Arnie Makes a Splash
“Are you ready to get out of the pool, Arnie?”
“No!” the 90-year-old answered emphatically.
Arnie (left) and fellow competitor at a swim competition in 1947.
It’s no wonder that Arnie Pylkas was hesitant to leave the pool. He helped design it 40 years ago when he was the director of aquatics at Harding University in Searcy. Now, the former swim coach is a patient of Arkansas Hospice, after debilitating strokes have left him unable to swim for several years.
With the help of one of his former students, J.D. Yingling, and his care team at Arkansas Hospice, Arnie recently had the chance to swim one more time.
Arnie with his wife Wanda and former student, J.D. Yingling.
As he was lowered into the pool, Arnie’s eyes lit up with joy. Although his speech is limited, it was evident that he still feels right at home there. For the first few minutes, he allowed the water to surround him. Then, Arnie laid back and relaxed in J.D.’s arms while nurses helped guide him.
When first asked to kick, Arnie started out with some flutter kicks on his back. Then, before long, his competitive spirit took over once more. To everyone’s amazement, he kicked his legs so hard and generated such big splashes that J.D. and the nurses had to close their eyes at times.
“Even with his body so depleted, he was able to do the dolphin and breaststroke kick,” J.D. said. “The man was made to be in the water.”
Seeing his former coach back in the water brought back a flood of memories for J.D., who serves as Harding University’s current director of aquatics.
“Arnie has always had a sparkle in his eyes; you could even see it this morning,” J.D. said.
When the 90-year-old man began to flutter kick, it “reminded me of him teaching me to flutter kick as a 12-year-old with no ankle flexibility,” J.D. recalled. “I went backwards when I first started kicking – something Coach Pylkas always remembered. He figured out quickly that I was a natural breaststroke kicker and allowed me to kick that way most of the time.”
Coach Pylkas’s career as Harding’s coach started in 1972. During the Summer Olympics that year, U.S. Swim Team member Mark Spitz won all seven Olympic titles and set seven world records. (A record that went unchallenged until 2008 by Michael Phelps.) Arnie was so inspired by this feat that he began offering competitive swimming training for kids.
During his time as the Harding coach, Arnie’s teams never placed lower than second in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, and won the conference title in 1976.
“He was such a good teacher that he would take swimmers with no competitive swimming experience and turn them into good college-level swimmers,” said J.D. “He always seemed to notice the potential in people.”
J.D. attributes his own accomplishments — along with the success of many others — to Arnie’s unwavering positive influence and encouragement.
“Coach Pylkas invested in a young, undisciplined boy who lacked much confidence in anything,” J.D. explained, speaking of himself, “and his investment in me changed everything.”
Another example was Harry Miller, whom Arnie recruited after noticing that Harry was a natural at the breaststroke. Harry went on to win a conference championship and to eventually start and coach the Searcy Swim Team. In 1980, Harry hired J.D. to serve as coach.
For J.D. Yingling, the reunion with Coach Pylkas was like coming full circle.
“When I was 12, I thought Arnie had the coolest job in the world,” J.D. said. “Now, 45 years later, I sit in his office every day, working at the pool he designed as the aquatics director for Harding University. … I thank God for putting Arnie into my life; what a difference he has made in me and so many others.”
Arnie continued to enjoy what is likely to be his final swim. Along the sidelines, his wife, Wanda, cheered for her husband of 62 years. Tears filled the eyes of many others witnessing the unforgettable event – which served as an excellent example that hospice patients still have a lot of living to do.
“Often, people think hospice means giving up, but those who work in hospice or who have had a hospice experience know that every moment counts, especially at the end of life,” said Judy Wooten, President and CEO of Arkansas Hospice. “It is a privilege to have the opportunity to help our patients make special memories that will always remain with their families, even after their loved one passes.”
*Several groups helped to organize this Arkansas Hospice mission moment. We would like to thank Searcy Health Care, Harding University, and especially J.D. Yingling for sharing his story.
Arnie with his Arkansas Hospice team
Arnie with the Lolita and Tosha of Searcy Healthcare