John Ogden, the aquatics director for the North Shore YMCA, helps coach young swimmers during swim classes at the Sterling Center in Beverly on a recent evening. Ogden came to the YMCA less than a year ago and is a recovering alcoholic. His coaching work at the YMCA has helped keep him dry and saved his life.

The little old man sitting in the corner of the bar wearing a beat-up Dallas Cowboys cap and the stench of a hard day’s work was an unlikely source of inspiration for a rock-bottom alcoholic.

John Ogden, then in his mid-30s, thought he had chosen liquor over life when he ignored his doctor’s year-and-a-half death sentence 12 months earlier. But Ogden never backed down from a challenge — and that’s exactly what that tiny, anonymous man in the ratty hat provided 17 years ago in a dark mill bar in upstate New York.

A $100 wager — which neither man ever collected — was enough to get Ogden’s life back on track. It’s a track that led him from his hometown of Glens Falls, N.Y., where he was a part-time, volunteer YMCA swim instructor, to Beverly, where he is the new aquatics director of the North Shore

YMCA — and one of the country’s most respected YMCA swim coaches.

Ogden has battled demons and hardships nearly all his life and says the YMCA helped him recover from both alcoholism and cancer.

“Back when I was in my 30s, my goal was to be a millionaire by the time I was 40. Then I stopped driving for it, and my energy went in a different direction,” Ogden said.

“The third day of work at the Y, I knew I was going to be a good coach. I couldn’t wait to get out of my regular job to get there.”

That attitude has continued for Ogden in his new post at the North Shore Y. His enthusiasm for the future and his honesty about the past were major factors in Chris Lovasco’s decision to hire him.

“He was just as open with us in the interview (about his past) as he is with his swimmers and their parents. We knew he battled cancer because he had just been through it, but as far as alcoholism, everyone who knows him knows his past,” said Lovasco, who is the regional executive director at the YMCA of the North Shore.

“He’s a strong individual and wants other people to know you can overcome setbacks.”

‘Very good at drinking’

Ogden grew up playing sports and always felt basketball was his athletic ticket. By the time he had reached college, however, he stood only 5 feet 91/2 inches and had average quickness. He was the last cut on the St. Bonaventure walk-on freshman basketball team and sensed there would be a hole to fill in his life.

Later that year, after some prodding from friends, Ogden entered an intramural swim competition and caught the eye of the Bonnies’ swim coach, who happened to be the director of the physical education department. The coach pulled Ogden aside and asked him to go out for the swim team as a sophomore. A fellow swimmer was assigned to Ogden to help him learn the proper breathing techniques, and he was assigned workouts to tackle over the summer.

“I latched onto it, being a type-A personality,” Ogden said. “I’d go to the local Y and watch the age group team, and I was nowhere near them. I would go back to the pool when no one would see me and swim 2,000 yards a day. I thought I was King Kong.

“Then in our first practice we went almost 7,000 yards — and I thought I was in a washing machine.”

Ogden tried to quit after that first day, but the coach asked him for one more practice. Then the team captain cornered Ogden and told him he was an embarrassment to the team. That was all the motivation Ogden needed.

“He was being rude — and I’m a stubborn guy,” Ogden said. “That just pumped me up.”

Ogden not only stuck with swimming, he began putting in extra time, sneaking into the pool after hours to get in additional workouts.

His first 500 freestyle time was 7:53. Two years later, he was well under five minutes, and he went on to set the school record in the mile as a senior.

In addition to swimming, Ogden was all set for life in the real world. He was engaged to his girlfriend and already had a handshake promise for his “dream job” — a high school physical education teacher and swim coach.

“College was wonderful,” Ogden said. “The only problem was that it taught me how to drink. I was very good at drinking.”

Downward spiral

Ogden graduated from St. Bonaventure as a physical education major with all his ducks in a row. But things went south quickly.

It was 1975, and the job he was promised was suddenly swept away, instead given to a soldier who had come back from Vietnam. It was the beginning of a downward spiral that lasted well into his 30s.

“How could I argue with that?” Ogden said about his job being given to a Vietnam vet. “Now, here I am after graduating with no job. I still have the girlfriend, but that didn’t last much longer. Really, I had zero.”

Ogden appeared to land on his feet by settling into a job in sales, where he sold kitchen design products to contractors. He became a talented salesman, but the hours he kept made it very easy for his demons to break through the surface.

Slurping down a few beers during lunch or at a work site was a normal occurrence for Ogden, and it quickly began dominating his week. The practice expanded from one or two days a week to an everyday staple.

Ogden maintained a high level of functioning despite being drunk. He was still good at his job, but drinking and work began to wear on his personal life.

“I’d have vodka and OJ in the morning, beer at lunch, and Jack Daniel’s at night,” Ogden said.

His first marriage didn’t last, and he later remarried after meeting another woman in a bar, but that marriage was destined to fail, too.

“I made enough money at a high commission, so then I’d float. My interpersonal skill wasn’t that high because I was doing business with big companies,” Ogden said. “I partied my brains out. I’d wear a beeper and go to the pay phone in a bar and talk business. It was catching up to me in my early 30s, and I didn’t care.”

The carbohydrates in beer enabled Ogden to limit his food intake to two to three meals a week. Eventually, he began suffering dizzy spells. When he was 34, he suffered a dizzy spell that sent him to the emergency room. From there, he was sent to the psychiatric ward.

“They’d say, ‘Do you realize you have a problem with drinking?” Ogden remembered. “I’d say, ‘Yup. Can I go now?’ Then I’d go to the bar.”

That was when his doctor told him that if he continued to drink, he would live only another 11/2 years.

“I knew I was an alcoholic,” Ogden said, “but I didn’t care.”

Guardian angel

Just about a year later, Ogden was sitting at his favorite watering hole waiting for his girlfriend to pick him up after another long day of drinking. As he meandered down the bar on his way out, he overheard the little old man sitting at the end of the bar saying that the drink in front of him would be his last.

“I’m going, ‘Yeah, right.’ He said, ‘I’ll bet you.” Ogden recalled. “We bet 100 bucks, I grabbed the bartender, Mike, and said, ‘This is my last drink and that’s his.’ He marked it down, and we shook hands and made a big deal of it.

“The next morning I woke up, looked in the mirror and figured I had my excuse to try.”

Instead of enrolling in Alcoholics Anonymous or another rehabilitation program, Ogden decided to drop alcohol cold turkey. He quit his job, locked himself in his apartment for three weeks, and lived on water and Gatorade.

Everything you see on TV or in the movies about detox, Ogden actually lived through — the cold sweats, the vomiting, the uncontrollable shaking. Ogden didn’t even begin to feel physically better for weeks.

“Even after the first day, no matter how bad I felt, for whatever reason something was telling me I was going in the right direction,” Ogden said. “The same thing that made me a really good drinker was the same thing that helped me quit.”

Ogden began testing his resolve by going into bars and not drinking. He found out the hard way that people he thought were friends were only buddies during their drinking days.

He also went back to collect on a bet. But he never saw that old man again.

“My family calls him my guardian angel,” Ogden said. “As stupid as it was, it got me to quit.”

Death of a salesman, birth of a swim coach

Ogden got sober but was left without a job. He spotted an ad in the local newspaper that the YMCA was looking for a part-time swim coach. With a degree in physical education and the pedigree of a college swimmer, Ogden figured there was no reason not to try.

Glen Falls YMCA swim coach Doug Grossman had too many kids to handle on his own and was simply looking for another body, a baby sitter, really.

The space Grossman was trying to fill was two hours a night, two days a week, at $3 an hour. Ogden not only wanted the job, he wanted to work every night.

“He said that it wasn’t in the budget, that they couldn’t afford to pay me for that,” said Ogden, who met his wife, Sally, after getting sober. “I said I’d do it for free every other night and get paid for two. That started my learning curve back up.”

Ogden got back into a day job of cabinet sales, but a year later, in 1991, Grossman left to take a job in Holyoke. Ogden was given the head coaching job for $4,000 a year.

Four years ago, the job expanded again. This time the Y needed a full-time aquatics director. Ogden gave up his day job and came aboard full time.

“When I walked onto the pool deck for the first meet, I knew that’s what I was put on Earth to do,” Ogden said. “It was like coming home.”

No regrets

Just when Ogden had turned his life around, he was dealt another setback.

A year-and-a-half ago Ogden, whose Glens Falls swim team was at the time set to venture to Beverly’s own Sterling Center for a swim meet, was diagnosed with colon cancer.

It’s difficult for Ogden to determine which hurt more: undergoing cancer surgery or being forced to miss the swim meet in Beverly. At the time, he had no idea he would cross paths with the North Shore YMCA later.

Right around the same time as the surgery (which was a success), Kevin Tyrrell, the aquatics director at the North Shore YMCA, gave notice that he’d be leaving. Ogden, who’d gotten to know Tyrrell at the nationals over the years, agreed to help find a replacement.

Little did he know the North Shore YMCA was targeting Ogden for the job all along.

“John wasn’t a candidate initially because he had other commitments and had some medical issues, but he was always a name that we considered from the beginning,” Lovasco said. “He was the No. 1 choice that Kevin Tyrell gave us. Kevin had met him over the course of the years at nationals, and he felt John was a natural fit for where this team was going.

“During the interview process, we gave him another call to see if anything had changed, and at that time he said he was very interested in a career move. Swim coaching is seven days a week year-round — and we have to force him to take days off.”

After all he had endured, Ogden forced himself to look seriously at the possibility of moving from Glens Falls to the North Shore.

“It was one of those times after having surgery where you start thinking about life,” Ogden said. “You come close to knowing you are going to die ... so you want to make sure you have no regrets. My wife and I sat down, and she was behind me.”

The trip to Beverly for the final interview was the clincher.

“John was so loyal to Glens Falls because he built it up. It was hard to leave, but I knew he wanted to,” Sally Ogden said.

“Cancer put a scare into both of us, and it showed that time is short and you have to take advantage of things as they come. Once we came down and met with Chris Lovasco and some of the swim parents, I think he knew it. On the way home, we talked about it and wanted it to happen.”

In the end, Ogden couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work at one of the best YMCA facilities in the United States — and home to the largest swim team in the country.

His coaching goals have remained the same. He hopes to continue teaching the sport to newcomers, driving the talent level up in the program and pushing the elite swimmers to the top.

Ogden still has a hard time sitting in a quiet room without thinking the walls are closing in on him, and he’s still paying off the debts he created as an alcoholic more than 17 years ago. But he still enjoys coaching and continues to love the life he has created after pulling himself off death’s doorstep.

“When I got cancer, my wife was very nervous, and she asked me, ‘How come you’re so calm?’” Ogden said. “I said, ‘Think about how lucky I’ve been. From 1989 to 2005, I’ve had a great life. I’ve done something worthwhile.’

“If I had died when I was 35, it would have been (worth) zero. From that moment on, April 25, 1989, I started making a contribution. If I died tomorrow, I’d die a happy man.”

Ogden’s Long Path to the North Shore

r Graduated from St. Bonaventure in 1975 with a physical education degree

r Began coaching on a part-time basis at the Glens Falls (N.Y.) YMCA in 1989

r Took over full-time in 1991

r Led Glens Falls YMCA to 14th-place finish at nationals

r Became aquatics director for the North Shore YMCA in 2006

r Coached the North Shore Sharks to their best performance at Summer Nationals with a fifth-place finish

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