Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Don't swim slow to swim fast
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   07/25/2003)

My wife decided we'd be athletes, so she signed us up for this sporting event--a mini-triathlon that included swimming a half-mile (disorienting), bicycling 17 miles (wobbly after the swimming) and running three (a distinctly rubbery experience).

An obvious question comes to inquiring minds:

Why would a man of my mysterious age even attempt such a thing?

Obvious answer: Humiliation is educational.

I've never been around so many young, svelte specimens of humanity as the ones gathered at 7:30 a.m. Sunday July 13 at Tellico Dam Recreation Area in Lenoir City.

My main goal (aside from appearing years younger) was simple:

Try not to drown.

Chances were fair to middling I could make it out to the big yellow buoys out on the lake and back again even without my water wings, which a trusted adviser said I shouldn't bring. "Trust me, you'll live longer."

O.K., I could play that game. I always had a knack for swimming, and I'd just read this very touching magazine account of the first time a teenaged Ron Reagan beat his own father, Ronald Reagan, in a swimming race.

I felt downright lucky when this article came to hand, just two nights before the triathlon, and I carefully concentrated on what I had learned from it as I stood neck deep in the deceptively calm waters of Tellico Lake.

My pastor had already granted absolution for missing church. Not that I'm superstitious, but I didn't want anyone very mighty working against me. After all, Jeanne and I'd decided to embrace this triathlon demon just three weeks before the actual event and we'd done little to prepare.

But as I stood in my swim suit thingy mostly submerged with about 30 other men in my gender-age category waiting for the signal to start swimming, I thought of Ron Reagan and a bit of Zen wisdom he'd imparted in the magazine article.

"To swim fast, swim slow."

Take very deliberate strokes, don't flail around, concentrate on technique, Ron Reagan had written.

The advice came swimming up from my subconscious like the voice of Obie Ben Kenobie:

To swim fast, Luke Skywalker, swim slow.

Good advice at this stage of my athletic career. I was a natural at swimming slow. So I told myself, don't rush it, take easy strokes, and if all else fails, roll over and backstroke to clear the breathing apparatus (that's nose, mouth and windpipe to you landlubbers).

But three unexpected things happened in quick succession just after the signal to start.

First, I was repeatedly kicked, smacked and otherwise flogged like a naked man running through an automatic carwash DURING the wash cycle.

Second, it quickly became apparent nobody else had read the Ron Reagan bit about swimming slow to swim fast.

Third, my swimming apparatus became quite clogged and my main goal became in doubt, so I rolled over in the water.

In fact, I remember hearing a voice over a bullhorn shouting, "Backstroker! Backstroker!" later on. Um, I thought, that would be me, as I rolled back over and saw clearly that I was swimming parallel to the shore and toward the interior of the course.

I swam on to shore and climbed onto my bike, putting a slightly different set of muscles into play. Once I even pulled a Lance Armstrong, snuggling up close to another racer's back tire and letting him do the aerodynamic work for us both before passing him on a downhill stretch. Fortunately I'd never heard Lance say, "To pedal fast, pedal slow," and so I did O.K. in the bike portion, which was through scenic countryside along Tellico Lake.

I finished the biking part and made it through the three-mile run by playing a jukebox that resides in the corner of my mind. It helps take my mind off the chore of running and puts me in a zone as I listen clearly to every note and vocal inflection by the likes of Jackson Browne, the Beatles, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, the Moody Blues and Willie Nelson, none of whom believe anything Ron Reagan has to say about going slow to go fast.