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A tribute to a legend: Rogers "Tiger" Holmes

A swimmer, an innovator, a provider, a visionary, Rogers "Tiger" Holmes, at 94, is everything that is positive about swimming, a man who oozes passion toward a sport that has supplied him with so much. How do we even begin to describe this man, an individual who has maxed out every day of his life? You could say he's a diehard swimmer, dedicated to his sport on countless levels. But that description would be an unfair tag, particularly for a man who has contributed so much to the aquatic world, whether it be on a grass-roots basis or in the Masters world.

Yes, he's a swimmer, and a darn good one at that. He's also an innovator and a provider. He's a visionary, never content to settle for the status quo. Quite simply, Rogers "Tiger" Holmes is everything that is positive about swimming, a man who oozes passion toward a sport that has supplied him with so much. Holmes' movement through the water slowed with every passing day. Yet, as the clock ticked a little longer, Holmes' legend grew. Such is his impact, an influence that has stretched through Florida, across the United States, and around the world.

The Tiger still growls.

Who Is the Tiger?
Call him a go-getter, a self-made individual or a renaissance man. Take your pick. Each title applies to Tiger Holmes. Really, his resum‚ of life begs this question: What hasn't he done? Well, not too much. After all, we're talking about a man who has killed a crocodile in Africa. A man who has saved a life. A man who has provided for young and old. Oh yeah, he's also achieved significant success in the pool.

Growing up with meager means in Jacksonville, Fla., Holmes entered the University of Florida in the early 1940s, sparking a lifelong love for the Gators. In 1942, he took home a Southeastern Conference championship in the 50 yard freestyle. By the time he graduated from the school in 1948, he had served as swim team captain and class president.

In between his conference-title winning effort and his graduation, Holmes enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps. After graduation, another stint of military service was added, as Holmes joined the U.S. Air Force. When he retired permanently from military service, Holmes was a lieutenant colonel in the Florida Air National Guard and the U.S. Air Force National Guard.

A member of the University of Florida Hall of Fame and its Athletic Hall of Fame, Holmes has been a constant contributor to his alma mater, where he has enjoyed terms as president of both the Letterman Club and Gator Boosters. Tiger bleeds Orange and Blue. "I was poor, and there were no scholarships in those days," Holmes said. "It meant so much to get into that school. The University of Florida means so much because of what it did for me. It's been great to be involved and wrapped up in everything."

While Holmes, a self-proclaimed utility swimmer, enjoyed success in the pool as a collegiate athlete, his involvement in swimming was interrupted by a 35-plus-year layoff from the competitive aspect of the sport. In 1954, with one truck and himself as the driver, Tiger founded Holmes Lumber Company. In time, his persistence generated a multi-site company that included 450 employees and was recognized as one of the premier lumber companies in the Southeastern United States.

While attending to his company, Holmes remained away from the pool until he returned to the water in 1982 for therapy following heart surgery. In the time since that return, Holmes has redefined Masters Swimming, created numerous opportunities for underprivileged children and has been a leading influence on the International Swimming Hall of Fame, where he served as chairman of its board of directors from 1996-98.

As a Masters swimmer, Holmes captured world titles in the 50 meter butterfly in 1990, 1992 and 1994 and boasts 14 USMS national titles. Most important, he has been rewarded by the camaraderie consistently evident in Masters action. He's done a little of everything. "I've always loved the sport," he said. "When I had my heart problem, the doctor told me I needed to exercise, and swimming was the best thing. You meet so many wonderful people in this sport. One of the best feelings is the exhilaration you get from completing a workout. Swimming has given so much to me. I've always just wanted to give back to the sport."

Changing the Masters Scene
Thanks to an innovative idea by Holmes, Masters swimming scaled new heights in 1988, during the World Championships in Brisbane, Australia. Having founded the Holmes LumberJax, a Masters program, Tiger took 170 athletes to the Land of Oz, providing an opportunity for many to compete outside of the United States.

Through what ultimately equated to an open invitation, Holmes put together a Super Team, a conglomeration of swimmers that stole the show in Brisbane, thanks to countless relay records and through the team's sheer size and tight-knit relationships. Although some of the swimmers paid for their own trips to Australia, Holmes covered the expenses, with the help of fund-raisers, of those individuals who could not afford the venture to the Southern Hemisphere. Holmes, too, outfitted the squad with uniforms. To this day, he says, team members sport the colors of the LumberJax.

"When we started, there were just a few of us," Holmes said. "But we were having so much fun and we were so enthusiastic, the numbers kept climbing. All of a sudden, there were 28 of us, then 58, then 128. We probably violated some of the principles of Masters swimming, but we wanted to help those who wanted to go and needed help."

In Brisbane, the LumberJax resided in a condominium setting and settled under a circus-size tent during the competition, where it wasn't unusual for the team to enter five or six relays in a single age group. When the competition was over, Holmes had written a chapter in Masters swimming never before imagined. Simultaneously, Holmes had the opportunity to share a unique experience with his daughter, Mary Roebuck, a former standout at Auburn University who has won her share of world titles at the Masters level. All in all, the trip was a special time.

"Swimming has always been a big part of his life," Roebuck said. "My dad is so charismatic, and he loves people. He's kept in touch with so many of the people he's met during the years, even the ones he swam against in college. It's so neat to see him excited and be nervous before a race while he's talking with someone he swam against so many years ago.

"When he got back into the sport, it was a resurgence in his life. It's what keeps him alive and healthy. I remember that trip (to Brisbane) so well. He saw a chance to bring people together in a relay, which is one of the best parts of the sport. For people swimming on their own, they didn't get a chance at relays. I know there were people who didn't like what he was doing. But he wasn't about trying to win. He wanted to give opportunities. It was such a great trip."

The Vision
For years, beginning with the trip to Brisbane, Holmes has attempted to bring to light Jacksonville's need for an indoor swimming facility and the opportunities it would provide for young children, particularly the underprivileged, to learn to swim. Following his return from Australia, Holmes and 56 of his Masters counterparts became certified instructors. In a matter of three years, Holmes and his group had taught 15,000 kids how to swim in Holmes' "Every Child A Swimmer" program. It was an experience that not only sparked interest in the sport, but also supplied a background of safety.

The kids came to Holmes and his associates in droves, with many busloads arriving from the inner city. Some had no suits, just cutoff pants. Goggles? No way. Still, the program was a vast success, as the youth of America moved through teaching stations, educated on the basics of the different strokes. "Tiger is a magnificent and loving man," said Dr. Sam Freas, the president of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. "I got to be a fan of Tiger's because he's a true fan of swimming. He's been remarkable in so many areas, Masters, his love of aquatic sports and his passion for teaching kids. Giving kids the opportunity to enjoy what he has is Tiger's credo."

Although an indoor facility has yet to materialize in Jacksonville, Holmes feels like he's inching closer to his goal. Studies have illustrated the benefits of an indoor facility, which would provide a healthful resource for the community. Tiger, not surprisingly, is willing to contribute heavily toward the project. After all, this is a man who has donated significant sums of money to the University of Florida and the Swimming Hall of Fame. In his typically humble fashion, the Southern gentleman won't divulge how much.

"One of the things I live for is that indoor facility," Holmes said. "We're the only city our size without one. It would do so much for the kids. I really think it's going to happen. That's my dream." Another dream was realized when the Rogers "Tiger" Holmes Swimming Endowment was established this past September at the University of Florida.

The idea for the scholarship to honor Holmes was proposed at the 2003 Swimming Alumni Weekend banquet by former University of Florida great and Olympian, Mary (Wayte) Bradburne, and UF's Splash Club president, Jeff Smith. The goal was to complete the endowment by Sept. 24, 2004, the date of the 2004 swimming alumni banquet. By the end of the three-hour dinner and ceremony, the goal was achieved and the endowment established.

This was all made possible by generous contributions from numerous former Orange and Blue swimmers and friends of the Florida swimming and diving program. Approximately $50,000 was raised in just over a year. The endowment will not only honor a great member of the University of Florida family, but also provide a scholarship for current and future generations of Gator swimmers and divers.

Adventure Tales
Has Tiger Holmes ever lived a dull moment? Considering his entrepreneurial mindset and his love for the water, that answer is quite clear. Tiger, too, is an adventurer, in every sense of the word. Two stories illustrate his push-the-limit ways. A friend of Hugh Culverhouse, the former owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Holmes and his pal went fishing in the late 1980s where the Rio Colorado River meets the Caribbean Sea in Costa Rica. Encountering choppy waters, Culverhouse was tossed overboard when a sizable wave rocked the boat on which they were traveling.

So, without a thought, Holmes hopped in the water, clad in all his fishing gear. Fighting the current and weighted down, Holmes got hold of Culverhouse's clothing and prevented his friend from drowning. The only problem was that the current pulled the pair 75 to 100 yards from the boat, forcing Holmes and Culverhouse to stay afloat until their guide could move the vessel in their direction. Eventually, Holmes pulled Culverhouse back onto the boat and helped his friend regain his breath. Minutes later, the two returned to fishing. "I guess it was a good thing that I was in good shape from swimming," Holmes said.

Aside from his boating venture, Holmes also counts a slain crocodile on his list of accomplishments. In Africa, he used a calling device to simulate the sound of a wounded goat. Within minutes, a 16-foot crocodile was closing in on Holmes and his companions. Today, that crocodile is mounted in Holmes' beach condo. Get the picture?

A Magnificent Man
Rogers "Tiger" Holmes is the definition of generosity, always seeking a way to provide for everyone but himself. He has contributed financially to the University of Florida and the International Swimming Hall of Fame with a passion. He has provided opportunities for kids. He has given his energy to the world of Masters swimming. He is a true renaissance man and a friend of swimming. Undoubtedly, the world could use more individuals like the Tiger.