COEUR d'ALENE - The first time Dee Fraser saw the Pacific Ocean, she was 9 years old.
But she didn't just look on in awe, maybe race along the shore and get her feet wet.
"I ran into it in my Easter dress, totally clothed," Fraser recalled, laughing. "When I came home I thought for sure my mom was going to flip her lid. She said, 'You know, we better get this kid a bathing suit.' They knew then, I was meant to be in water."
A lifetime later, she's still in the water.
Since moving to North Idaho five years ago, Fraser has helped hundreds of swimmers overcome their fears of the deep in Lake Coeur d'Alene. And as head coach of the wildly popular multi-sport program at the Kroc Center, she helped hundreds more, young and old, learn to swim or become hammerheads of the pool.
But come the end of this month, Dee Fraser is stepping back from her fast-paced lifestyle, and retiring. Oh, she'll still be volunteering at races, or organizing them since she earned her race director's certification. She'll still be out on her yellow kayak now and then, giving her time to help someone stop worrying about sinking, and set their sights on swimming.
There's no choice, really. There is no sink. Only swim.
She knows the lakes, the rivers, the ocean, will always call her name.
"It's from that day I ran into the ocean with my Easter dress on. I had never seen the ocean, been around water much, and I knew it was for me," she said. "They couldn't get me out of it once I got in."
How many multi-sport athletes have you worked with since you've arrived in North Idaho?
Hundreds. I've loved it. It's multi-sport, multi-faceted. The nickname they gave me is the mothership of multi-sport. I love to serve the community. I came to retire and I've always served the community, wherever I am. This is my first paying position in triathlons.
If you never got paid, why do you do it?
I've always wanted to serve my community somehow. My family does that. Everything I've done in the past, I had a nonprofit put together, OHNOH2O. We took that money and turned it into equipment, paid coaches, built that program, gave scholarships. When I started here, bring me a six-pack of Diet Coke and I'll teach you to swim. That's kind of what I'm going back to.
What made you decide to retire?
I need some flexibility in my scheduling. I was talking to my mother-in-law, we've been here five years and we brought her here. I had promised her to go to Glacier Park five years ago and we still haven't gone. I'm going to take her to Glacier Park, just do some traveling. I think you need to renew yourself, too. I'll continue to volunteer at a variety of things. I have a real passion for water safety. I'm doing a manual for open water swims to set a standard of safety, so anybody who does an open water event for free can have what I put together and use it as a template to make their event safe. I just want to start doing some stuff. I need time, I need flexibility.
How much will you miss this?
I've mentored coaches and swimmers and I've had a wonderful time and I'll still be a resource, but I think opportunity, options, are what it's all about anywhere. When I first came here, there weren't a lot of options. Great people doing what they do, but it was kind of narrow, just because of the geography. But as our sport has grown, so have the options for training and education, racing. That's kind of my vision, opportunity.
Would you say you've been lucky to land a job you love?
Luck is opportunity meeting preparedness. Everybody says I'm a golden child, I'm a lucky person. I am because when opportunity comes, I'm prepared. I'll do stuff today that I might not use for 10 years. I had six years of Spanish a long time ago. I want to take maybe two or three years of Spanish, not that I'm going to use it tomorrow. But our demographics are changing. Who knows. Ten years from now, we might need Spanish.
What is your philosophy as a coach?
When I was younger and I went to the pool, if I wasn't the best in six months I quit. My coach said, 'You either change that attitude, and quit being a muscle in the pool and listen to what I have to say, or go home.' So I said, 'I'm going home.' After about two months, I realized I needed to change my attitude, and take instruction in the new school of swimming. That's efficiency and economy. Not go until you throw up, muscling through everything, first place is everything. He taught me the vision of periodization, zone training and long-term goals.
What influence did your parents have on you?
When I was raised, it was family, church and sports. They really encouraged sports, more the philosophy of good sportsmanship. In our home, you were humble in victory, gracious in defeat. If you weren't humble when you won, you got talked to. You didn't get yelled at for where you placed, you got a talking to about how you handled victory and defeat. That was huge.
Did you compete before coaching?
Before I had my knees replaced, I was really gravitating toward the triathlon. I loved the ocean, I loved to swim, but I was a cyclist before, did 100-mile century rides. I got into triathlons being on a relay team because I was a strong cyclist. We put together a relay team called 'Splash, Crash and Dash' and I was Crash, which kind of summed up my biking mentality. It was 100 miles an hour, death defying.
Did you crash?
Oh yeah, all the time, but I would just hang it out there.
Why have you been successful at turning people into swimmers?
You believe in them until they believe in themselves. I have yet to put someone in the water and not see something in them I know can turn into a swimmer. It's the psychology of swimming. I think that's what's missing in a lot of the new instruction. You can teach someone form, technique, the rules, but you've got to nurture them. You've got to tap into what's stopping them. I think that's why we're successful here. I have a ton of newbies. The big denominator is that fear of water and once I explain to them that water is thicker than air, it's buoyant, it's your friend. Plus, I will believe in you until you believe in you. Because I see you can do this. To the person, everyone has stayed with it. It might take them a week, it might take three years, but they become a swimmer and they go on to teach their children. That's our bigger compliment.
No one has ever called it quits on you and said, 'I can't swim?'
I had one, two years, three times a week, here and the lake. I said, 'You don't give up, I won't give up.' That's the pact we've had. Today, he's done multiple Ironmans.
What else works for you as a coach?
I do a lot of conceptual teaching. A big aerial snapshot, then you go to specifics. I think sometimes coaches go to specifics first and overwhelm the athlete. I do the opposite. We do a conceptual aerial snapshot of everything, then we start picking off the pieces, getting technical as time goes by.
What would you say is your biggest impact on the community?
I would think part of it is educational swimming, the joy of swimming. I think a part of it is, it's always been my philosophy, I really try and get a concept of cooperation rather than competition. I really believe cooperation in the community gets you way further than 10 competitive individuals. That's been the biggest impact on the big picture outside of swimming.
Will we see you out there in some races?
Never say never.
Date of birth: Nov. 15, 1949
Family: Husband, Steve.
Education: Degree in nursing and a degree in anthropology. I went to Long Beach State University.
Number of hours on average you work in a week: 60-70
Number of hours on average you sleep in a night: 5
Hobbies: Archery, golf
Favorite type of music: Anything
Favorite spectator sport: Football, volleyball
Best advice you ever received: Be patient.
Quality you admire most a person: Integrity
Person who most influenced your life: My father, Nick. He was not a man of a lot of words, but when he used words, they were very effective. He had a really good idea of the big picture.
One thing you consider your greatest accomplishment: I'll be married 39 years in June. That's a pretty big accomplishment.