Stefany Jackson, Orange Coast College swimmer, hasn’t felt naive since she puffed her first cigarette at age 13.
Just to prove it, she moved away from her Tustin home at 15 to go to school and work in New Zealand.
Before her 21st birthday, she had worked at a mountaineering store in Colorado, played nanny to a baby girl aboard a 43-foot Gulf Star in the Virgin Islands and worked as a painter and insulator in a grungy Mississippi shipyard. She’s been a waitress, a saleswoman and most recently, a Navy engineer and diver.
Stefany Jackson, naive? Don’t be ridiculous. She has survived an assault and a broken back.
And you don’t become naive.
Then again, you don’t just walk up to the coach of California’s top community college swim team at age 28 without past experience and ask to try out. Unless you’re pretty naive.
And you don’t just become one of California’s top community college swimmers six months later.
Unless you’re Stefany Jackson.
The scenario is as perplexing to Jackson as it is to her coach and teammates.
“I had always dreamed about maybe being on a swim team, but I thought I was too old and I thought (it was impossible) with my lack of background, because most people on swim teams had swam on swim teams since they were children,” she said.
“And I smoked cigarettes and made all the mistakes teen-agers make when I was younger. I never was athletic at all until I was 20. Never.”
She laughs about it now. OCC Coach Don Watson had a good laugh, too, when Jackson first inquired about joining the team.
“I just laughed and I went out and saw that her strokes were very naive ,” he said. “She didn’t look like a swimmer.”
She couldn’t even imitate one. Jackson had never seen a swim meet. But she had swum two miles daily for almost two years. She also placed first in her age group at the 1983 Maui triathlon and 1984 North Shore Challenge, a rough water swim on Oahu, where she served as a a member of the Navy Explosive Ordinance Techs diving team for three years.
She listed her accomplishments to entice Watson.
She didn’t mention, however, that she began swimming seriously to help in the recuperation of a broken back, the result of a bicycling accident in July, 1983. And Watson didn’t suspect any physical weaknesses.
“I just suspected that there was a little steel under that petty veneer on the outside, and you never really find out what anybody’s made out of until they’re tested,” he said.
So, he tested her.
Jackson joined the team in October, and had little trouble completing the daily two-mile workouts last fall.
Said Watson: "(At first,) Stefany was able to keep up relatively well, and I think she had a naive, false sense of how well she was doing.”
She acquired greater wisdom once the season began and workouts increased five-fold.
“For the first five weeks, I thought I was going to die,” she said. “It was so hard, and I would go home and something different would hurt every day.”
This was tougher than boot camp. Tougher than being the only woman diver on a team sent 70 feet into the ocean to test sonar gear for radio activity. The last time she felt such frustration, she thrust her hand through a plate-glass window.
She was 20 at the time, locked out of her Mississippi apartment with a pressing headache and a pressing date. Jackson had pleaded for hours to go home, and her date finally conceded when she started to walk in the rain.
But when she found herself stranded on her front porch, she could bear it no longer.
“I was sick, and I was sick of this guy, so I just went boom ,” she said.
It took 150 stitches to seal the wound, and two months of physical therapy to rejuvenate the severed tendons. So, Jackson swam laps for the first time in her life, a practice she intended to stop once her wrist healed.
Funny, she actually enjoyed the exercise, and began jogging as well.
“It’s not your everyday way, but circumstances have more or less led me here,” she said.
They certainly led her out of Mississippi. Three weeks before this incident, Jackson was assaulted by a co-worker.
“I was blonde and friendly and he figured because I was friendly that I wanted to be more than just friendly,” she said.
“He actually had all my clothes off and and I told him, ‘If you do what you want to do, you’re going to have to kill me because if you don’t kill me, I’ll kill you as soon as I can.’ I was furious.”
Jackson frightened him so much he let her go. She did not press charges, and left Mississippi within a month.
It was quite a change from the life style she enjoyed sailing around the Caribbean the previous year. But, she had learning experiences there, too. At 18, Jackson became surrogate mother to a 17-month-old girl.
“It turned out that (the father’s) flaky wife needed help with the child, so I moved in with her,” she said. “I think I grew up really fast. I had friends when I was younger that are my friends’ ages now.”
And they taught her a few things about the good life. Jackson spent her yachting days swimming and tanning and acquiring a new job skill in the process. She learned to scuba dive in the Virgin Islands, a sport she missed when she returned to the states five months later.
She missed it so much that she tried out for Navy Diving School in Coronado in 1982, and became the only woman to graduate in her class.
Her life looked pretty good then, particularly when she was sent to serve in Hawaii.
But, that changed a year later when a car knocked her from her bike as she rode home from work. She went to the hospital to have her swollen knee examined, but discovered she had suffered a broken back, and needed a 90-day bed rest.
That’s not all, she learned.
“I had always thought, ‘Well, if I ever get hit on my bicycle, I’d just as soon die because I don’t want to live through it,’ and I realized in the hospital that I didn’t want to die,” she said.
She also realized she wanted to attend college.
“All the time I was training, everything was oriented toward (being) physical, and when I was in the hospital, I thought, ‘This is crazy.” she said. “I’ve got to do something besides just be physical.’ ”
But first, she had to heal, and swimming was her vehicle to recuperation. Jackson entered the pool the day she left the hospital, and her daily swims gradually increased into two-mile workouts. By the time her enlistment ended last summer, she knew she wanted to compete.
Said Watson: “A person (with no experience) who hadn’t had any injuries at all has point zilch over infinity chance of doing well at a top community college team.”
OCC has been undefeated in dual meets for five years; its closest meet this season ended in a hair-raising 95-35 victory.
No wonder Watson laughed when Jackson first requested a tryout.
The rest of the team shared his amusement when Jackson got on the blocks at her first meet, an intra-squad competition held last January. Just before the gun sounded to begin the 100-meter individual medley, Jackson panicked.
“Hold it!” she said, turning to Watson. “You mean fly, back, breast, free?”
Then, what could he expect from the team’s “baby?”
For one thing, Watson never expected her to swim the 100-meter freestyle just four-tenths of a second over the state qualifying standard last month against Golden West. Jackson doesn’t even have a specialty yet.
“She’s just too young,” Watson said. “It’s like telling a 5-year-old kid that they’re going to be a baseball player. An 8-year-old kid should be exposed to baseball, swimming, piano and English.”
This is a new role for Jackson.
“I feel like now I’m doing things I didn’t do when I was younger,” she said. “Most people go to school and then get experience. I feel like I’ve had experience and now I’m finally going to school.”
Her questions are just part of the learning process.
Said Watson: “It’s humorous sometimes to hear such a naive question from a person who other wise expresses such worldly skills. So, lots of times people will just smile and nod, knowing ‘you’ve got a lot to learn about swimming, and you’ve got a lot to teach us about life.’ ”