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by Alic Custer-Shook

May 29, 2018

MEMO coach Marcia Benjamin has always been there for me

“I could never forget that smile!”

That was the first thing Marcia Benjamin said to me when I returned to the pool. It had been at least two years since I’d seen her.

In the two years since I’d seen Marcia, everything had changed. I’d spent a lot of time alone in Bangkok looking in the mirror and the discomfort in my body took up a bigger and biggerphoto-credit--Becca-Wyant part of my life until finally I gave myself permission to be myself. Bangkok was the first place where I said I was transgender out loud. I had been afraid no one would ever love me again. I had been afraid people wouldn’t see me as a person anymore. I had been afraid I’d lose everything.

In the two years since I’d seen Marcia, I’d transitioned from female to male. At some point, I stopped swimming because I was afraid what other people might think—and do—about my body in a swimsuit. Was I a man? Was I a woman? What suit should I wear? What locker room should I use? After two years on testosterone and chest reconstruction surgery, other people no longer questioned my gender. People stopped staring at me just-a-little-too-long while they figured out how to categorize me. I still worried what people might think of my body in a swimsuit, but I missed the water and I wanted to feel that feeling of weightlessness again. I wondered, would people know I was transgender? Would they care? Would I always feel this different?

I sent Marcia an email a few days before I showed up to workout. I knew I had to tell her something, but how could I explain the last two years of my life? My voice had changed. My body had changed. I’d lost friends. I’d lost family. I worked five jobs, most of which I was overqualified for, while I financed my medical transition. My entire world had been radically reorganized. I had no idea how to explain the change I’d been through, how to explain that despite all of it, I still felt like I was finally moving in the direction of my most authentic self.

In the email, I think I told her that I’d changed my name and that I’d had my chest reconstructed. I didn’t want to “surprise” her. I didn’t think I could endure any more shocked looks as people I knew from before realized that they actually already knew me. Marcia wrote back, “See you in the pool!” There was a smiling face made of punctuation marks next to it. I knew it would be OK. Marcia saw me as something beyond my gender. She saw me as a swimmer, and that’s exactly how I wanted to be seen.

Marcia is not like other people.

In writing this article, I asked my partner, Kevin, to read the first draft. He usually responds to my writing with accolades that are not particularly helpful from a writing perspective but are still really nice to hear. “So, what’d you think?” I asked. He looked hesitant. “I mean, you haven’t really captured Marcia. It’s more than just that she yells. You haven’t captured the …” he waved his hands in the air as if trying to touch something just a little bit out of reach. “The … cult-like aspect.” I groaned in frustration. He was right. Marcia is difficult to put into words. At the risk of sounding fanatical, what Kevin said is true. Marcia has a special way of taking on a bigger significance in your life than as just your “swim coach.” She brings meaning to the phrase “larger than life.” We MEMOs are more like “followers of Marcia” than we are like swimmers. I mean seriously, one of the MEMOs lives in Japan!

Every Monday morning, she sends the “Monday MEMO” via email. The Monday MEMO often includes a recap of Marcia’s weekend, heartwarming stories about her college-age daughter becoming increasingly independent and yet dependent at the same time, the weekly practice schedule, recent life events of our fellow MEMOs, and foreshadowing of some of the bizarre and painful workouts we do. “Get ready for another sponge-towing, cone-kicking, tennis ball-grabbing, stick-catching, tube-pulling, crab-walking photoshoot in the future.” That’s a direct quote from the Monday MEMO. And yes, those are all things we do.

My favorite emails from Marcia happen in the weeks before the PacMasters Short Course Championships each year. She sends daily reminder emails to enter the meet. You only get taken off the list once you’ve entered the meet. The night before the meet she sends a final email with very useful guides on what to pack, how to warm up and warm down, and how swim meets actually work. Under the heading, “Should I have a strategy?” she writes, “Duh!” She then says of distance events, “Make sure that you know the pace you want to hold. Practice it with me in warm-up. Go right into that pace. Don’t go out like a nut and think this will be the day—this will not be ‘THE DAY!’ Swim like toothpaste coming out of a tube—steady pressure!” I never get tired of reading her emails.

Concerned about getting swimmers to show up for practice in prep for Short Course Championships, Marcia created a sticker chart system to incentivize us. Yes, a sticker chart. She made a laminated blank sticker chart for every MEMO and organized them by first name in a plaster file holder that she brought to every practice every day. Each time we completed a workout, we got to pick out a sticker and put it on our chart. Guess what? It worked! We laughed about it, but we loved those damn sticker charts. Surprisingly, on days I wanted to hit the snooze button I found myself thinking about missing the chance to put another sticker on my chart and I’d roll myself out of bed. I think the inaugural sticker chart year was the year I swam my best times in the 100 butterfly and 100 individual medley. “I like this whole meet thing,” I said to Marcia. “It makes you realize you can swim a lot faster than you think you can.” She threw her arms up in the air, smiled, and yelled, “WHAT DO YOU THINK I’VE BEEN TRYING TO TELL YOU ALL THESE YEARS?!”

She incorporates strange and often painful swimming tools into practice—sponges, cones, nets, PVC pipe, and during Halloween, pumpkins. Every year during the winter holidays, we do a workout she calls “The 12 Days of Swimming” which involves the entire team moving from lane to lane doing 12 each of 12 different things—12 25s butterfly, 12 minutes vertical kicking, 12 pull outs, etc. There are also the “classic Marcia” workouts—the 15-minute swim, “the broken 800,” “the 400 kick for time,” the dreaded “four 100s”, and the newest one, “USRP day.” Marcia didn’t invent USRP training, but she certainly puts her spin on it. She walks the length of the pool with the team while counting so we can track our times and makes fun of just about every one of our strokes. She yells out things like “THAT’S TOO MUCH AIR!” and “THIS IS SUPPOSED TO MAKE YOU TIRED!”

While getting ready for workout one day I overheard her husband, David Benjamin—a MEMO swimmer and U.S. Masters Swimming official—lovingly call her “an acquired taste.” She once told me that she times everything she does and is always trying to beat her best times. “You know those people who say, ‘I swim because it’s meditative and I can check out?’” she said once. “What is the point of that? How are you ever supposed to get BETTER?!” Her license plate reads “DSTLANE” and she named her cat “Flutter” (RIP, Flutter). Marcia got dressed on her wedding day in the locker room after a swim meet.

Marcia is MEMO’s only coach. If she’s not there, we don’t swim. She coaches 16 workouts each week and teaches at Laney College and Merritt College in their Kinesiology Departments. In the decade since I began swimming with Marcia, I can think of only a handful of times we didn’t practice because she was sick. The rest of the time—no matter if she was tired, soaking wet, sick, grieving, or cold—she was there, mostly smiling.

She loves swimming. She really, really loves swimming. She’s makes swimming accessible, and she makes it really difficult not to fall in love with swimming with her.

Some of my favorite memories of swimming with Marcia are the few seasons she coached with an American Sign Language interpreter who walked with her all over the pool deck. One of our swimmers was deaf and would often use an interpreter during workout. Marcia stopped the interpreter in the middle of explaining sculling and said, “No, no, no! Don’t do it that way! You’re doing it wrong!” I don’t speak ASL, but it seemed pretty clear that “Marcia” translates across languages.

One morning, a lanemate I didn’t usually swim with said to me as we were putting on our fins, “Alic, you have really small feet for a man!” Marcia happened to be standing at the top of our lane. She looked down. “It’s a reaaalllly long story,” she said, smiling at me. I laughed. Marcia quickly moved us into the next drill.

In the time since I’ve transitioned, Marcia has invited me to speak in her health education classes to both high school and college students about gender diversity. She has invited me to provide feedback on the somewhat recently developed USMS Transgender Policy.  And she’s sent me selfies of herself and Schuyler Bailer—the out transgender Division I swimmer—at swimming conferences. It feels like she appreciates my identity. She makes space for it, and I know that other MEMOs—a diverse group of swimmers of different races, ages, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, and religions—would say the same thing.

Marcia coaches each of us like our progress is important. She makes space for our differences by appreciating our uniqueness. I’m not a fast swimmer. I don’t win lots of awards or score lots of points. As MEMO has grown, I’ve moved farther and farther away from the fast lanes. But I always feel like my presence is important to Marcia, and I know that she makes all of us feel that way.

My partner and I moved to Seattle last September.  For a month or so, I tried out a few Masters teams. I even swam in Puget Sound—without a wetsuit! But then I realized it was all just reminding me of something I didn’t want to think about—that Marcia was 800 miles away and there’s no replacing Marcia. I decided to take a break from swimming and started doing yoga. Marcia once told me that she hates yoga because it isn’t competitive enough. It was the “anti-Marcia”. It was perfect … for a while.

In the decade I swam with Marcia, I started swimming open water, I competed in my first meet, I made and beat personal bests, I changed careers, I got married (she was there), I weathered family crises, and I had the pleasure of attending many a Passover Seder at Marcia’s house. At a time in my life when I needed to believe that I was capable, Marcia gave me a way to believe. She is bold, and funny, and unapologetic. And she yells, a lot!

My transition wasn’t just about hormones and surgeries and name changes. My transition was about relationships. It was about learning how to be myself, for the first time, at age 25. And it was terrifying. The water gave me a place to put my anxiety, my anger, and my grief. For me, Marcia was what transgender activist and actress Laverne Cox calls a “possibility model.” There were days I didn’t want to get out of bed. But somehow, I knew that if I could make it through Marcia’s 6 a.m. workout, I had already won once that day, and maybe that was enough. Marcia’s workouts gave my struggle meaning, she made me laugh, and she taught me a great deal about facing pain and fear with a smile on my face and laughter in my heart. Swimming saved my life, and Marcia Benjamin was a big part of that.

Recently, I realized how much I missed the water—how much I missed that magic feeling of weightlessness—and I returned to the pool. I swim a few days a week, “unattached,” at Medgar Evers Pool in Seattle’s Central District. I usually swim between 2,000 and 3,000 yards, and my workouts are all modeled after what Marcia has taught me. My intervals are looser these days and when I hang on the wall too long I can hear her yelling—arms waving in the air—“That’s too much rest!!!”

I think it’s safe to say, I’m still a little attached to Marcia.


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