By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published February 19, 2016
DECATUR—During a visit to St. Thomas More School in Decatur Feb. 11, champion swimmer Mike Norment encouraged students to learn from mistakes and develop a relationship with God through prayer.
Norment, a former world-ranked swimmer who had an outstanding career at the University of Georgia, spoke to third- through fifth-grade classes as part of a series of programs celebrating Black History Month.
A native of New York, Norment trained under coach Jim Ellis of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation. Ellis was the subject of the feature movie, “Pride,” focusing on his program leading young African-American swimmers to national titles.
Norment was an SEC champion and eight-time NCAA All-American and competed on the U.S. Men’s National Team in 1997 and 1999. He later founded Swim With a Purpose school. He coaches swim teams for the Metro Atlanta Aquatic Club and has been a USA Swimming coach for 10 years.
In the school’s gym, Norment emphasized to the children that academics and athletics are wonderful because they teach how to deal with difficulties.
Norment asked the students to raise their hand if they had ever failed at anything. Several hands flew up, and Norment questioned them.
“Is failure a good thing or a bad thing?” he asked.
After a mix of answers, the swim coach provided his thoughts.
“Failure is a good thing. Failure drives you,” he said.
Making mistakes is how you figure out how to do something the right way, he told them.
Norment shared not only his successes in the pool but also times when he didn’t fare well, including at Junior Nationals at the age of 14.
“I got up there on the block … think I got 290 out of 300 (swimmers). I did horrible. I was nervous,” he recalled.
He trained really hard, and at 15 the same thing happened.
Norment would swim before and after school and on Saturdays. He was also running three times a week and lifting weights. His parents were spending a lot of time and money traveling to meets, and at one point he advised them not to make the trip.
“It’s such a sacrifice to do this. Please don’t come,” he told them.
He decided to let the chips fall where they may while competing again at 16.
“For the first time I had a good swim in the morning at Junior Nationals,” he said.
Being a thinking person, he began to realize he was on his own on the block, anxious, and his parents weren’t readily available.
“Swimming is a lonely sport. It just came to me. I just said a prayer. The only thing I had was prayer,” he said about handling the stress.
“I turned around and got on my knees. I knew I was OK with the outcome,” he said. “I finally got up and won a Junior National Championship.”
“I thought that was the end”
Norment located a church near the pool where he trained. He started going to church frequently and enjoyed having the support of its mostly older members.
He qualified for U.S. Olympic team trials in 1996 and 2000 but didn’t make the team.
“I thought that was the end. I didn’t know what to do. I’d been a swimmer all my life,” he said.
“What did I do?” he asked the students.
“Pray,” answered one child.
And that’s what Norment did.
One day, while teaching his daughter how to swim, other young people started asking him questions.
“I looked around and I had 30 kids wanting to learn,” he said.
“That’s God talking to you,” his wife told him.
Norment told the students that it is their relationship with God that will help them to figure out problems.
“You will have challenges in your life,” he said.
He said his father had several brothers who ended up in prison. His dad did not end up in jail because he made a different set of decisions, including being a person who prayed.
“That’s what the difference is,” said the coach. “Things will tug you either way.”
The visit to St. Thomas More School was also a chance for Norment to see current and former swim students.
“He was my first coach,” said fourth-grade student Jake Fjelstul. “He tells you to do your best and gives you help when you need it.”
“His story is not done,” said Suzanne Fjelstul about her son’s former coach.
She shared that one of Norment’s swimmers, Dean Farris, is on the path to be an Olympic swimmer.
Farris, who began swimming with Norment at the age of 9, is one of the fastest high school swimmers in the nation. A high school senior, he will attend Harvard University.
Norment said Farris was just a small, skinny kid in the beginning, but “he always wanted to learn.”
After he had acquired the technical aspects of swimming, Farris had to make training a priority in order to win.
“I learned to step back,” said Norment. “We had to let him learn through experience.”
Norment doesn’t necessarily want to train the best swimmers but those who have the desire and good family support.
“I’d rather have a group of kids I enjoy coaching,” he said.
Competitive swimmers “have to be centered spiritually” because of the stress and rigors of training, he said.
Coaching is as challenging as competing, he added, because every athlete brings different habits and thoughts to the pool.
“I think coaching is way more rewarding,” he noted.
Kim Kissell of St. Thomas More School said a volunteer committee of parents helps put together the Black History Month programs each year.
Other speakers included Dr. Alfred Msezane and Steve Schwab, who work to give people worldwide access to clean drinking water, award-wining illustrator Gregory Christie, painter and sculptor Radcliffe Bailey and Kathleen Bertrand, jazz recording artist. Also scheduled are a performance by members of the DeKalb School of the Arts and a visit from storyteller Akbar Imhotep.