Remembering Michael Lohberg

Two summers ago, during a break in the action at the world swimming championships in Rome, Michael Lohberg and I found a quiet little trattoria on the east bank of the Tiber River, just across from the Castel Sant' Angelo. We had a lovely lunch. The antipasti was excellent. So was the spaghetti carbonara. And the tiramisu, too.

Both of us knew enough about what was really going on to savor the moment. He was desperately ill. Neither of us knew how much time he had left.

Michael had been diagnosed with a rare blood disorder called aplastic anemia. The disorder causes the bone marrow to shut down -- that is, the factory that makes blood cells within the body stops making them. He was alive solely because of regular transfusions of blood and platelets.

It is testament to Michael's resolve and zest for life that he hung on for a good long while. But now he is gone. He died last week, just 61.

His passing is beyond sad. It is heartbreaking.

Not Michael's courage in fighting the fight. That was amazing.

It's just so sad because Michael Lohberg was one of the most genuinely decent people you would ever want to meet.

Michael was, in recent years, swim star Dara Torres' coach. He came to the United States in the early 1990s, from Germany, and quickly became a fixture in the South Florida swim scene.

Two years ago, he was inducted into the Broward County Hall Sports Hall of Fame.

Michael was a great coach at the elite level -- he coached at six Olympic Games. His swimmers qualified for every Games from 1984 through 2008. They held national records in places as diverse as Germany, Kazakhstan and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

He was a great coach at the local level, too.

He was, physically, a big man. At first he could come off as all gruff. But he was really all teddy-bear. Maybe that's why hundreds and hundreds of people turned out for the post-funeral reception at (where else?) the pool, the Coral Springs Aquatic Complex.

"He had such an ability to communicate, whether you were 15 or 44 years old," Dara was saying on the telephone.

So true.

I loved hanging out with Michael in person at meets, or following him with up on the phone or by email. He had a real way with words.

One story:

At the 2008 Games, Dara finished second in the 50-meter freestyle. A year later, essentially racing on one leg and with limited training, she somehow gutted it out and made it to the 50 finals in Rome. She finished eighth -- that is, last in the race.

No matter -- she had made it to the finals. She was, at age 42, still one of the eight best in the world.

"She deserves all the respect in the world for stepping up against the odds," Michael said then, adding, "With basically 20 percent of training September through April, two months of training, no leg work … I think to expect anything else is unrealistic and somewhat stupid."


Last September, Dara announced she was planning to launch a try for the London Games. I suggested -- using this reference from Michael -- that  pretty much anything Olympic was more interesting with Dara around: "The movie is more attractive when Julia Roberts is in it."

If Dara qualifies for London -- by then she'll be 45 -- perhaps enough time will have passed so that any racing she does there can serve as a tribute to Michael.

Bruno Darzi and Chris Jackson, who had helped Michael get her ready for Beijing and 2008, are still on board, so there's continuity.

Right now, though, no one's thinking much about any of that.

Right now, it's all just so raw. Right now, every little thing feels like heartbreak.

At practice these past couple days, Dara said, she does a flip-turn and sees the flags at half-mast -- and here come the tears.

"This whole week there hasn't been a time at practice when I haven't been crying," she said.

"I know it's going to take a while," she said. "Everything in my swimming world is a reminder. It's really tough right now."

For her and for all of us who knew, and appreciated, Michael Lohberg, a good and decent man.