Yadira Gil has been afraid of water ever since she nearly drowned as a young girl.
When she was 6 years old and living in California, her parents took her to a swimming pool. She drifted toward the deep end and her small inflatable arm floaties slipped off. She sank.
Yadira never stepped back into water after that. Never learned to swim. Never confronted her fear. Not until this November of her senior year at Flathead High School.
It was the first swimming practice of the season. It was also Dave Lillard’s first day as the new head coach of both Glacier and Flathead’s swim teams.
Lillard grew up in Washington and began swimming when he was 9 years old. After a successful high school career, he went to Whitworth College in Spokane and became a Northwest Conference champion in the sprint pentathlon. After graduating and moving to Kalispell with his wife, he couldn’t stay out of the water. He was a natural fit for taking over the local high school teams, which included the vaunted group of boys from Glacier who were state championship contenders.
When Lillard arrived at the pool inside The Summit Medical Fitness Center, more than 40 swimmers were anxiously waiting to start the season. All except one.
Lillard has heard plenty of people say they don’t know how to swim. When he met Yadira, he assumed she meant she didn’t know the breastroke or butterfly or had a hard time maintaining her form over a long distance.
For an easy start to practice, he instructed everyone to swim laps up and down the 25-yard pool. Yadira slowly dipped her toes into the water.
“She gets in and really couldn’t swim. She wouldn’t put her head in. She wouldn’t go to the deep end,” Lillard recalled. “The first day was a shock. I didn’t know what to do.”
The shock was mutual.
“I couldn’t even go halfway in the pool,” Yadira said. “I was scared if I went any further I would drown.”
Senior year is the apex of excitement in high school. It’s the final chapter in a memorable story.
While most students look ahead to college and the future, Yadira reflected back.
Before graduating from Flathead and moving on, she wanted to accomplish something more. Something significant.
“I felt like I hadn’t done much in my high school years, so I decided to do something drastically different for my senior year,” she said.
Her friend suggested, “You should join the swim team.”
It struck a nerve.
“No I shouldn’t!” Yadira quickly responded.
Fear still crippled her. She remembered nearly drowning. But then she remembered what she’d already overcome.
Yadira was 12 years old and in seventh grade at Kalispell Middle School when she found out she had leukemia. Her parents were forced to move her to Spokane where she underwent chemotherapy at Providence Sacred Heart Hospital for a year. Her long black hair fell out. Her days, in between treatments, were spent with other young chemotherapy patients.
“The chemotherapy was very painful,” Yadira said. “And it’s heartbreaking to see babies that have just been born that are born with (leukemia). I grew up basically with all these little kids.”
She found strength from God and her family and her fellow patients. Fortunately her leukemia could be fully treated without a bone marrow transplant, and a year later Yadira returned to Kalispell. Her classmates hardly recognized her wearing a small cap tucked over her bald head. Her hair slowly grew back and life returned to normal. But she never forgot.
“I learned not to take life for granted. Many people just think life is annoying or tiring,” Yadira said. “But I think that every day is a day you should be thankful for.”
During her final months of high school, Yadira decided to face her fear once and for all.
“I said to myself that if I survived (leukemia), why couldn’t I just swim,” she said. “So I went for it.”
Her goal was simple: learn how to swim.
The first weeks of practice were terrifying. It didn’t help that everyone else on the team was making laps around her, seemingly with ease.
Lillard and his assistant coaches shuffled between the team and Yadira, keeping an especially close eye on their beginner swimmer. Pretty soon team members were also floating alongside Yadira, offering advice and encouragement.
“They just stuck with me the whole time. And a lot of my friends here, almost everybody, they all had patience to help me,” she said. “Everybody was kind enough to help me. Every day I’d learn something new.”
Yadira first clung to the sidewall and slowly approached the deep end, which dropped down six to nine feet in places. Then she put her head under water for the first time. Then she dove in for the first time. Pretty soon she was by herself in the deep end.
“I just started losing the fear of it,” she said. “I actually never thought I would swim in my life and to me it’s a great accomplishment. I can now swim a pretty decent 50 (freestyle) and I can dive and I can do the basics.”
Two months later, in a pool full of orange swim caps lapping back and forth. It was hard to tell which one was Yadira.
“It’s just incredible, the tenacity that she showed to stick with it,” Lillard said. “I’ve been really impressed with her. It takes a lot of guts to come here and try it out.”
Now that she could swim, it was time for her to compete.
Two weeks ago, on Jan. 5 at The Summit, Glacier and Flathead hosted a meet with the three Missoula teams. Yadira was signed up to compete in the girls 50 freestyle race. She had been staying late at practices in anticipation of her first event.
“My goal was to just learn how to swim,” she said. “I think I accomplished a little more. I’m happy about that.”
She stepped onto the elevated block and waited for the race to start. Her fear returned. But Yadira dove in, and it was all gone. She propelled herself down and back the length of the pool, surrounded by cheers. She climbed out after earning third place in her heat.
“After I was finished,” she said, “I was pumped to go again.”
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