Outside of my dad, I’m not sure I can think of another man who had as great an impact on my life as Ray “Obe” Obermiller. He was my swim coach for just over one short year at Grinnell College, but he was a mentor and inspiration to me for much longer than that. He touched the lives of literally thousands of swimmers and students at Grinnell since 1966.
Obe passed away this morning. Despite the fact that he was 84 years old, the news still took me by surprise; when I saw him last year at my 20th reunion, he looked fantastic. But having dealt with the recent death of the love of his life, Rachel, I’m quite certain Obe wanted to rejoin his bride for eternity.
And if it wasn’t for Obe, I wouldn’t have wanted to go to Grinnell, nor gotten accepted there. I literally gave up a free ride to a Division I school — half athletic, half academic scholarship — to go to Grinnell and swim for a Division III school. But it was well worth it when we beat that Division I school in my freshman year at Grinnell. And even more worth it when that Division I school’s swimming program was shut down by the NCAA the following year for recruiting violations.
But I didn’t go to swim for Obe because he was a mastermind coach, though there is no doubt that he found a way to win while at Grinnell. In 25 years, he won 26 conference titles. And after every one of those conference titles, Obe did his trademark flip off of the high dive at whatever venue the conference meet was held.
Obe won all those conference titles by finding a way to get the most out of his swimmers without pushing them. He wasn’t a screamer. He used humor and intellect to appeal to the individuals he coached. He had a subtle way of inspiring swimmers. He was Phil Jackson before Phil Jackson was Phil Jackson: Buddha was the unofficial team mascot until the fall of 1989, when political correctness led to a change.
I still remember when he wanted me to work on my backstroke flip turn — my Achilles’ heel as a swimmer for a few weeks. I kept putting it off, and finally one day he walked up and handed me a little round wooden coin. Imprinted on the coin was the word “TUIT.” I looked at him, puzzled, and he said, “I thought I’d give you this, since you keep telling me you’ll get a round tuit.”
But the thing I most respect Obe for is the way he supported me and stood behind my decision to quit swimming during my sophomore year. I had been swimming competitively since the age of seven, and I was mentally and physically burned out. I had a life-changing experience the summer after my freshman year, and Obe recognized that I needed to get some other areas of my life in order.
My parents, upon seeing Obe at my graduation almost three years later, apologized to him and said they wished I had kept swimming longer than I had. Obe shook their hands and said, “I’m just glad we had Steve as long as we did. He had much bigger things to focus on, like getting his writing career started, and he did a great job with that, working for the college newspaper.”
Tonight, I’m feeling so blessed that at my 20th college reunion last summer, I somehow accidentally ended up sitting with Obe and my old swim team classmates at the Saturday night class dinner. Obe was his usual self, using humor as a means to conversation, asking me what ever happened to the Porsche he’d bought me to convince me to swim at Grinnell.
I think my Grinnell classmate and fellow IMer Dave Ressner said it best tonight on Facebook:
“If wealth were measured by the number of people who love you (and it should be), Obe would have been the richest man I know.”
And those of us who were lucky enough to know Obe . . . well, we are all richer for that fact.
Rest in peace, Coach.
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Steve Clem is a divorced dad, a recovering Republican, and a Prisoner in the Tundra. He is in The Guinness Book of World Records for being part of the largest Hokey Pokey of all time. He was the founding editor of the Iowa City weekly The ICON and is a contributing editor of The Spleen.