“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”
— Toni Morrison
“Water is fluid, soft and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: What is strong is soft.”
As I wound my way down the dirt path towards the main beach of the lake, I saw dozens of yellow buoys floating along the water, like little droplets of sunshine. There were kayaks treading in place and people of all ages dressed in worn Speedos and jammers, swim shirts and wetsuits pulled down to their waists. I found myself looking for Terry Laughlin, as this was just the type of event he would have loved, or helped to organize, or have been smack-dab in the middle of basking in the glory of open water and swimmers of every shape and size immersing themselves in his favorite place: Lake Minnewaska.
Instead, what I found was a celebration of Laughlin, and the best type of party he could have ever imagined. More than 170 people came to celebrate the swim guru, the aqua maestro, the man who may not have walked on water, but certainly led even the most phobic to it, and in the end swam with them side-by-side until they were strong enough to go on their own.
“His family opened the swim with an Irish balled [“The Parting Glass”] that had us all crying,” said Caroline Murphy, 20, a backstroke champion at Wesleyan College who had taken many lessons from Laughlin — founder and owner of Total Immersion Swimming — and appeared in some of his swimming videos. “The lake was cold and beautiful, and I keep looking around to see him; and then I realized that this is for him. This is what we all needed.”
Moira Laughlin, one of Terry’s five siblings, concurred. When she walked towards the beach at the tip of the sky lake, she saw “a sliver of a rainbow, slicing through the clouds. ‘That’s Terry,’ I said to the small group of family I was with, and then the rainbow expanded into a full arc.”
Laughlin passed away on October 20, 2017 of complications of fourth-stage prostate cancer. In honor of his lifelong passion for swimming as an athlete, coach, teacher, technician and author, New York State Open Water (NYOW) put together a fitting Swim Memorial to celebrate Laughlin’s life this past Saturday at Minnewaska. Through a permitting process, and with each participant having to clasp a bright-yellow buoy to their waist, they were able to swim the entire breadth of the sky lake, creating an almost-one-mile loop around the pristine water.
“We had been planning this event,” said David Barra of NYOW, Laughlin’s longtime friend and training companion, who is also the founder of the Eight Bridges Hudson River Swim from Albany to Manhattan. “He loved Minnewaska, and we always talked about having an event that opened it up to everyone, that introduced the beauty and magic of this place to everyone — and today we did,” he said, with tears in his eyes.
Laughlin’s brother Sean agreed. “He would be thrilled to see all of these people swimming across the lake. That was the pure essence of Terry: to help people of all levels and all abilities be able to swim and enjoy it.”
The event immediately filled up, with so much of Laughlin’s life represented at the lake, including his wife Alice and three daughters, Fiona, Betsie and Carrie, along with his Total Immersion students, people whom he had coached, with whom he had competed and trained. There were, of course, members of his beloved Minnewaska Distance Swimmers’ Association and NYOW, as well as friends from far and wide whom he had touched, and with whom he had left that indelible Laughlin laugh and love of swimming.
Although he has trained national-level swimmers as well as top-ranked triathletes, Laughlin’s greatest gift was that of teaching people who were afraid of water — who were 20, 30, 40, even 90 years old, who had never learned to swim. Sean pointed to a man who was walking into the water to begin the mile-long loop in the lake. “He told me that he didn’t learn to swim until he was 35 years old and met Terry. There are so many people with stories like that!”
Terry’s oldest daughter Fiona agreed. “As the articles came in [after he died] from Outside Magazine or The New York Times and people left comments, we would read one after another about how my Dad has ‘changed’ someone’s life forever by helping them learn how to swim,” she said. “Literally thousands of people from all over the world that he either taught personally or taught virtually through his DVDs and books. You’re lucky if you are able to change one person’s life for the better, and here he’s changed thousands. What a legacy.”
In fact, just ten days before he died, Laughlin did a lengthy interview with Tim Ferris, a well-known author, entrepreneur, public speaker and blogger, for his popular podcast The Tim Ferris Show. In his moving preamble to the interview, “The Master Who Changed My Life: Terry Laughlin,” Ferris talks about Laughlin’s unwavering passion for life, up until the day he passed, and how he helped Ferris overcome his greatest insecurity: his fear of water, even though he’d grown up on Long Island. Now Ferris swims almost daily for exercise, and over the course of several years he became close friends with Laughlin. It’s a story that Ferris realized was a beautiful by-product of the type of mentor Laughlin was — so much so that his podcast (https://tim.blog/2017/10/29/terry-laughlin) likely leaves you in tears, as it did me.
“It didn’t matter if you were the president of Taiwan [with whom Laughlin did swim], a famous author or just someone he met by the side of the pool,” explained Fiona. “He didn’t put on any airs. He treated anyone with an interest in swimming exactly the same. He wanted to help ignite their interest, to help them enjoy the water as much as he did.”
Although Laughlin traveled all over the world, from Hawaii to Thailand to the Caribbean, to swim and to hold Total Immersion clinics, his favorite body of water was the one everyone came to last Saturday to celebrate him: Lake Minnewaska. “This was his home pool. This was his favorite place. In fact, the last time the four of us swam together,” Fiona said as she emerged from the lake with her arms around his Aunt Peg and sister Betsy, “with my Dad was this time last year. We would synchro-swim, and I can still see his face.”
Barra had the same sensation. “Personally, I’ve swum shoulder-to-shoulder with Terry for hundreds if not thousands of miles. I can’t take a stroke in this lake without seeing his face.”
And that’s the beauty of water: the way it constantly refracts light and is mercurial. For those who loved Terry, for his friends and family for all of those he touched, they can still find him somewhere in the water, just beyond that place where water turns to air. They can hear his gentle encouragement, his lilting laugh. “If you want to swim faster, swim more quietly,” he’d say. Or as Leonardo da Vinci once wrote, “When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come.”