It was a bet decades in the making.
In California in the mid-1990s, Hannah Sasser, a talented swimmer and troubled teenager, confided in her former coach during a swim meet that, the way her life was going, she didn’t think she’d make it to see her 30th birthday.
Brian Clark, who had coached Hannah before her recent move to Sacramento, disagreed.
So, during the meet, amid splashing swimmers and wafts of chlorine, they scribbled down a bet.
When Hannah turned 30, which Brian knew she would, she had to take him to a dinner of his choice. If she didn’t make it, she added, he had to bring flowers to her grave every year for a decade.
“I was the paper-perfect child. All AP classes, near-4.0 GPA, became an All-American swimmer,” said Hannah, who later moved to Austin from California. “Off paper, in my free time, I was a very different child.”
Last month, Hannah, Brian and Brian’s wife, Haley Cope Clark, an Olympic silver medalist and longtime friend and former teammate of Hannah’s, reunited at Vince Young Steakhouse to make good on the bet and to recount the road that got them there.
The first thing to know, said Brian, who had a 1-800 number in the 1990s so his swimmers could reach him, is that Hannah holds the record for the longest call of his life, at 400-plus minutes.
“I got in a lot of trouble that evening, and I was too afraid to call my dad to pick me up,” Hannah recalled. “My parents were very grateful to have an adult in my life that I actually listened to and who could rationalize with me a little bit.”
For Hannah, the decade following the bet was fraught with lows, including the death of her father.
“It wasn’t a quick turnaround,” said Brian, 56.
Eventually, though, things started to change for Hannah, now 37.
She had a daughter, Irene, whom she is raising as a single mom. She started teaching special education. And she became a swim coach.
“People don’t actually change everything very often and turn out to be someone you’re proud of,” Haley Clark said. “Before, you were just hoping that no one took advantage of her or hurt her. Now, it’s not like that. She’s amazing and powerful, and she’s an awesome parent, and she’s good at her job, and she’s responsible, and she gives back to the community. She’s everything you would want in a human being.”
During dinner, there were lots of laughs and some tears, too, as Hannah admitted how grateful she was that she lost the bet.
“There was a bottom somewhere I hit a couple of times,” Hannah said.
“A lot of people may come up from the bottom,” Brian replied, “but they don’t come up as far (as you did).”
The weekend of his visit, Brian also spent time on the pool deck with Hannah, but this time, instead of giving her a pep talk, he watched as she gave her own pep talks to her swimmers at Lost Creek Aquatics.
“It comes full circle,” Brian said.
Hannah knows she owes it, in part, to the bet all those years ago and the coach who believed in her even when she couldn’t believe in herself.
“It’s not just about coaching swimming. You coach life. You teach them how to be good people and have high character and do all the things they should do, but through swimming,” Hannah said. “I want to be a Brian 2.0. I want to make a difference.”
CALLING ALL COACHES
Do you have a coach who changed your life? Want to share your story? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.