Jimi Flowers: Coach, Character, Friend to All

July 16, 2009, 1:34 p.m. (ET)

To an elite athlete, life and sport can become so finely intertwined that it is hard to know the difference. Jimi Flowers knew the difference.

In 2005, Flowers received a phone call saying one of his former athletes on the Auburn swim team had been paralyzed.

"As a human, you just ask, 'What can you do?'" he said in a phone interview last summer. And when he visited the 26-year-old athlete in the hospital, he didn't know what to expect. It didn't matter. "You just give him a hug and see how he's doing," he said.

Flowers rarely expressed anger, but he was irked by someone on the internet support page that suggested the swimmer return to the pool only a week or two after the accident.

"The timing was terrible and inappropriate," Flowers said. "This wasn't about swimming, this was about life."

Ultimately, the athlete did return to swimming. Not because Flowers prodded, but because he knew Flowers would help.

At the time, Flowers was the managing the aquatic center at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and when life and sport reunited, he was at his best.

The athlete, Dave Denniston, had been the 1999 NCAA champion in the 200-meter breaststroke and had narrowly missed qualifying for the 2000 and 2004 Olympic teams. Flowers had been a breaststroker himself at Tulane and, like Denniston, competed at two US Olympic Trials (1980, 1984).

After collaborating with Flowers for 17 months, Denniston qualified for five events at the 2008 US Paralympics in Beijing. At the Opening Ceremony, Flowers pushed Denniston's wheelchair into the Bird's Nest in front of 80,000 cheering fans.

"We made the whole journey together," Denniston said.

This year, fate took a wrenching U-turn while Flowers was helping Denniston train for a world championship qualifier to be held in late July in Edmonton, Alberta.

In the early afternoon on Friday, July 10, Flowers and another experienced climber were descending Capitol Peak , one of Colorado's famous 14,000-foot mountains, near Aspen, when Flowers lost his footing and slid about 500 feet through snow chutes and rock bands before coming to a stop in a steep rocky section. He died from serious injuries sustained in the fall.   

The next morning, Denniston received the phone call that stunned him to the core.   

"I not only lost a mentor, coach, and friend, but someone who's always believed in me and seen the positive," Denniston said.

The news spread quickly to the pool at the USA Swimming National Championships in Indianapolis. Three-time Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines who swam for Auburn while Flowers competed for Tulane, said, "It was hard to take. Jimi had so much life and energy, and so much to give."

Gaines tried to cope by taking a swim. When he walked onto the pool deck, he saw that four other former coaches, teammates, and friends of Flowers had the same idea. "Nobody could do or say anything; we sat dazed," Gaines said. Finally, one of them said, "Let's swim one for Jimi."

Over the past 25 years, Flowers had influenced or met hundreds - perhaps thousands - of swimmers. To a person, those who knew him said his upbeat attitude was not only unwavering, but contagious. 

"Everything he did - big or small - was exciting for him," said Melissa Stockwell, a 2008 Paralympic swimmer who lost her left leg above the knee while serving in the Army in Iraq.

He had so little ego, he would not even begrudge someone who had just taken his job.

In 1993, USA Swimming released Flowers as the national team coordinator, and Mike Unger was called to replace him.

Unger arrived in Colorado without a place to stay, and after a few nights in a hotel, his boss Dennis Pursley offered him his floor. 

"I thought about it," Unger said, "but Dennis had four young kids under the age of 10 so I said, 'Nah.' Then he said, 'Try Jimi,' so I called Casa Flowers and Jimi said, 'Of course.'

"Here Jimi had just lost his job, and every morning for 2½ weeks, I would wake up at his house, put on my little tie, get my little briefcase, and go to his job, and my girlfriend would stay and have coffee and chat with him," said Unger, who is now the Assistant Executive Director of USA Swimming. "He always had a smile."

As kind as Flowers was to his athletes and colleagues, he was even more committed to his family.

"It was obvious from the moment I met him, that he was a family man," Stockwell said.  "He said, 'I love you guys [the athletes] but my phone is right here and if they need me, I go to them. He taught us that family came first."

When he was assistant swim coach under Dave Marsh at Auburn and the school was beginning its string of NCAA championship titles, Marsh said Flowers left partly because he and his wife, Sue, wanted to start a family and her allergies were exacerbated in the south. "Instead of moving forward, he would sacrifice for others," Marsh said.

Flowers never pushed his athletes to continue their careers for his own glory.

Stockwell had yet to decide whether to continue competing through 2012. "My husband is in medical school and I want to start a family, and he fully understood that," she said. "He never swayed me either way."

But most obvious to all, Flowers was a character.

This June, while in Germany for an International Paralympic Committee (IPC) conference, the 14-time Paralympic gold medalist Erin Popovich said Flowers had Googled to find all the Starbucks in Berlin.  "He always said he had one cup of coffee a day, but technically, it was one pot of coffee. He'd stand on the pool deck with a 42 or 46 oz cup."

Flowers was also "the master of the deck slide," Denniston said. "In practice, coaches walk up and down the length of the pool pretty fast and it's always slippery. Jimi would take the most worn-out shoes he could find, put his arms out like he was surfing, slide to the end, and stop the clock."

Flowers was also an obvious product of the 1970s.  He loved rock and roll, so it was no coincidence that he spelled his name Jimi, like his fellow leftie, Hendrix. "He'd make circles over the i's instead of dots and we gave him a hard time about it," Marsh said, adding, "He also loved his hair. He had long hair and a full moustache while we were swimming. He said 'Peace' for 'hi' and 'bye;' he also had a big furry, 25-pound mutt cat named Peace. Maybe the saddest I'd ever seen Jimi was when that cat died."

Otherwise, Flowers was gregarious.

"He was the first guy people would see at the pool [at the Training Center] and he always had a hug or a 'Yo' for everyone," Denniston said.

"I think [his extroverted nature] came from dad," said Jimi's older brother, Ed.  "Dad could go to the store in any town, and come home with three news best friends. Jimi was the same way."  

James Flowers was born on August 1, 1961, in Cleveland, Tenn., in the southeastern part of the state. His father, Charles, was an elementary school principal, and his mother, Sibyl, taught science.

In the summers, his father worked as a lifeguard and although Charles had taught Ed to swim at a lake by jumping off a dock into his arms, when Jimi was 8, their parents decided to get their two boys "some real swimming lessons."

"I wasn't happy," Ed said. "We had to go to the Y and go through that whole progression: minnows, toads, sharks. When it was over, I thought, 'Thank God,' but Jimi just ran with it.

"Jimi had some talent," Ed said. "He wasn't Michael Phelps, but he took everything that he had, and turned it into something incredible."

Jimi also played Little League but he was more enamored of swimming. He had the famous 1972 Mark Spitz poster on his wall and wrote a story in grammar school about wanting to go to the Olympics and becoming a swim coach.

Flowers also found an early mentor through swimming, a Vietnam veteran named Sam who ran the Cleveland Aqua Tigers.

"I don't know what he saw in Jimi," Ed said. "His first meet as a kid was horrible; he cried. But Sam loved kids and through Sam's tutelage and Jimi's hard work, Jimi ended up with a full ride to Tulane."

At Tulane, Flowers was a four-time conference champion in the 200m breaststroke. He was named team captain as a junior and senior, and competed at three NCAA championships.  As a senior in 1983, he was named the "Athlete of the Year" for the entire school and, most recently, was under serious consideration for the class of 2009 in the Tulane Athletics Hall of Fame.

He is survived by his wife of 13 years, Sue; son Sam, 9; daughter Lauren, 4; brother Ed; mother Sibyl, and two nieces. His father, Charles, died in 2006.

A memorial service is scheduled for 2:00 p.m. (Mountain) on Thursday, July 16, at Woodmen Valley Chapel's Rockrimmon campus, 290 East Woodmen Road. 

In lieu of flowers and gifts, the family encourages donations be made to the Sam & Lauren Flowers Family Fund c/o Chase Bank; 60 E. Pikes Peak; Colorado Springs, CO 80903; Account number: 637564863