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Kenny Whitaker was a state champ, but I remember when he was last

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Jerry Byrd

Back in the 1960s, when I was directing Shreveport Swim Club workouts at the downtown YMCA pool during the school year and old Municipal Pool during the summer, the first local swimmer who attracted much national attention was Charlie Minder.

He was one of the nation’s top-ranked butterfly swimmers as a senior at Byrd High, and later set a Southwest Conference record in the 200-yard butterfly that stood for 15 years while he was swimming for Southern Methodist University.

In 1964, Charlie and I went to New York City for the national AAU championships, which would also determine the United States qualifiers for the London Olympics. Competing against the nation’s best swimmers, he took third place in the 100-meter butterfly with 1:00.7.

In 1968, we had an 11-12 girls’ 200-yard relay team that was a shoo-in to break the national record for 50-yard pools. But my problem was that we had too many good swimmers. There were five —Alice Ann Jarred, Kim Cunningham, Beth Frazier and the Sayers sisters, Terri and Janis, who finished inches apart any time we had swimoffs, and never in the same order two days in a row. I had to decide which girl wasn’t going to be a member of the record-breaking relay team.

I don’t remember who swam on the relay team, but four of the five girls had a new team (and a new coach) the following year, so I obviously didn’t make all of the parents happy.

It was 100 degrees in the shade, and there was no shade on the deck of Municipal Pool. A house guest of the Kinney Brookings family, who was planning to catch a flight out of Shreveport that evening, volunteered his services as a timer, and spent the next five days in a Shreveport hospital.

One of my swimmers was Kenny Whitaker, whose qualifying time for the 400-yard freestyle was 30 seconds slower than any of the other eight entries. With only eight berths available, everybody figured they knew who wouldn’t get into the finals. But Kenny, swimming with four others in the second heat, stayed with the leaders lap after lap. They were inches apart in the last 20 yards. When they hit the wall, with water splashing everywhere, nobody was sure who was first and who was last.

In Kenny’s case, it didn’t matter. He had cut 45 seconds off his best previous time — an incredible achievement. When I pulled him out of the pool and gave him a bear hug, his heart was pounding so hard, it seemed ready to burst out of his chest.

Nobody in the finals got a louder ovation than Kenny received. But when the verdict from the judges was delivered, he was last. A year later, however, he was first — and he went on to become the state high school champion.

Don’t bother asking me who finished first in that race at Municipal Pool. I don’t know, and don’t care. But I’ll never forget the swimmer who was seeded last.

I coached a few other swimmers who won national championships, but I don’t recall any of them making as much improvement in one race as Kenny Whitaker did on that hot summer day at Municipal Pool.

Jerry Byrd is the former sports editor of the Bossier Press-Tribune and an award-winning columnist. You can contact him by E-mail at jbsportswriter@comcast.net