dollars worth of medical insurance' and I 'might as well get some of it' by signing on as his personal therapist. Such a weird way to ask for help... without really asking for help at all, only indicating the existence of wealth that might be obtained by entering into a kind of strange partnership with him. I told Jerry I would take this into advisement, and never really acted on it.
Jerry came out of Brookhaven in early 1991, quieter, humbler, more reasonable, less aggressive. He had a sponsor in AA, Larry Van Der Woude. He was very enthusiastic about his recovery and got involved in the culture of AA. He inspired a rash of recoveries on the swim club, with many of the hard drinking male swimmers, myself included, putting it aside in that year. Jerry went on to have some very good years through most of the early to mid nineties. He and Sherry got married in Old City Park in Dallas in 1992, with the whole swim club invited. They did well together for a good while.
I became one of the regulars of SWAM, and Jerry put a lot of time and attention into helping me improve. He was gifted in his observation of, and instruction in, swimming technique. He was also an experimenter and we as a club were used to try many new swim inventions, among these being the Ulitmate Fist Glove, and the prototyping of the what became the Speedo Stroke Watch.
Jerry's Aquatic Academy, a summer learn-to-swim program that he offered through the Cooper Center really took off then, and he began to really make money and expand his swimming empire. He became the head coach of Hockaday School, an exclusive girls school near the Center. Aquatic Academy was stable and growing each year. He was in AA, married to a good woman, Sherry. It was a good period for Jerry, and for us on SWAM. In 1992, we won the team championhip at Zones.
In that period, Jerry began asking me to take turns coaching workouts for the club. I realized he had taught me a great deal of his observational skill in evaluating swim strokes. And also how to help people correct flaws. Jerry made me official in the mid-nineties by negotiating an arrangement with the center wherein I would be available to coach in his place when needed in return for a free membership at the Cooper Center. In the summer of 1996, I was suffering a bad business year, and had put my son in private school, and needed cash. Jerry asked me to help him that summer with coaching and lessons, and I wound up with the several thousand dollars I needed to get ahead on tuition for that year. Jerry was always very generous in remunerating those who worked for him.
Again that fall, he was running a technique school for age groupers on Sundays, and needed some one to help him. I still needed every spare cent I could get, and Jerry paid me very well, well enough to get another leg up on tuition for that year. I'll not forget his generosity in that period.
Jerry did much to try and confront his demons in the mid nineties. He confided a great deal in me, maybe without even realizing it. Most of it not very remarkable, in the scale of things people say when telling their stories of abuse. His was one I have heard many, many times over, and as far as it went, was nowhere near as severe as the worst I have heard. It nevertheless left behind a man severely, desperately wounded, destined to end his life early, as so many abuse survivors do.
Abuse. More than any other word, this one applies to Jerry. He had been abused, he abused himself, and although he fought it hard, he could be and often was, abusive. If you know anything at all about alcoholism, then you know about this word.
He had had a terrible relationship with his father, who apparently could best be described as a drunken bully who basked in his son's glory, but had few if any kind words for him. Jerry had this element in him as well. I recall that once, my own son accompanied us to a big meet in Austin, and was very bored. He was about ten, and kept himself entertained by running around the building and getting into things. At some point, he and Jerry confronted one another alone in a stair well, and Jerry said something to him that he has never revealed to me to this day, but the result was that he was in tears, and violently angry at Jerry for years to come, saying he 'hated him'.
A woman teammate, Kristin Henderson, said that a woman wasn't really a SWAMMER until Jerry had made her cry. Or something to that effect. In the early years, he made them all cry at least once.
Jerry had the typical difficulties of the emotionally/verbally/physically abused male. His self protective rage continually aroused, but never released at the target (his father), he acted out violently and anti-socially. He was a cut up and clown and a rabble rouser. A party animal. An endless fountain of good times (most did not understood how badly he needed to never let the good time end).
He was hostile, abusive, narcissistic to the core. Monumentally self destructive, his unconscious machinery continually directed at destroying the thing he hated most--himself. It was he who had drawn his father's bullying wrath, and the best way he had of turning those tables was to remove the thing that inspired it. In the classic erroneous thought pattern of the abused, it was he who caused it. He was the one who 'let' Spitz beat him, thereby missing out on the opportunity to at last get father's approval. Having never gotten it from his father, he refused to give it to himself. It was this element of self hatred that never left Jerry.
I also began to understand that Jerry probably suffered with some kind of bi-polar disorder. I don't know if he was ever treated for it, or ever diagnosed, but he was capable of incredible 'ups', during which he would accomplish a great deal. An example would be the founding of his age group swim club, the ATAC, in summer 1997. This was accomplished entirely within a period of a few weeks after his brother in law, Chris McCurdy, was de-contracted from his long time head coaching position with Plano Swim Club. ATAC lives on, still guided by Chris.
Somehow, in the late nineties, the wheels began to come off again for Jerry. His younger brother died of alcoholism. His friend Joe McKinney, an old friend, mentor and sponsor, died. I think Jerry and Sherry started to have marital problems, and I am sure that Sherry was not happy in her relationship with the self named Mr. Wonderful (Jerry) On many occasions, I saw her be the butt of one of Jerry's stupid, unthinking jokes. I have no doubt that his difficulties led him to have severe, if not insurmountable, problems with intimacy.
He also was having some real health troubles. From years of neglect, his teeth were rotting and falling out. He had sleep apnea, and snored horrendously. He could not kick cigarette smoking. He had developed inguinal hernias, which had to be operated on. In spring of 2000, at age 50, he swam a 25.5 50 fly at a Zones meet, and three weeks later, he was in the hospital having a massive aortic aneurysm repaired. Later that year, he had another one repaired in either the iliac or femoral artery. His mother died of smoking related illness and congestive heart failure. Sherry moved out, and they divorced. It was his self described year from hell. Yet, at his mother's funeral, he was composed and eloquent, and seemed ready to take on the future.
At Short Course Zones of 2001, I checked into the team hotel and found a note from Jerry saying, Jim, come check out my room when you get a chance. He had rented the 'party suite' for himself, and had stocked it with booze. A ton of booze. I was stunned, but remained mute. In 2000, I learned that he had returned to heavy drinking and confronted him about it, but he let me know he didn't need or want any guidance or confrontation from me, so I agreed with myself that I had said my last to Jerry on this topic. Still, I was amazed at what I saw when I went in the party suite.
Jerry had already been drinking, and he proceeded to tell me all the strange discoveries he had made about why his drinking had been so bad (poor choices in women) and having freed himself of negative influences, he was now free to drink in a non-pathological way. He also told me that he had made plans to get out of Dallas, and was looking at a house in Paris Texas, and would I be willing to help him by becoming an assistant coach who would run the Masters program under his guidance from afar?
I sat in stunned mute silence, realizing that he was in the midst of an alcohol fueled manic 'break'. I knew I was witnessing a tragedy I was helpless to stop.
Gradually, other swimmers arrived, and I was able to withdraw and gather my thoughts. I will not go farther than to say, Jerry spent that weekend drunk and nearly irrational. He created a mood of real dismay amongst us teammates, but we all knew we were helpless to say or do anything about it. It was very upsetting.
Shortly thereafter, Jerry invited everyone to his home to announce his plans to move to Paris, and he asked me to make a brief introductory speech before he took the floor. I did not say anything other than the basics, which were that Jerry had an announcement to make. He said he would be moving to Paris, but he wanted everyone to remember that he would still be personally involved and interested in their swimming performance, and he wanted all to know that he would not be abandoning them. And indeed, Jerry did care about his swimmers in ways I doubt most Master's coaches do. He had extensive spreadsheets on each of us, charting progress in all events since we began with him. He remembered times better than most of the swimmers.
But there was something oddly dramatic about the announcement, and I realized that he was still in the grip of the grandiosity that accompanies a hyper-manic break. I felt embarrassed for him. And there was another problem. Jerry had failed to discuss his impending move with his bosses at the Cooper Center. They heard about it through the grapevine, and when they did, they declined to renew his contract, an action similar to the one that had occured at Hockaday the previous year. Hockaday had failed to renew his contract, saying he had been verbally abusive to a student.
Now the wheels were off. No pool to conduct summer swim school, or Masters, in. Cash flow cut. The house in Dallas sold, and the one in Paris bought. He had found a new lady friend, Belinda, in Paris. I think Jerry began drinking even heavier in late summer of 2001, maybe even using. He was in free fall. There had been nothing but tragedy for the last several years, and now the bombs were thudding to earth around him even faster than he could dodge them. That was when he had the stroke, in late August of last year, after having moved to Paris.
He was very ill for a couple days, then left the hospital under his own power. His speech slurred a little, thoughts a little slow, a little motor sluggishness on one side. But seemed to be coming along OK. He went back home to Paris and continued working on his swimming business, but without an adequate pool, he was hamstrung. He got blackly depressed. But still encouraging to others. I had some swimming breakthroughs that I wrote to him about, and he wrote back, in barely legible mistyped writing, that I was learning how to be one with the water, and that I should keep it up. He also informed me of his depression.
Privately, I knew that he was probably already formulating a plan for suicide. I think he took stock of his situation, which included an awareness of a systemic circulatory disease (aneurysm, stroke), and could see only increasing infirmity and decline. Having seen everything he had worked for come and go, I believed strongly that I would be hearing soon about Jerry's suicide.
It still came as a blow when I heard about it, and I felt stongly how sad all this was. How completely he captured the myth of the hero, he who at the moment of his greatest achievement is most vulnerable, and soon tumbles from the zenith of his arc, never to return again. He was almost a perfect tragic hero, tragic in the sense of Shakespeare, whose heroes contained in their own beings the flaw that leads to their downfall.
And how completely he showed us to ourselves, the naked rawness of our own flaws, and the grace that we live in which allows the continuation of our own lives in spite of those flaws. He could never have been said to be a great guy, he was far too complex to wear that simplistic moniker well. Nor could he be summed up as a 'real jerk' either, stuck as he was in the trap of his own being, as we all are. He was generous and loving in his own way to those who showed him their loyalty. He was complicated, he was human.
In the end, we could say, he was a man, just like any of us, Spitz included.
Jim Dolan - July 2, 2002
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