Courtesy of Shelley Taylor-Smith, CSCAA National Collegiate Open Water Swimming Championships, Kansas.
International Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Swimmer Shelley Taylor-Smith wrote about yesterday’s unexpected passing of famed American pool and open water swimming coach Dr. Sam Freas, “I am gutted to hear my dear University of Arkansas Razorback swim coach Sam Freas has passed away.
[His] passion for helping others achieve their personal best is the greatest gift you shared with me. [He] always remind[ed] us that we could give more in a practice, could give more off the blocks, in our turns, finish, etc. We always could give more of ourselves.
[His] vision and foresight is the sole reason why there is a Lady Razorback Swim Team. When the University of Arkansas decided to shut [the women’s team] down, he [declined] and said [he would] take on both the men and women’s teams.”
Dr. Freas also escorted and advised 7-time world professional marathon swimming champion Paul Asmuth and organized the first FINA World Open Water Swimming Championships in Honolulu, Hawaii in 2000. He was always a strong advocate of open water swimming.
Former USA Olympic and Yale University swim team coach Frank Keefe said of the 72-year-old former Director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, “Sam was an icon of our sport. He will be truly missed and [it was] an honor knowing the Big K.”
John Leonard of the American Swimming Coaches Association said of his friend, “I found him one of the most creative of coaches that I have known. He had a great rapport with sprinters and [had] great skills in getting the absolute maximum performance from them. No one was a better coach during a taper. Which means, likely, that he had many successful training seasons, since you can’t taper without a strong training base. Sam could get performance from anyone. He was a motivator.
Personally, Sam always had time – made time- for everyone. [He was] never in a rush [and] always available to talk. Sam was the original extrovert. Sam took a personal interest in everyone he met, athlete, coach or just a character. He raised great children, who took all the good parts of both their mother and their father and made it their own.
I served on three USA Swimming team staffs with Sam. It was always different, unusual, and interesting, and [his] conversations were free-flowing and stimulating. I knew I could call him any time of day or night with something I wanted to discuss.”
Freas’ youngest daughter Sydney wrote, “I [will] recount my dad’s final days on earth. I am with my mom Rosemary. On behalf of our entire family, I cannot express how uplifting all of your words and messages are. You are getting us through each moment – shedding light in this dark void, knowing that we are not alone in this – that we are all in this together losing the one and only Sam, Sammy, Dad, Daddy-o, Easyman, Sammy Slim, The Fat Man, the Big Kahuna, Coach Freas, Dr. Sam…I could go on.
I was with my dad over the last several days. His visit to Phoenix was unbelievably joyous, easy, and uplifting, as it always is with him. On Friday afternoon, I took my parents out to a pre-birthday lunch at a great seafood restaurant. During the lunch, we talked about his movie and sequel. While I was quite familiar with the first movie story, I hadn’t heard the sequel plot in detail before. As he elaborated on his unbelievable story, tears welled up in my eyes. His gifts for storytelling were beyond. I told him. ‘Dad, we’ve gotta get this done. Let’s figure this out.’ He and my mom agreed and we had a pow wow and a surge of revitalized vigor to get his story onto the big screen.
Later Friday night, Dad was in his usual jovial mood, recounting the stories of his incredible life in pure Sam fashion. My dad and my in-laws grew up in suburban Philadelphia and Jack and Sam both summered on the Jersey shore as lifeguards, swam against each other at rival prep schools, and had so much in common.
I woke up on Saturday morning, March 23rd, Daddy’s 73rd birthday, to him sitting in a chair in our living room reading scripture, as he did every single day of his adult life.
We had an easy morning, dad making recruiting calls, always busy doing something, making the most of each moment. I always loved overhearing his phone calls over the years. I remember waking up to his booming, strong, voice regularly. Every conversation a display of a master articulator, connector, and lover of people.
A little bit later we drove down to Tucson, my mom and him in one car, me, my husband and our boys in another. He called several times on the way down there wanting to know random things, ‘Hey, what are they growing on the side of the road there?’ 10 minutes later, ‘Hey, is that snow on the top of those mountains? I thought it could be limestone, just wanted to check’ and then he would abruptly get off the phone – a Sam trademark, ‘all right bye’ or ‘all right God bless’. Definitely a Sam trademark.
After a fun dinner, we spent time talking and watching TV together as a family. It was fun, it was easy, it was perfect. Dad and mom stayed up later than usual. We were all having a great time. Quality. Family. Time. Little did we know he would leave us 24 hours later.
Sunday March 24th, we woke up and headed to a great breakfast with my in-laws and their friend, another Philadelphia native. Dad was on fire. He was opining about all the topics of the day, mainly sports, the college admissions scandal, NCAA basketball, and stories many interesting individuals he knew throughout his career. I walked off to the bathroom during the breakfast, at least 30 feet down the hall from our table and could hear him from the bathroom. I loved it. Big Sam, my dad, was in the building.
After breakfast, we watched more NCAA basketball where I had to help dad with the remote another 10 times (at least)… I asked him if he wanted to come swimming with me, Logan and the boys. Much to my delight he said “yes”. I was so excited. It was one of his great joys to see his grandchildren swim. We got in the pool together and pushed Thomas back and forth between us. I could tell he was at peace, so happy. He even swam a couple of laps. I remember glancing over and thinking to myself, ‘Wow, despite his size, his stroke is still flawless.’
We came back home and had the most pleasant dinner as a family on my back patio. The sun setting behind his back, God’s love shone all around him on his last sunset on earth.
After dinner, we watched NCAA basketball and a few movies. My mom went to bed a little earlier than him, and it was just me, my dad, and Logan watching TV. He was cracking jokes – hilarious as ever in his distinct humor – and I was in heaven being next to him. Just heaven. My daddy. My hero.
We set off to bed, kissed each other good night and said I love you for the last time.
Shortly after going to bed, my mom urgently woke me up saying dad was in trouble.
I went into his room, my mom and I on both sides of him trying to help in any way we could. He was conscious by confused and in pain. Groaning and moaning. We called 911. We stayed by his side and cried out to him, ‘Daddy, daddy stay with us, daddy…Please daddy, stay with us daddy.’
‘Sam, common sam. Sam, stay with us Sam. We love you Sam.’
The paramedics came and took over. We watched them take him away on a stretcher. We followed them to the Emergency Room where they wouldn’t let us back to see him. They were trying to revive him, but his heart had stopped as soon as he reached the hospital. In an hour’s time, we received the dreaded news that the man, the legend, our rock, our hero, the one and only Samuel “Sammy” James Freas had gone on to eternity with our heavenly Father.
He is in paradise now. He has a new body. He has no pain. He is delighting all of heaven with his warmth and wit. He is seeing all his passed loved ones and friends. The many Peekskill and West Point buddies that sacrificed their lives in Vietnam, etc. He is watching over us and smiling down with that signature closed lip smile. The bad news is we have to live without him on this earth…the good news is that we will spend eternity with him.”
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