When I was in high school, I was not what most people considered athletic. I’m really not sure what made everyone think I was more physically inept than anyone else. Sure, everyone referred to my legs as slats, but let me tell you something. Those slats could move. I know this because when you’re placed as far out in right field as I used to be, you had to really run if the ball ever came your way.
That’s why it surprised me that everyone was so shocked when I went out for the high school swim team. Although on the surface I looked like a scared kid, inside I was an athletic machine dying to be born.
And so began my swimming career.
There’s not much equipment required for swimming. The main thing is a good suit, and I had one—large, navy blue, boxer-style trunks with red trim. It had a pocket in front with a flap and a big red button. This not only added to the suit’s classic appearance, but also provided a handy place to keep my locker key.
Unfortunately, despite the flap and button, the key still tended to fall out. So I’d pin it to the waistband. Eventually, this began to break down the elastic, requiring me to fold it over two or three times to keep the thing up.
After one year on the team I had actually improved. But the following year our school hired a new coach.
Mr. Brockman coached at the local swim club. Under his direction real changes took place. For example, he made us practice four and a half hours a day, Monday through Saturday, with Sunday as an optional practice day. He would watch us all to determine where we would do best. Mr. Brockman decided I would compete in the 100 butterfly, although I’d swum distance events the year before.
Deep down I knew the reason was that no one else could swim that stroke. But part of me wanted to believe, maybe, just maybe, somewhere inside he saw a glimmer of talent.
Mr. Brockman was putting his trust and confidence in me, and I wanted to do my best for him.
Halfway through my junior year I noticed some improvement. Not only was I finishing races, but sometimes I actually placed. I still remember the first time I didn’t come in last. I thought I’d done something wrong like jumping the gun or something.
By my senior year I finally felt like a valuable contributor to the team. It was not uncommon for me to come in second. I had qualified for district championships and was close to breaking my event’s school record.
Then one day Mr. Brockman took me aside.
“Doug,” he said, “you’re three seconds from breaking the school record. I think you can do it and do well in the district meet. But it’s going to take a lot of work. I want you to give it all you’ve got and come to every practice—including Sundays.”
Suddenly a dilemma faced me. What do I do? I’d always been taught to keep the Sabbath day holy. But I really wanted that record.
Sure it was just a swim meet. But no one in the history of the Bernard family had ever competed in a sport, much less broken a record. This was the classic story of the underdog rising triumphant against all odds. I wanted this more than anything else in the whole world.
I went home and spoke with my dad about it. He told me he knew I’d make the right decision. That Sunday at church I talked to the missionaries. They reminded me that if I kept the Sabbath, I’d be blessed. After thinking about it all day, I made my decision. I’d work extra hard at every practice, but I would not swim on Sunday.
On the day of district championships, I stood on the starting block and thought, This is it. This is my last chance to prove myself. This is the last chance I have to break that record.
We took our marks, the gun fired, and we were off. And when I touched the pool wall at the end of the race, would you believe I came in first?
Of course I didn’t. And I didn’t break any records. I almost died out there. My breathing was out of sync with my stroke, I started swallowing water, and when I finally crawled out of the end of the pool I looked like a drowned kitten coughing and choking on the deck.
Later I cried. How could this happen? I’d kept the commandments. I’d avoided Sunday practices. So where were the promised blessings?
Later I realized the lesson I’d learned. Sometimes, even when we keep the commandments, blessings don’t always come the way we think they should.
Besides improving as a swimmer, I’d also made friends with a teammate named Mike Vavernec. Mike had recently joined the Church, and we were preparing to serve missions. Together we made it our personal quest to obtain a spiritual witness of the truthfulness of the gospel. We began a daily reading of the Book of Mormon. It was the first time I’d read the entire book.
Somewhere in the Words of Mormon I felt it first—an overwhelming feeling that seemed to explode in my heart and radiate through each limb. This was the witness I had searched for.
We did not stop there. We had read where Nephi had gone to the mountains to talk with God. So one day Mike and I packed our things and hiked deep into the Olympic Mountain Range simply to pray.
That year we heard the whisperings of the Spirit of the Holy Ghost. We received answers to our prayers. Never at any time in my life have I felt so close to Heavenly Father.
Today I look back on that year with reverence. I lost a swim meet, but I gained so much more. I had been blessed.