By Shoshanna Rutemiller
PHOENIX, Arizona, April 29. WHEN Ryan Lochte missed his flight to Raleigh, North Carolina for a swim clinic he was hosting on April 20, Marlins of Raleigh head coach Paul Silver dreading having to break the sad news to the hundreds of people that came to see the Olympic star.
“I was driving back and wondering what I was going to do,” Silver told Swimming World. “[It is] hard to describe the hurt on the faces of the 600 people who were waiting eagerly to see Ryan.”
Fortunately, there was another Olympian in the crowd: 1992 Olympic silver medalist Greg Burgess. Burgess and his wife drove two hours from Morehead City to Raleigh to meet Lochte, a fellow Florida alumnus. But Burgess, the former 200 and 400 IM American Record holder, four-time NCAA Champion and twelve-time All-American, ended up taking on more than he bargained for when Lochte failed to show.
“Burgess came to the rescue and conducted the stroke clinic for the young swimmers,” Silver said. “He wasn't prepared, but stepped up when he had to.”
When Swimming World asked Burgess about stepping up for the Marlins in their time of need, he humbly replied, “Anyone can do a 30 minute clinic.”
Burgess' career choice reflects this selfless nature. He enrolled in the Marines' officer candidate school in January 1997, just five months after representing the US in the Atlanta Games. Since then, Burgess has seen three deployments, including two seven-month tours in Iraq. He was promoted to Major in 2007. In 2010, Burgess was inducted into the US Marine Sports Hall of Fame.
“I'm more proud of never having lost a Marine than my Olympic medal,” Burgess said in a 2009 interview with the Florida Times-Union. “A medal in the Olympics is nice, but I was there doing it for myself. Being with 140 Marines in Iraq, that's really doing something for your country.”
In addition to hosting the clinic, Lochte was scheduled to speak at the Marlins' end of the season awards ceremony. Although Burgess had hockey tickets for the Carolina Hurricanes' first playoff game, he forfeited the game to again fill in for the absent Olympian.
“Now I wont get to see any playoff games,” he said. “But speaking at the banquet was a good alternative.”
Since Burgess was unprepared to speak at the ceremony, a mad dash to find him appropriate attire for the event ensued. Speedo came to the rescue, footing Burgess' clothing bill so he could look his best speaking in front of a 500-person crowd.
And the day's string of bad luck didn't end there: “On the way to the banquet, I received a call informing me that there was a fire at the Brownstone Hotel, our banquet host,” Silver said. “When I arrived, I was told there would be no food […] After consulting with staff, we determined that everyone was there and that the awards ceremony should continue.”
“Greg waited with the team for the hotel to be reopened, waited another 45 minutes for the banquet rooms to be set-up, and then gave his talk to a grateful and appreciative audience,” said Marlins of Raleigh swim parent Kim Haffner.
“Greg gave an inspirational speech on his development as a swimmer and the lessons he learned that have helped him in his professional life,” Silver said. “He was one of the best age group swimmers in history.”
Burgess swam under historic coach Gregg Troy at The Bolles School in the 1980's before his successful collegiate career under Skip Foster at the University of Florida.
“[Silver] wanted me to start off with how I started off swimming, and what it's like to be an age grouper,” Burgess said. “[I talked about] hard work, and how you progress on. Considering all my prep was out buying clothes I didn't have much time to create something.”
“The whole place stood up and gave him a standing ovation,” Silver said. “While he was very proud of his silver medal, he was more proud of going to the Middle East three times and never returning without all of his men.”
“It was a star-crossed day, but it ended up being something very special,” Silver concluded. “Greg is such a giving person, and he loves the sport.”
Burgess' actions ignited an overwhelming positive response from MOR swim parents that attended the clinic and awards ceremony:
As I reflected upon this morning I came the conclusion that Greg truly demonstrates how swimming is a lifelong sport and prepares you for life. He is a great role model to our kids as his is dedicated to his sport, puts God and country first through his dedication to military service and then gives back and helps others by conducting the clinic this morning and speaking at your banquet. He is awesome and I feel privileged to have met him this morning.
Mr. Burgess's selflessness and the team's perseverance in light of challenges helped many parents teach our kids what we hope swimming will provide in their lives: a willingness to rise to a challenge, to remain dedicated to a cause and that the people in the pool with you are your fiercest competitors and best friends. Mr. Burgess is the finest example of what swimming helps teach you. I hope my boys can some day live up to the example he set.
Ryan Lochte responded on Twitter, saying that he missed his NYC flight to Raleigh because he was severely ill:
The last time I got this sick was from a hot dog at a golf course in FL. Raleigh, I'm coming to make it up to you soon. Love u all.
— Ryan Lochte (@ryanlochte) April 20, 2013
But there were still a number of disappointed fans:
— haleyhaley (@haleyhaley) April 20, 2013