By the Way

My daughter had given up. Then a girl she didn’t know tapped her on her shoulder.

Competing swimmer goes extra laps to help a stranger

Harrison Central swimmer Shelva Border swam four extra laps to encourage exhausted Biloxi swimmer Shelby Fitzhugh to finish her 500-yard event at the Biloxi Natatorium.
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Harrison Central swimmer Shelva Border swam four extra laps to encourage exhausted Biloxi swimmer Shelby Fitzhugh to finish her 500-yard event at the Biloxi Natatorium.

My daughter, Shelby, said she had one thought when she realized her coaches had assigned her to compete in the 500-yard freestyle: There must be some mistake.

Shelby, 13, an eighth-grader, is in her first year on the Biloxi High School swim team. While she has competed with swim leagues during a few summers, the Wednesday meet at the Biloxi Natatorium was only the third of her “professional” career.

She swam honorably for the first 16 laps, even though she was slower than some of the others and she had stopped at least once. With four laps to go — 100 yards — she shook her head “no” repeatedly to one of her coaches, who was doing all she could to get Shelby to take another lap. Shelby’s sisters, father, teammates and many others lining the pool were screaming encouragement for her to continue. To finish. Forget the clock. Just finish.

She continued to shake her head “no.” I could see her face was red and she was struggling.

And just when I thought she was going to pull herself out of the pool (with my heart in my throat), the swimmer in the next lane tapped Shelby on the shoulder.

Shelby turned toward the girl, competitor Shelva Border, who had already finished her race. Shelva said, “I’ll finish your last 100 with you.”

“Thank you,” Shelby told Shelva. And then Shelby said she “just went back under to swim.”

Shelby said she swam that last 100 with tears in her eyes, clogging up her goggles. She wasn’t the only one crying.

Shelby finished — thanks to the help of someone who until that moment was a stranger.

Shelva, 16, is a sophomore at Harrison Central High School. She is on the swim team partly to help her condition for softball. She has been on the swim team for three years, and she is a member of the school’s championship softball team.

Her mother, Karen Gac, and her grandmother were on the sidelines to see Shelva’s incredible act of kindness. Gac said she didn’t realize what was going on at first but when she did, she was able to grab her phone to capture a few “mommy moments” in video.

“She loves to help, she’s always on the sideline cheering others on,” Gac said of her daughter. “She always likes to bring people with her. ... Tell your daughter to keep up the good work.”

Shelva, I found out after a few phone calls Wednesday night, is known for being “the sweetest.”

What I didn’t know until later Wednesday night was, sadly, that Shelva’s father, Chief Petty Officer Raymond Border, 31, died in October 2011 while serving in eastern Afghanistan when an improvised explosive devise detonated as he was inspecting a convoy route. Shelva was 10.

The outpouring of support in South Mississippi to Shelva’s family was tremendous. Thousands of fellow Seabees who served with Border in Gulfport, Iraq and Afghanistan, lined both sides of the quarter-mile route as his family passed on the way to a memorial service.

While I hesitate to draw a parallel between the community showing support for a grieving family and that of a swimmer helping another swimmer, I can’t thank Shelva enough for the support and compassion she showed Shelby.

“If it was me,” Shelva said, “I would want someone to help me. I don’t like to see people give up. I knew she could do it. Sometimes people just need a little help. And that’s OK.”

Sharon Fitzhugh: 228-896-0523, @SFitz5

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