At 3:40 in the morning on the 18th of May, Dean Jarvis slid his 52-year-old body into the Fort Sanders Health and Fitness Center swimming pool in Knoxville and began to dog paddle for what would become an 18-hour workout covering 16 miles.
After one hour in the water he told himself, "Only 17 more hours until I exorcise all my athletic demons."
If you've ever so much as played a single T-ball game or been the first person eliminated in your second-grade dodge ball tourney, you probably have at least one athletic demon that haunts you from time to time.
Maybe you missed the potential winning shot in basketball. Or struck out with the bases loaded to end a baseball game. Or dropped what would have been the winning touchdown in your sorority powder puff league.
But what if your ultimate athletic demon was beyond your control? What if you were 15 years old and had somehow managed to average 24.5 points for Meigs County High School the first 10 games of the 1984-85 basketball season on an already injured knee — only to reinjure it at Christmas time and have the doctors discover you also have bone cancer?
One day you're dreaming of improving enough from your junior to your senior year to maybe earn a scholarship to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; the next you're being told you may never play the sport again.
That's the demon that wrecked a promising athletic career for Jarvis. That's the demon, the big C, that ultimately caused his left leg to be amputated above the knee before he turned 20. That's the demon he's coexisted with, more or less, for more than 35 years, always wondering what might have been while searching for an alternate outlet to athletic success.
"I can't lie," Jarvis said this past week from his State Farm insurance office in Maryville. "Ronnie Woods was my best friend, and all we'd talked about growing up was winning a state championship for Meigs. When they got to the state tournament without me (Meigs lost in the semis to Austin East), it was extremely difficult. I had to watch Ronnie and Jason Powell live out what I'd projected for myself."
Now the principal at Meigs Middle School, Woods vividly recalls Jarvis's cancer diagnosis.
"Dean lived right behind me," Woods said. "When we were kids, as soon as we woke up we were outside playing one sport or another. That's just what you did back then. What happened to Dean was awful. They put a steel rod in his leg after he got cancer. He couldn't bend it. It was amazing he could play as well as he did. He had a pretty good baseball season in spite of that steel rod. I know one thing: He could really score in basketball."
The year after the rod was placed in his leg in an attempt to save it, Jarvis was named the baseball team's best offensive player. He later tried to play that sport at Cleveland State but admitted he learned he "couldn't hit an 88 mph pitch that moved."
But after that rod was inserted — despite what coach Mike Poe told the Cleveland Daily Banner on Dec. 29, 1985: "There's no question he'll play for us again on January 7 he'll play and he'll help us." — Jarvis never again took the basketball court for the Tigers. So after his brief college baseball stint, his athletic career appeared to be over, done in by demon cancer.
In its place, Jarvis graduated from UTC and started an insurance agency, first in Cleveland, then in Maryville. He got married. Had two sons. Divorced. Remarried. A normal life, but not for someone who desperately wanted more. And, oh, how he tried to find more, especially on the golf course, where he played in every event for handicapped golfers he could find.
"But I could never break 80," he said.
Jarvis did find some satisfaction in creating the Paralong Drive Cup with sponsorship help from State Farm. Frustrated by the restrictions another driving competition placed on those with disabilities, he started his own.
When someone who'd been denied access to the other event called him, Jarvis said, "Just come on out and we'll figure it out." His creation wound up on the Golf Channel, and though he never won it, he did hit drives of 310 yards and 299 yards on one leg.
But his weight also swelled to more than 270 pounds (he's currently at 242), putting too much pressure on his artificial limb. He decided to take up swimming to lose weight. A few laps turned into several miles. An online chat led to a recent story about his dog paddling in the Wall Street Journal.
"The writer asked me how long I was going to stay in the water," Jarvis recalled. "I said 15 hours. Somewhere about the 10-hour mark of my swim I thought I should have told her 12. But somehow I wound up making it 18."
People he hadn't heard from since high school reached out to him. His new goal is to dog paddle for 30 miles.
"I always felt like I was an athlete in a 35-year slump," Jarvis said Thursday. "But I always had hope I could turn it around."
That's one answer for why he swam 16 miles in 18 hours. It's just not the real reason. When Jarvis was going through his bone cancer treatments in Gainesville, Florida, in 1985 in an attempt to save his left leg, he met another young athlete his exact same age from Forest, Mississippi, who was also being treated for bone cancer.
Jarvis survived. William Pace did not.
"It's always haunted me," Jarvis said, his voice cracking. "Why did I live and he died? We always celebrate cancer survivors and rightly so. But I wanted people to say the name of William Pace, who didn't survive, for just one day. I want people to know William Pace was a good person who should still be here. So I swam those 18 hours for him."
Some demons can't be so easily exorcised through exercise.