‘Ready? Hup!’

Jeff vonKaenel

I was thoroughly crushed. It was 1965, and the second day of San Jose’s Westmont High School football practice. The coach had suggested that I apply to be the team’s water boy. This was not an unreasonable suggestion, since I weighed around 90 pounds and was as slow as a tortoise. Nevertheless, I was devastated.

Fortunately for me, 24-year-old Westmont High swim coach Bill Zirzow did not believe in cutting athletes. Having recently moved from Ohio, I was not any better a swimmer than I was a football player. But as long as I showed up for practice, I was on the team. So, I became a swimmer in my freshman year of high school.

From 1964 to 2007, Coach Z ran the Westmont High swim program. High school can be complicated and confusing. But swim team is not. Finish your races faster than your last time and, if you can, faster than the other guy.

Swimming practice was simple, too. Coach Z would tell us the workout and then say, “Ready? Hup!” every five seconds. The fastest swimmer went first, followed by the next fastest and so on. So five seconds ahead of you (minus a body length) were someone else’s toes. Your mission during practice was to get as close to those toes as possible. If you could touch those toes, then you could move ahead.

Good things would happen to you if you swam hard. I know good things happened to me. Over my four years of swimming for Coach Z, I went from the worst swimmer on the team to swim-team captain. I gained strength and confidence.

Through that time, I knew that Coach Z cared about me. With every “Ready? Hup!” there was a little love. We shared victories and defeats. I was never a very good swimmer, but I learned a lot about life from Coach Z.

My life has been a vast number of diverse “Ready? Hup!” moments. Going on a sales call. Ready? Hup! Our baby needs to be changed in the middle of the night. Ready? Hup! Time to pick myself up and try again. Ready? Hup!

At high-school graduation, I did not have the maturity or presence of mind to thank him. Recently, seeing that I mentioned him in a column, Coach Z sent me an email, inviting me to visit him in Florida. His house was easy to spot. It was the only one with a huge San Francisco Giants banner flying in front.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to tell him how much he meant to me. There are many Coach Z’s in the world, at pools, football fields, baseball diamonds and elsewhere who deserve our thanks. If you had a Coach Z, now is a great time to thank them. Or, as Coach Z would say, “Ready? Hup!”

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.