Four Letters on a T-Shirt

I yawned sleepily and opened my drawer to find a bed shirt to sleep in tonight. I pulled out the first one I could find. It was a familiar one. A golden yellow cotton t-shirt with only four large, bold, black letters, capitalized, printed on the back: I CAN.

I smiled and headed downstairs to brush my teeth, reminiscing about all of the memories that go along with this 2007 championship t-shirt. Coach always had us believing we could do crazy things. He’d plant audacious goal times in your ear and convince you that you could drop another seven seconds in the 500 this year. He’d galvanize us collectively. It was always team. We won CAAs in 2008 & 2009, a tradition that would continue another two years after I graduated. I still remember cheering on the pool deck with teammates, jumping up and down in excitement, when coach received the 2008 Coach of the Year award. He took his award, held it in the air, and pointed to every swimmer on our team. Then he reached his hand up a little higher and pointed up at every parent, fan, and alumni supporting us from the stands. He humbly received the credit, but preferred to give it all away.

I got thinking that night about how lucky I was to own a t-shirt that someone else gave to me with a big “I CAN” slapped on the back of it. How many children, students, and young adults grow up without anyone ever encouraging them to believe that they could do something meaningful with their lives? I thought about the patients I work with who are living with HIV and substance use. What might look different if they, too, had the same opportunity I had and got the chance to wear a golden t-shirt with that big “I CAN?” What if they had the supportive people needed in their lives with which to help bring “I CAN” into fruition?

I brushed my teeth a little longer, thinking about all of this, realizing, only in hindsight, almost four years out of college now, just how privileged I was to have had this opportunity. Oh sure. We knew it all along while we were still student-athletes that we were granted the inexplicable opportunity everyday to go out there and make something of ourselves, in the water, or in the classroom, or in our internships, or wherever else our adventures took us. But really, it’s only with some hindsight and after spending time with disadvantaged populations have I come to realize just how lucky we were.

I curled up in bed, my body softly wrapped up in this comfortable cotton t-shirt, thinking about what “I CAN” looks like now. It doesn’t look like setting a PR in the 200 butterfly anymore. Nor does it look like doing my part in the water to achieve another CAA championship title, though “I CAN” hasn’t left the sports arena completely. This summer I’ll compete in my first half ironman, and it will be the “I CAN” mentality coupled with the support of every single role model and teammate who helped me develop into the athlete (and person) I am today that will carry me through to the completion of 70.3 miles.

But more than anything now, “I CAN” looks a lot like making peace with change.

“I CAN” looks a lot like accepting the unknowns in life right now. “I CAN” looks like changing my career towards one I am more passionate about. “I CAN” looks like the fortitude to know that no matter what life, love, career, or relationship changes occur in my years to come, I’ll make it. You’ll make it. We’ll make it. And it will shape us, somehow. And for a group of people who spent twenty hours a week in the pool and weight room, I believe we’ll let these changes mold us into stronger people. Better, not bitter. Living in the present, but both appreciating and learning from the past.

But beyond ourselves, beyond all of this mess and yes of life, “I CAN” looks like the power, or dare I say the responsibility, to help evoke an “I CAN” in someone else. In the student you teach. In the athlete you now coach. In the homeless person you pass by on the street. In the stranger who just moved to this country and wants, perhaps more than a steady job or to excel in English or learn “all things American,” simply for their child to not get teased at school today for not quite fitting in with their “funny” accent. We can be the ones to ignite “I CAN” within parents who try their best, but can use just a little more empathy and grace and a little less judgment or shaming. We can infuse the big “I CAN” belief into conversations with young twenty-somethings, just on the cusp of graduation, who are about to adjust to the reality of life after college, filled with all of its questions, confusions, sadness, happiness, and namely, changes. “I CAN” will never stop. Because “we can” is the collective motto we were taught to emulate.

It might just be a t-shirt to some. But tonight, I am washed over with rejuvenation and amazement that the lessons I learned in a pool at Burdick Hall still leak out into my everyday life. Perhaps as a student-athlete, we can’t know it completely. Yet, someday, I assure you, this experience, those laps, these double practices and pep talks will come back to you and you will recognize a strength within you that never left as you enter into your first day of “real-world” employment, board meetings, and, I’m sure marriage, and parenting (though I’m assuming—because I’m far from being there yet :)). All of this will leave you, too, with the choice to make “I CAN” become someone else’s reality.

And because we can, we will.

I CAN. caa team



Thanks, Coach.

6 thoughts on “Four Letters on a T-Shirt

  1. Thank you Melissa for the reminder of the values college athletics can offer and how they can be shared. Fortunate for the coaches that provide this like the Meade’s.

    Brian Earley
    TU Swimming and Diving 81-83
    La Jolla, Ca 92037

  2. Mellisa:
    Thank you for a new personal look at college athletics and beyond. As a member of the very fist swim team at Towson, your comments resonate with focus and meaning. In the years since my graduation, I have taken similar comments from Coach Riordan and used them toward my goals. The I Can perspective does not leave you upon graduation. This theme prevails an an inner force to help guide you through many of life’s challenges and obstacles. As a current college professor, I urge my students to set goals, and I hope, I have infused them with the I CAN spirit. Thank you for a great reflective look at a great time of my life.
    Barry Thomas
    Swim team. 1968-69, 1970-71
    TU class of 1972

    • Barry,thanks for sharing! It’s great to connect with swimmers who were coached by Ray. He seemed like a fabulous coach. Keep infusing others with that “I CAN” attitude- I’m sure your students will remember your spirit way beyond graduation.

    • Thanks, Darryl! It’s great to be able to connect with other alumni and also feel supported by such a large network of caring people.

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