The Swimmer is a classic Shaggy Dog story. After having been told it in great elaborate detail in 2003, I went home and wrote up this version for my old website--I have cleaned it up a bit, but it is mostly as it was then. I have even included below it the "helpful tips" for performing your own version I appended to the original. (I wouldn't do it this way today--I do not stand by the choices of my younger self.)
Once there was a boy named Zach. Zach was born into a very poor family. They didn't have much money for new clothes or video games or internet access, so Zach had to get his entertainment by joining a club at his high school, where he was just beginning his freshman year. He'd been a rec diver in middle school, so he thought he might enjoy putting on a little muscle by joining the swim team. There were only ten or so people on the JV team so he made it easily, despite his inexperience. He came to practice after school everyday and worked out as hard as he could before going to work for his family's survival, because he believed in going all out in everything he did. He was no shining star at first, but over time, he came to be the fastest swimmer on the team. Coach did not fail to notice this, and promoted him to the varsity team (much to the dismay of the seniors onboard).
In the meantime, he wore the same gray swimsuit everyday, and he never did anything but school, swim, work, chores, sleep. His mother gave birth to a little brother in October just a month before the county tournament.
Unfortunately, they can't make it to his meet that day. He's up on the blocks and ready to go. They blow the whistle and he's off. . .swimming. . .faster and faster. . .there's only one guy keeping with him at the flip-turn. He floors it back, but oh! he gets a cramp at the last moment. Nonetheless, he snags second place and a new Personal Record.
After the race, Coach comes up behind him and wraps his towel around him and slaps him on the shoulder.
"You made second! You know what this means don't you! You're going to state!"
"Wow! Really?" he replies.
"Yes, but there's one thing. You need to bring $50 by the first day of December to pay for registration."
"Oh, I don't know about that, Coach," he says, questioningly, eyes downcast, "we aren't exactly the richest folk in the world."
"Oh, come on man, it's just $50. I'm sure your dad will give it to you if you ask really nicely. And if you can't come up with it all, I'll give you a few bucks just to get to see you swim like that again!"
"Oh, thanks Coach. I'll ask him."
So he goes home to his dad, who just happens to be in his chair making calls.
"Dad, guess what!" he begins.
"I made second place in the county meet!"
"That's great! I wish I could swim like that! I guess that means you get to go to state?"
"It sure does. . . ," and he sighs, "but I need fifty dollars for registration. . ."
"Oh, no worries, son, we want to see you succeed. I'm sure we can scrape it together. . . ."
". . .by next week."
"Well, there are going to be hardships, but we can do it."
So they cut back on food, stopped going to the movies, and had a small yard sale, and within the week they had fifty dollars. Zach went in to see Coach with the money.
"Well, Coach, we had to go through so many hardships last week, skipping lunches and working overtime, but I got the fifty dollars. We're going to state!"
Of course, the baby got a rare early case of colic and once again the family could not attend the meet. He rode in Coach's car to the state capital, receiving a pep talk the whole way.
So Zach is up on the blocks again. He's focused better than ever. The buzzer sounds and he's in the Zone before he even hits the water. He's flying faster than ever before. He flip-turns a full second before anyone in any of the lanes. He maintains his second all the way back to the starting end, and drags himself, thoroughly exhausted out of the pool.
His eyes are still apparently swimming because he is not sure why Coach is congratulating him at first.
". . .not only first place, but a new School Record! You're the best swimmer our school has ever had! You're going to the semi-finals! You're going to Regionals!"
". . .! WOOHOO!"
"And you're going to get a brand new swimsuit with your name on it and a towel with the school mascot. Just bring $200 with you to school next. . ."
"Wait a minute, Coach!" he interjects, "two. . .HUNDRED. . .American dollars? Did I not tell you about my situation before this meet?"
"Yes, well, you have to get it for the hotel and registration. I'm sure you are your dad can work something out. I know you want this, and I want it for you, for our school, as much as you. You're the best we've ever had. You have to try."
"Okay, Coach, it's going to be hard, but I'll try!"
So Zach goes home to his dear old dad the news.
"Dad, I got first place at state and I broke the school record on lap time!"
"That's great, son! So, you're going to Regional?"
"Yes. . .well. . .if we can get $200 by the end of the month."
"Well, we are behind you 100%, son, but there are going to be hardships. You'll have to throw in with us to get you there."
So Dad starts working another job at night, and Mom uses the last of their foodstamps on a month's supply of Infamil and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. They take out a second mortgage on the house, and Zach and his sister spend every hour at home baby-sitting, while the other is out working.
Somehow, they manage to stay afloat the whole month, and get the $200, so Zach, worked completely to the bone and worn slap out but still as determined as ever returned to Coach with the cash.
"Well, Coach, the hardships I and my family went through were nigh on unbearable this time, but I got the $200 for the Regional meet. Let's get this show on the road."
Zach's family had to stay at home working to keep themselves alive, while Zach drove with Coach to the next state. He did nothing but stretch in his hotel room the night before so he would be at the top of his game in the morning. His mom called three times worrying about him, once in the middle of the night. "The baby woke me up-we're running out of Infamil," she claimed.
The next morning, Zach stood on the blocks poised for the dive. He knew he would win before the buzzer even sounded. He wouldn't admit it to himself, but he knew. He made it down and back in under 20 seconds, but Zach was standing with a towel around his shoulders accepting his gold medal before he even realized he'd left the platform. Coach woke him up with an open-handed blow to the back.
"You won, son! You're in the Finals! You're going to Junior Nationals!"
"How much is it this time?"
"Oh, just a little old thousand dollars, and that's because the rest of the team, and the boosters, and I, are providing the other thousand. We really want you to win this one. Do you think you can manage it?"
"Well, we've been through a lot of hardships already. I suppose I'm getting accustomed to it. I'll try Coach. I won't let you down if I can help it!" Zach replied
"Yeah, you're worth the investment, kid. Good luck!"
So Zach went before his Dad again, between his 3PM-11PM and 12AM-8AM job shifts, and told him the news. Dad of course, was expecting the mood damper this time:
"Congratulations! Great Job, son! I knew you'd do us proud! How much is it for Nationals?"
"SHIT*! *ahem* I mean. . .we're behind you still, son. I know we can work it out."
They cut the baby down to one Infamil a day. They were all too busy working all night to hear its endless bawling anyway. Sis picked up another job. Zach picked up a paper route, but was exempted from afternoon work so he could train. Dad continued working his three jobs, but they to put Ma out streetwalking betweens shifts to make ends meet. They were all malnourished, and still insisted that Zach take extra portions. They began renting out the attic to anyone who could do without breakfast. If ever any family faced hardships, it was this one.
But they got the grand.
He goes to Coach. "Coach, I got the money. We're going to Alaska!"
Don't ask whose idea it was to have the thing in Alaska.
Well, of course, the thing was televised. Mainly as a human interest story about Zach. Zach's family took the night of the competition off to watch Zach swim. . .on their neighbor's television, of course, because they had sold theirs when their cable got cut off.
Before he went up on the blocks, he got to talk to the news reporter.
"I know you've heard what kind of hardships I've been through to get here," he proclaimed, "but I'm just happy to have such support and to get a chance to swim. I'd like to thank my family, if they're watching. I love you guys. We shared these hardships, and, should I win, the victory will be all of ours!"
How very touching. His family cheered.
Out of the blocks Zach flew at the buzzer. A kid who had been swimming since he fell out of the womb was in the next lane, and kept right next to him the whole. He even pulled ahead a few times, but not only did he lack the sheer determination Zach had, he also lacked the streamlining several months of near-starvation can give you. Zach won by three tenths of a second, snagging the gold once agin.
After the race, and before the awards presentation, Coach wrapped Zach up and steered him toward a man in a business suit.
"Hi Zach. I'm as touched by your story as any, but I'm more impressed with your skill as a swimmer. I'm with the US Olympic Team. We want you to swim for Team USA in the Olympic Games in Africa next summer."
"Well, sure, but. . .how much will it cost?"
"Haha, don't you know anything about the Olympics, man?"
"You ain't gotta pay a dime."
Zach collected his medal and went home. A mob of students in his school cafeteria carried him around on their shoulders until concerned administrators broke it up. He was proclaimed a hero in his town, and even got some obscure resolution passed about him in the state legislature. Wasn't worth the paper it was printed on, of course, but his family didn't hesitate to frame it. They also received plenty of what was worth more than the paper it was printed on. Cold hard cash, always enclosed with Zach's fan mail.
While the money covered most of their recently accrued debts, they never forgot their time of need and continued to live frugally. They were completely accustomed to hardships. Zach didn't fail to mention this when he boarded the yacht Team USA purchased to party their way across to Africa during that Olympic summer.
"You all know what hardships I've been through, but I hope you can overlook that. Also, I hope the ladies and the bartenders on this boat can overlook the fact that I'm still a sophomore in high school."
Well, the party began immediately, and when the drinking and the sex got old, the Olympians sought out a little friendly competition between them to entertain themselves. They were only a couple of days from shore, and fairly restless to pick up their last-minute training.
So one night, they were all sitting around a table with their beers. Yes, Zach too, but the guys swore not to tell his parents. One guy turns to the guy next to him.
"Hey Joe, you're on the track team right?"
"Yeah, man, I'm a sprinter."
"Aw, really, lemme see you run?"
Another piped up, "Yeah, I wanna see this too, Joe!"
So Joe took a lap around the deck in just under 15 fifteen seconds-Zach was timing. He almost knocked a waiter over the side as he sped past.
"That's amazing, Joe!"
"I've never seen anyone run that fast in my life!"
Zach was speechless.
He stopped in front of his challenger and caught his breath. "Lar, I don't know how you Field guys spend your time, but I've seen you out there, throwing your disc-thing. Give this boy here a show of your own."
"Sure give me a discus."
Joe grabbed a dinner plate and tossed it to Larry.
"Stand back, kid"
He wound up and flung the plate almost to the horizon, where it exploded before hitting the water.
Everyone looked up to the Sun Deck where Barney, a pentathlete, was just lowering his rifle.
"Nice toss, Lar!" He shouted down, "Welcome to come toss birds at my ranch any time!"
"Nice shootin' yourself, Barn!"
They all proceeded to pat one another on the back, and return to their table, when Steve joined them. Larry grabbed him and addressed the rest of the table.
"Ya'll know my teammate, Steve, here. Best javelin man in the western hemisphere, he is."
"Give us a demo, man," said Joe.
"Ain't got a javelin."
Joe grabbed a Karen that was walking by.
"Throw this," he said, handing over the Karen. "I saw her being incredibly racist."
So Steve went to the rail, bellowed "the manager will see you now!" and heaved the Karen screaming as far as she would go. There was a tiny splash on the horizon. There was no sound by the last of the screams on the wind. Everyone was speechless. Moments later, the cheers began.
"I ain't never seen a toss like that in my life!" Barney said, "We're sure to win, this year!"
Then they turned to Zach. "Hey kid. You're a swimmer, right? You gonna put us all to shame?"
"Where do you expect me to swim?" Zach replied. "I'm not going in the water with all those sharks, and the swimming pool is only 10 feet wide."
They all nodded and scratched their heads. "Well, you gotta show us something!"
"Well, I did used to do a bit of diving in my younger years. I could dive for you."
"Well, I suppose that would work," Steve said.
So Zach climbed onto the diving board of the deck pool, ran to the end, and turned a flip into a perfect dive. He didn't make but a tiny splash.
The guys were unimpressed.
"Well, I guess that was okay. But I think I could do the same. . . ," Barney put in.
"Well, tell you what. What if I climbed to the next deck, and dived off that railing. Would you see that?" Zach countered.
"I'll buy that for a dollar," a member of the gathering crowd stated simply.
Zach climbed the stairs to the next deck and pulled himself to the other side of the railing. He dived off backwards, moving ten feet backwards and landing dead center of the pool in a perfect swan dive.
Some started to applaud, until a member of the diving team shouted, "I learned that freshman year of high school." He then climbed up and repeated the stunt, adding a backflip for good measure.
"Well, he never said he was a diver," Steve said helpfully.
"I don't need your help," Zach retorted, and without another word began climbing up three decks onto the radar tower. He stood there fifty feet above and twenty feet behind the pool, lifting one foot and then the other as the radar device turned. He worked up the courage, ignoring the worried shouts from below. Not even hearing them. He took three steps and ran off the edge of the tower. He wrapped his arms around himself, crossed his legs, then bent and twisted. He turned 720 degrees and two full flips before spreading out into swan form and landing head first *SMACK* in the center of the deck, five feet behind the edge of the pool.
He went out in an instant and lay there limp as a ragdoll. The crowd rushed to his side. Someone called some paramedics from the African coast. The moment the helicopter was landing on the deck, Zach was just standing up, with a few helping helps. He had a huge bruise on his forehead and he was a bit woozy, but he could talk. The paramedics ran over, grabbed him away, and laid him on a stretcher to take away in case of concussion. He didn't let them get the buckles down before he stood up again.
"I feel fine, guys." He held himself erect and walked a straight line back to the crowd.
So Steve just had to pipe up, "What are you doing, boy? You almost died!"
"I'm alright," said Zach. "I told you. . .
. . .I'm used to Hard Ships!"
Rules of the Joke
- Rule #1: Say the word 'hardships' as often as possible, but don't ever call the yacht a ship. The punchline needs to be a surprise, even if it is a silly pun.
- Rule #2: Add many confusing details. The essence of this joke is in the details. Minimalism is most certainly not helpful. If it takes fewer than twenty minutes to tell your joke, you need to work on the telling.
- Rule #3: The names of the Olympians and of the main character can be gathered from your audience. Coach, Mom, Dad, Sis, and Baby do not need names. If it is too confusing to interrupt the joke to ask for the names of the Olympians, just ask for the name of the main character at the beginning. (The name Zach, in this case, was supplied by Jess in PA.)
- *Rule #4: The cuss word here is my addition. Remove it in choice company.
- Rule #5: This is a series of smaller jokes all with one punchline as you can see. The things the family does to cut back (Infamil, movies, streetwalking), the patronizing way Coach treats the swimmer, and the throwing of dinner plates and Karens are all jokes in themselves, but no so riotously funny as to overshadow the punchline. You can make up your own details and add your own gags to personalize your joke.
- Rule #6: Act it out! Get your hands and feet involved so that your audience can picture Coach slapping the swimmer on the butt, or the swimmer upon to tower prancing to avoid the radar device.
- Rule #7: This may seem obvious, but SMILE!! This is an icebreaker after all. And, as you're nearing the punchline, make it as patronizing a smile as possible, with a gleam in your eye as if to say "You thought this was going to be good, but the joke's on you!"