Fred Lammers coached swimming and water polo for 38 years at Santa Ana Valley High School in Southern California. He retired as a two-time CIF water polo championship coach and the Orange County Register Coach of the Year in 2011.
But he is also a devoted ocean swimmer.
Lammers and his daughter and son has long participated in the local Seal Beach Rough Water Swim. Father Fred has rarely missed the 3-mile race and got his children hooked at the age of seven – even though his son Greg was a bit intimidated by the waves.
As Lammers believes, “What better way than to learn than swim in the ocean?“
But professionally, Lammers teaches and coaches in a more inland school.
The 69-year-old former biology teacher, who started working at at Santa Ana Valley High School in 1976, dedicated himself to teaching students at his high school first how to swim. Only later after they are water safe did he then encourage and teach them the game of water polo. In addition to his duties in the classroom and on the pool deck, Lammers also enveloped himself in competitive sports from triathlons to cycling in Orange County, California.
But coaching, training, and competition have taken a hard cumulative toll on his body.
At the same time, his very active lifestyle and positive outlook has most likely saved him.
On September 13th 2021 Lammers found himself at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. For two weeks, he held onto life with an incredibly low heart ejection fraction of 10%. His heart was barely pumping out blood. To describe Lammers as being in a very critical state of emergency was an understatement. A normal ejection fraction is 65% or higher. An ejection fraction [the percentage of blood that is pumped out of your heart with each heartbeat] below 40% means a heart isn’t pumping enough blood and is failing.
But Lammers was not about to go. He hung on, literally for dear life.
Lying in bed wondering what was to come next, he remained strong-willed and was otherwise healthy enough to get on the heart transplant list. It was obvious to his medical team that his active lifestyle presented him with a lifeline.
Lammers recalls, “It wasn’t easy [to get on that heart transplant list]. I think all those years of working out and staying in shape prepared me to be able to get on the transplant list and have a second chance. Another factor was having a proper attitude. If the doctors had asked me to jump I’d say, “How high?”
Then two weeks into his hospital stay in the Critical Care Unit at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, his doctor suddenly rushed into his room and asked if he were willing to accept a new heart. “I burst out laughing when they asked that question,” he said. “My doctors asked me why are you laughing. I told them, ‘Who in their right mind says no to that question? Within minutes, they prepped me and I was out and being wheeled into the operating room. They put a 49-year-old’s heart into me. I entered the hospital weighing about 220 from all the water weight the heart was not able to deal with. After the transplant, I weighed 150 lbs. To say I lost some muscle mass was an understatement. Once I was allowed to walk with a walker in the halls of the hospital, I made a point of not only improving daily, but ‘sprinting’ the last part of the walk. I think my nurses thought I was some kind of nut.”
That was in September, 2021.
Now Lammers is back.
“I still have four bicycles,” he said after getting out of a 90-minute pool workout with other adult swimmers starting at 5:00 am at Los Cab Sports Village in Fountain Valley. “I have to pick the right one to ride; it takes about 30 minutes to ride the 7 miles to the pool. Three days a week I swim and three days a week I weight train, then cycle, I usually cycle 20-25 miles per ride.“
After his heart transplant, Lammers underwent all kinds of cardiac rehab. He explained, “The most intense part was the heart biopsies. Like Janice Joplin, they would go in through my neck and take a little piece of my heart.”
But the allure of the pool called him back. “Funny thing is now I get colder faster in the water, so I wear a surf vest that keeps me a bit warm. I swim mostly freestyle and some backstroke, but not butterfly yet.”
But it isn’t because of his heart that he is churning out yards doing butterfly.
Among the many operations that Lammers has had, he had four hernias (“here, here, here, and here”, he explains pointing to his groin and abdomen), as well as two rotator cuff surgeries and double knee replacement in 2007, an autologous stem cell transplant in 2015, and five broken bones including two ribs, a thumb, and in his lower legs.
His surgeries and comebacks have been costly, cumulatively millions of dollars. But, to everyone who knows him, Lammers’ contributions to his school and aquatics community and students have been invaluable.
Lammers instilled into his students and athletes that their goals and dedication to school and sports can pave the way to their success. On his 2012 CIF Championship team, senior team captain Liz Silva explains, “If you believe in yourself, anything is possible. You just have to do it.”
What is most remarkable about Lammers’ teams, champions and not, is that most start swimming and playing water polo at the start of their freshman year – in an area dotted with high-powered private and public schools with 50-meter pools, and fed year after year by incoming highly trained competitive swimmers and experienced club water polo players. But Lammers starts out, literally, at Ground Zero. On his CIF championship team, none of the players on the team knew how to swim when they entered high school. They possessed no tech suits, no knowledge of water polo rules, and no ability to eggbeater or swim a lap of butterfly. As Lammers lived up to his role as an educator, first teaching how to breathe in the shallow end of the high school pool.
Senior Jazmin Hinojoza scored five goals in the championship game and was named the CIF Player of the Year. But Hinojoza could not swim or eggbeater four years previously. This is where Lammers worked his magic with the most unlikely of future aquatic stars – in the epicenter of some of the most successful aquatic programs in America.
Among the 2,400 high school students, 96.7% are Latino with 93.3% defined as socioeconomically disadvantaged. But those statistics, like Lammers’ previously malfunctioning heart, never stopped him or his passion for teaching and inspiring students.
Lammers transforms lives. “The students who came out to the swimming and water polo teams didn’t know how to swim. We had to convince them that they would not drown and would learn how to be comfortable in deep water.”
He worked water polo’s equivalent of The Miracle on Ice. Claudia Dodson, USA Water Polo’s Director of Club and Member Programs, said, “To overcome the swimming obstacle and go on to win a CIF championship with no subs is as close to a miracle as I can imagine.”
Lammers is a man of many miracles, in the classroom, pool, and with his own body. With all the new things implanted in his 70-year-old body, he keeps ticking and keeps swimming.
With the heart of a 49-year-old and the mindset of a championship coach.
© 2023 Daily News of Open Water Swimming – “to educate, enthuse, and entertain all those who venture beyond the shore“