Remembering My Biggest Fan in Thankful Times

Photo Courtesy: Caitlin Daday

Commentary by Caitlin Daday, Swimming World College Intern. 

A lot of people ask me how I swam at an invitational the weekend after my grandfather’s funeral. How could I not have? He would have expected nothing less.

Because of my grandfather, I have a lot of things. He worked so hard to make life good for his whole family. But our bond was over our shared drive for success. He was indisputably my biggest fan.

When I stepped up on the blocks for my mile on the last night of the Princeton Invite, my grandfather was on my mind. He had been the whole weekend. But this was the race where I could truly honor him.

The mile has always been my event, ever since my coaches first threw me in it when I was 13. I know what I’m doing when I swim a mile. So when I dove in, the nerves drifted away and my body took over. Nice and steady the first 500. Not too fast, not too slow. No one wins the mile at the 50.

My grandfather never really could swim, let alone a mile. A Slovak kid from South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, he was never around the water much. The most I ever saw him “swim” was when he would shuffle back and forth across the shallow end of his pool. But, of course, he still attributed my swimming talent to himself.

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Photo Courtesy: Caitlin Daday

Back when he started school at his beloved Notre Dame, he had to take a swim test. Now, hearing him tell it you would think he had just completed a swim the likes of the English Channel. I pictured waves crashing down around him as he triumphantly survived a treacherous crossing.

Reality?

They threw him in and made him swim a lap.

As I flipped at the 500, I had already made it much farther than my grandfather could ever have. But I was just beginning to build up and get going. The speed feels natural.

I’ve always been around the water. My grandfather built a pool at his house long before I was born—it was his way to keep his family all close.

It worked.

I took my first strokes and swam my first races with my cousins there. I remember my grandfather’s smiles as we performed our synchronized swimming routines and perfected our cannonballs. He was always happiest when we were enjoying ourselves.

The third 500 of the mile is to me the least enjoyable. You’re over halfway but still have what feels like forever to go. It starts to really hurt. I just keep pushing, trying to build up even more. The hard parts are where champions are made.

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Photo Courtesy: Caitlin Daday

Since I began my career at Villanova, I have gathered plenty of accolades. Piles of medals form a tower on my dresser, Big East championship trophies line my desk, and a laundry list of recognitions can be found my resume.

It feels good to be recognized, of course. I’ve always appreciated these awards, and I know I will always be hoping to get more. But at the same time, they don’t compare to the voicemail my grandfather left me in the spring of my freshman year.

“I just want to thank you,” he grumbled in the way that only he could. “It’s really great all these things that you’re doing.”

I remembered this voicemail as I turned into the last 150. Now it was the final sprint, the time to really make him proud.

Every stroke I took was for my grandfather. I’d never raced so hard in my life. I came into the wall as hard as I could.

To say I was in shock at a lifetime best would be an understatement. I was more than thrilled.

But not just because of how good it feels to do your best. I could see my grandfather looking like he was on the Wheaties box we have of him: his arms spread wide with two thumbs up and the biggest smile across his face. I saw the tears he had in his eyes after I showed him my Big East gold medal.

He wasn’t there, but it felt like he had been. I couldn’t have swum that race without him. How proud he always was of me made the best time all the more special.

With not much time left in my career, it is my grandfather’s message that gives me the greatest sense of accomplishment. When I finish my last race at Big East, I know that there will inevitably be some goals I still will have not yet accomplished, but a simple thank you from the person I admire most shows me how much I have done. While he will not have gotten to see everything, I am grateful to have had someone in my life to make me further appreciate what I’ve done.

While my grandfather probably did not give me my swimming talent, he did give me the tremendous will to achieve that we shared. It is with that drive that I have been able to make myself the athlete that I am—the athlete that he was so incredibly proud of.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

1 Comment

1 comment

  1. avatar

    Caitlin,

    Don’t know how this reached me. Bert was one of my favorite guys. Even though I don’t root for Notre Dame, his rendition of the victory march at Mary Kate’s wedding was outstanding.

    Our family celebrated several Slovak Christmas Eve celebrations with the Steve Dady family.

    We have a friend, Penny Fitzgerald. Her brother, John Fitzgerald, was captain of the Villanova swim team. He graduated in 1971.

Author: Caitlin Daday

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Caitlin Daday is a rising senior at Villanova University. She represents the Wildcats in distance freestyle and IM. Caitlin hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania.

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