Masters of South Texas member honors her coach with five nationalchampionships in Ohio
When she saw a sign advertising a new Masters swimming program at her fitness center in 1999, DeEtte Sauer decided to try it out. She had been looking for an exercise routine and thought she could swim after watching her daughters do it.
Sauer, now 80, jumped in for her first practice without a swim cap or goggles and began doing dog paddle. Embarrassed that she couldn’t do more, she apologized and said that she couldn’t swim and that she shouldn’t have tried out. Her coach, Stacey Van Horn, wouldn’t hear it. She would turn Sauer into a swimmer.
Three months later, Sauer competed at a local swim meet and was hooked.
“If anybody else had been on deck that day, I wouldn’t have done it,” Sauer says. “None of this would be if it weren’t for her.”
Van Horn’s support and coaching when Sauer began swimming, as well as the coaching of others who followed Van Horn, helped Sauer win national championships in the 50 and 100 butterfly and the 100, 400, and 800 freestyle at the 2021 U.S. Masters Swimming Long Course National Championship in October.
The wins were just the latest accomplishment for Sauer, a member of Masters of South Texas who has recorded 125 Top 10 times and was a USMS pool All-American in 2016. But having this much athletic success didn’t seem likely that long ago.
Sauer says she grew up playing sports but stopped when she reached middle school because she thought at the time that girls her age shouldn’t do them. After becoming sedentary, she says, she became overweight and out of shape.
She lost that weight as an adult and began doing shot put in an attempt to compete in the Senior Olympics to fulfill a childhood dream of competing at an Olympic competition of any kind. After she injured her shoulder, Sauer went looking for a new fitness activity, which led her to the pool.
She believes that Van Horn’s patience and diligence in helping her improve was singular, saying that other coaches would’ve let her walk away after her first workout.
“I just fell in love with it,” she says. “I never thought I could be an athlete. It’s just unbelievable that I’m doing it now. It’s been 22 years, and I’m still having a blast. I’ve never gotten over the thrill. Every time I go to a big meet or something, I text her and tell her what I’m doing. I want her to really understand what she did for my life. I’m not sitting on the couch watching TV. I get up at 4:20 in the morning and jump in a cold pool. I’m just having the most incredible senior years ever.”
Sauer has decided to pay Van Horn’s kindness forward by becoming a USMS-certified Adult Learn-to-Swim instructor. Another woman came a few years ago to Sauer’s pool hoping to swim, but she was afraid of the water and didn’t know how to swim.
“I took her aside, talked to her, taught her how to swim,” Sauer says. “She’s become one of my dearest friends in the whole world. I just love her to death.”
Last year, Sauer’s beloved coach was diagnosed with breast cancer. To honor Van Horn, Sauer competed at Long Course Nationals with the words “For Stacey” written in marker on her arms to honor the coach who turned her into a swimmer. Sauer’s appreciation for Van Horn was visible at Long Course Nationals.
“All that time [I was learning to swim], she kept telling me ‘you’re strong, you can do this, you can learn to swim, you can be competitive,’” Sauer says. “She’s been my cheerleader all along. Now the shoe is on the other foot. I’m writing her notes all the time, sending her cards, calling her, texting her, telling her not to forget how strong and courageous she is. It’s like what goes around comes around.”