As he took his place on the blocks with his determined stance, furrowed brow, and his shoulders hunched over slightly, Perry Sharify knew this was it; his final race. Not just the final race at the Trials , but it would be the last time he would touch the wall in a swimming career that began at the age of six. "I'm retiring from competitive swimming," says Sharify, who's finishing his senior year at the University of Hawaii. Perry has no memory of that first race. I don't either. It was a lifetime ago. But Perry does remember the 'incident'. It's something I've tried to block out of my memory. Impossible. It happened a year before he started swimming competitively, before he even learned how to swim.
Perry almost drowned. I was there. Perry loved the water. He couldn't wait to get in. One day the eager five-year-old jumped into the pool. Nothing different than all the other times, except that he wasn't wearing his water wings this time, which would have normally kept him afloat. By the time I realized what had happened, my son was well on his way to the bottom of the pool. "I remember being under water and freaking out," says Sharify. The bottom was five feet down. I'd never moved faster in my life. I jumped in and scooped him up and out of the pool, my heart pounding and my hands trembling. Perry coughed up all that water he'd inhaled, and then let out a bloodcurdling scream. If you look up 'bloodcurdling' in the dictionary, you'll see it's defined as 'arousing terror.' I know I was in terror, and so was my little boy without his water wings. What happened next surprised me. I figured it would take months, if not years, to get my boy back in the pool. "I remember it didn't take me long at all to get back in the water. I remember that," says Sharify. A few weeks later, it was like nothing had ever happened. There was something about water that drew him, and through the years, kept a hold on him.
Look at Perry Sharify now. He's in lane one, heat six, about to compete in the 200-meter breaststroke event at the 2012 Olympic Trials. "Whether I go a best time or not, I'm going to be ecstatic after the race," says the 22-year-old who's seeded 89th in a pool of 134 of the fastest breaststrokers in the country. "After it's all said and done, it's going to be bittersweet."
It's not easy saying goodbye to something you love so much. But there comes a time in everyone's life, when you know you must let go.
"It's one of my greatest loves to this day," says Sharify. "I love swimming. It keeps you in great shape. You can eat whatever you want. Those are the ups." And then there are the lessons learned. "Just the discipline it taught me. It taught me hard work pays off. Nothing is given to you," says Sharify. "I had to come to the University of Hawaii as a walk-on and work my way up." He soon became the fastest breaststroker on the team. He would go on to swim the third fastest time in U.H. history in the 200-yard breaststroke. "I think I've earned the respect of my peers in swimming and my coaches," says the co-captain of the team.
Sharify swam in the 100-meter breaststroke event Monday, placing 132nd. He hopes he can do better in the 200-meter breaststroke this morning. "I didn't have a great 100. If I can just swim my race, I'd be very happy," says Sharify who comes into the meet with a lifetime best time of 2:19.61. "I'm ready," he says.
You couldn't have scripted Perry's last swim of his career any better. After all he gets to swim his best event as his last event, and he gets to swim it in the Olympic Trials. "Is it going to be hard to say goodbye?" I ask him. He thinks about it for a moment. "It's going to be hard to say goodbye to my six-pack I'm looking at right now," says Sharify with a smile. I laugh at the well-delivered punch line. "I feel good," he continues. " I feel good that I worked my tail off to get to where I am today. But I'm ready to move on. I'm ready to say goodbye."
As he took his place on the blocks, I got choked up thinking about something Perry said in the interview earlier, which speaks to his character."I'm super thankful for you and mom for letting me accomplish my goals and dreams for swimming." He wanted us to be sure we knew that. We already did.
We all want the best for our children. As I sat there in the stands of Omaha's Century Link Center, I wanted more than anything for Perry's last swim to be his best ever. I wanted it to be something he would look back on and smile. Perry told me not to worry that he would be smiling no matter how his last race turned out. "When I hit that wall. It's not going to be a sad moment for me. It's only going to be happiness, no matter what."
Happiness is watching your son touch the wall one last time and knowing that he knows he gave it everything he had. On his last race of his career Perry Sharify touched the wall with a time of 2:22.85. Not his best time, but he swam faster than 21 other swimmers, placing 108th in his favorite event.
"I didn't have it at this meet," Sharify said right after the race. "But that's ok."
Four of his high school buddies from Ballard High School drove three days, covering 1,700 miles to see Perry swim for just two minutes and twenty-two seconds. "We're all so amazed and proud of Perry's accomplishments," says Max Hoge. Max, Carsten, Andrew and Kevin wanted to be here for their friend in his last race. "It's awesome for us to be able to see his swimming career come together with his final race at the trials," says Max.
Come to think of it, it's my last race too, as a spectator and proud dad. I'm thankful I got to see most of Perry's races. He figures he's competed in more than a thousand races in his sixteen-year career. I'm thankful I get to write about his last one, and share it with you. Now that it's all over, I'll have to say goodbye as well. It's not easy.
Perry has no memory of his first race when he was six years old. Neither do I. We will always remember his last.