Young John Pratt had just won the 200-yard individual medley at a youth swim meet. Feeling pretty good about himself, he climbed from the pool and headed toward his parents.
Talking with them was Pratt’s coach, Archie Harris.
“I thought Archie was going to say something nice to me in front of my parents,” said Pratt, now a veteran Bloomington attorney. “He said, ‘John, only swim your breaststroke after dark.’ ”
Pratt laughs about it. He has for many years. That’s how it was with Harris, a larger-than-life character who loved to leave you laughing.
Like in 2001, when during an interview regarding the Central Illinois Masters swim team, a 77-year-old Harris told a reporter, “I write my name on a piece of paper before I turn in so I know who I am when I wake up.”
Or in 2007, when informed the same reporter did not know how to swim, joked, “Well, if you keep your mouth shut, you’ll float.”
Harris left us on April 11 at age 92. Those he touched recall the warm heart, booming voice and marvelous sense of humor. They smile at the thought of him.
It is the perfect legacy for a guy who was all about fun, whether surrounded by family and friends or pacing alongside a pool, seeking to get the most from those in the water.
“Swimming can be an incredibly tough thing to train for,” said John Carroll, who swam for Harris at Illinois State. “It’s hours and hours of yard after yard in a boring pool. I think the best coaches somehow make you forget you have to do 5,000 yards in an hour. He had that ability.”
Among Harris’ ploys was to sing during workouts. His favorite was an old camping tune called The Watermelon Song.
He sang it at youth practices in Bloomington-Normal. Carroll may have heard it there, having taken swim lessons from Harris at age 6.
He certainly heard it later.
“Even in college, we’re all 18, 19, 20 years old and he’d start singing The Watermelon Song,” Carroll said. “Then we’d all be singing The Watermelon Song.
“He just had a way of connecting to each and every individual in a way that was unique. All of the fun memories flood back when you think of him. I adored him.”
Harris was ISU’s men’s swim coach from 1957 until the program was dropped in 1981. He was heavily involved in national swimming as well, helping run the national YMCA meet for 40 years and serving on the U.S. Olympic development committee.
An All-American swimmer in high school, he had his career interrupted by serving five years in the Coast Guard during World War II. Harris later starred at Gustavus Adolphus College before finding his way to Normal.
His impact here is best illustrated by the fact he is the only member of the Bloomington-Normal Swimming Hall of Fame. Prior to his induction in 2007, he was asked what swimming had meant to him.
“I’m still swimming,” he said simply.
Harris was two weeks shy of his 84th birthday at the time. He called swimming “the heathiest thing people could do,” and yes, he passed on his love of the sport.
Pratt went on to swim at Bloomington High School and the University of Kentucky. He has long been a member of the Central Illinois Masters team. Carroll went on to coach swimmers at the Bloomington-Normal Swim Club, Bloomington Country Club and the YMCA.
Now retired, he coaches the Central Illinois Masters.
“It’s all due to Archie,” Carroll said.
Harris’ impact was not limited to the pool. He conducted an Easter Seals camp for disabled children at Lake Bloomington from 1966 to 1981. Counselors for the three-week camp were ISU students taking a 300 level class called “Camping for the physically handicapped.”
“We had some muscular dystrophy kids who had no future. But we made them have a good time out there,” Harris said in 2007. “If I had to give up my life in three-week segments, that would be the last one I’d want to give up. It was something special for all of us.”
Harris was special as well. He was the Joe Maddon of swimming, a master motivator through wit and wisdom. His teams wore T-shirts that read simply, “Swim Fast.”
And if you don’t look real smooth doing it?
Swim in the dark.
“All of my friends that I swim with, when the breaststroke is involved they always make cracks about dimming the lights,” Pratt said.
Then they laugh.
Well done, Archie.