The Big Impact of Small Gestures

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Last Updated on May 31, 2024

I hope to be around for a couple more decades and I’d like to think I’ll be swimming through those years. But I’ve reached the stage of life in which you begin to look at the things you’ve acquired and realize that many would be nothing more than a burden to your children if you left them behind.   

For some reason, I began to think that chief among those burdens is my growing collection of medals won in masters swimming meets. While I am proud of what they represent, I don’t display them and never look at them. I don’t need them to recall or appreciate the experience of competition and camaraderie 

In the downsizing mindset of a 72-year-old father, I realized that if I leave them behind my daughters might want to keep one or two, but the rest would be a burden and a source of guilt should they decide to throw them out. 

I was considering saving them from future guilt and throwing them out myself when two remarkable things occurred that caused me to pause.  

In 2021, a man approached me at the Rowdy Gaines Masters Classic in Orlando, FL and identified himself as a former 10-year-old member of a swimming team that I coached in the late 1970s in Scottsdale, Arizona. He extended his hand showing me a gold medal that I had won in 1962 at the Chicago Sun Times AAU Junior Olympics. 

He then shared with me the post he had recently made on Facebook with a photo of the medal and this caption: 

“Seeing as I am swimming for the first time again in a very long while, I decided I would take a stroll down memory lane. I came across this medal. I was attempting to break my own national record at the time. A man came to me and said that he was amazed at what I had done and encouraged me to go for the gold. He told me to believe in myself and to swim my own race and that, no matter what, I would be a champion. I did my best and yet did not set a faster time on that record. I was down! He walked up to me and gave me one of his own medals. He then looked me in the eye and said, ‘You are a champion.’ I will never forget that day, Marc Middleton. Thank you for teaching me a valuable lesson! Thanks for being my champion!

I was flabbergasted. A medal that I had won nearly 60 years ago and given away 45 years ago meant so much that he still had it. A moment that I had forgotten was one that he never forgot. I realized that that medal had probably done more good than any I had ever won. 

I thought that until the very next year at the very same meet, the Rowdy Gaines Masters Classic. 

I was sitting in the bleachers getting ready for my race when a man about my own age  approached and said he was on the FSU swim team with me back in the early 70s. He handed me an envelope that contained 2 letters, a blue ribbon, and a gold medal.

The first letter was one that he wrote in his journal back in 1973 after not making the team to compete in our championship meet. The letter said, in part:

“….it’s hard to explain this but on Saturday, March 3rd at the Independent Southern Championships, I went over to congratulate some of the FSU swimmers. One of them was Marc Middleton. I don’t know what he saw in me. I don’t know if he saw that I was left out in not swimming in the meet or if he saw that I wanted to be a better swimmer or he saw that I have the potential to be a good swimmer. Marc asked me to open up the box that had the medal in it that he had won. I did and what he told me after that made my throat bog up, my eyes water and my jaw drop to the ground. He told me to keep this medal and that one day when I will win one, to send his back. I finally agreed and I felt like a Seminole. I promised him I would do it and I know I will.” 

The second letter he had just written for me when he realized that we might see one another at the meet. It says in part, 

 “I still remember you giving me your 1st place medal from the 5th Annual Independent Southern Championship meet in 1973. Through the years I have shared this story with my five children about recognizing and praising others for their efforts. Please accept the enclosed blue ribbon and medal for your continued work in encouraging, lifting up, and praising others. Sincerely, Andy Sweatt.  

Once again, I was floored. Two medals that I gave away decades ago and never missed or even thought about meant a great deal to someone else. I began to wish that I had given away every medal that I ever won if they held the potential to be a similar source of encouragement for someone else.  

I began searching for meaningful ways to donate my medals and just as I was about to give up, I stumbled upon a non-profit called Bling for Bravery that repurposes and distributes medals from distance running races (5K 10K, marathons and triathlons) to pediatric cancer patients at Texas Children’s Cancer Hospital in Houston.

The medals are meant to celebrate their bravery and inspire their perseverance in dealing with cancer. I reached out to Bling for Bravery asking if they would consider accepting a donation of swimming medals and they immediately said, “Yes!”  

They asked me to remove the ribbons and send only the medals as they add their own special ribbons. Both of my daughters picked out a medal that they liked, I kept a couple that have special significance to me, and the rest were boxed up and sent to Texas to become a small part in a big mission to inspire children with cancer to never give up. 

Moving forward, I will always pick up my medals at a meet. I think it’s disrespectful not to. They were designed, purchased, and distributed by meet organizers with the intention of awarding effort.  But I don’t plan on bringing any of them home. I’ll find someone among the many who inspired me but didn’t win any hardware. Hopefully, they’ll accept the medal as a token of my admiration just as those two swimmers from decades ago did.   

And if I do end up bringing any medals home, I’ll donate them to Bling for Bravery and be grateful that they’re imbuing them with far more value and meaning than if they were hanging on a hook in my home waiting to become a source of guilt for my daughters.  

Note: Bling for Bravery is a program of the Snowdrop Foundation, an amazing organization that provides scholarships for college-bound pediatric cancer patients and childhood cancer survivors while raising awareness and funding for continued research to cure childhood cancer. Snowdrop Foundation was founded by Kevin Klein, a Houston radio show host. A Growing Bolder video on Kevin’s incredible story and the genesis of Snowdrop is coming soon.  

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