I want my friends in my life. Because someday we’re gonna wake up, and we’re gonna find that someone is missing from this circle. And on that day, we’re gonna mourn. And we shouldn’t have to mourn alone.
-Chief Miles O’Brien from “The Sound of Her Voice,” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
That day I’ve been dreading has come – Rocky Kees – my gymnastics coach, mentor, and friend of 24 years passed away last week. He was an absolutely incredible person who brought out the best in everyone around him. Rocky made your feel special and respected in every situation (which is an incredible gift when you work with teenage girls). He was the kind of guy you could hang out with for hours and just listen to him tell stories.
Rocky scared me when I first met him. He was tall with long thin limbs but his bicep bulged out like a softball when he flexed. He had sunken eyes and thick glasses that made him pretty foreboding to 10 year-old me. And he pushed us to our limits – in a lovingly way. I never trained harder than when I was with Rocky. At first I hated it but I came to love it. He brought out the best in us and there was an incredible sense of security when it came to working with him. If he said you could do something, you knew you could do it. He had a wonderful calming effect on me.
For years, if you were looking for me, the best course of action was to scan the room for him, go over about two feet and look down. That’s where you’d usually find me. At the end of practice every night, Rocky was usually outside chatting with parents with his coffee in his left hand and a cigarette in his right. I liked to pad outside, velcro myself to his left side (so he wouldn’t ash on me), and wrap my arms around his middle. He would look down to make sure it was me but keep talking without breaking his cadence. When there was a natural break in the conversation he’d look down and say something like “How’s it going Baby Duck?”
He called lots of us “Baby Duck” (apparently it’s a movie reference) but it was fitting for me. I followed him around constantly, happy to share his company and glean whatever gems I could from him. Rocky shared so many lessons that applied to life as much as to gymnastics. Here are some of the ones that have been going through my mind for the last few days.
- Life’s tough. Get a helmet.
- Dump the cement bag and climb the ladder. (Translation: don’t make things harder than they need to be.)
- Do what you know how to do.
There are so many Rocky lessons I use in my everyday life. They’ve gotten me through law school, training for half marathons, and challenges in my professional and personal life. In so many ways he’s become the voice in my head, always guiding me in the right direction. Even when he wasn’t physically with me, he was still there.
Since his passing, it’s been wonderful to connect with my gymnastics coaches and teammates to share pictures and memories. The world lost an amazing person and we were the lucky ones who got to know him.