Enough tragedy and triumph has been packed into Joe Tidwell’s 17 years to last most people a lifetime.
His father left the family when Tidwell was 10 months old. He was 8 years old when his uncle, Leo Cashatt, who had become Tidwell’s mentor, was murdered during a coin shop robbery.
But Tidwell’s passion for swimming, strong single-parent upbringing and an empathetic Big Brother have helped him succeed beyond imagination.
Tidwell, a senior at University High School, is a nationally ranked junior swimmer who recently received a scholarship to compete at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where he will major in hotel-restaurant management.
Last March, he finished eighth in the Speedo Junior National Championships in the 200 meter breaststroke and is approaching senior national qualifying times in both the 100 breaststroke and 400 individual medley.
Competing in as many as 14 races during area meets every two weeks of the season, he has for several years been a top point-getter for the Spokane Area Swimming team.
“In all the years I’ve coached from 8-U on up he’s been winning high point awards,” said Spokane Area Swimming coach Todd Marsh. “We do have a number of equally talented kids who are seniors in high school. Joe is probably the most talented.”
His story, however, goes beyond competitive success. It is an instance where swimming overcame sorrow.
Tidwell said he never really missed not having a father. But his uncle’s death was devastating.
“I never really knew my dad and didn’t know any other way,” he said. “We (Tidwell and his uncle Leo) spent a lot of time together.”
Leo Cashatt was 45 when he was found dead behind the counter of Cashatt Coins, in Lincoln Heights, by his wife, the victim of a shooting and robbery July 14, 1987.
“Joe was supposed to spend the afternoon with him,” said his mother, Camille Cashatt, for 22 years a vocal and orchestra teacher in Central Valley district schools. “Leo called the day before and said he had things to do and would have to reschedule. Joe would have been in the store and probably been murdered, too.”
Leo’s daughter swam competitively and he encouraged Joe to try.
Tidwell had never passed any of the swimming classes he took as a youngster at the YMCA. Swimming initially with the Super Nova team at Gonzaga University changed all that.
Super Nova coach Jerry White took Tidwell under his wing, Camille Cashatt said. Still, his mother she saw that something was missing from his life. She turned to Big Brothers and Sisters of Spokane County for help.
“I felt especially after my brother was murdered he needed a role model,” said Camille.
Her son felt that he did not need a Big Brother.
“I didn’t want to do the Big Brother thing, but it turned out all right,” Tidwell said.
Rick Douglas, the KHQ news broadcaster who was then at KXLY, had been a Big Brother before and chose Joe after seeing him profiled in a story about boys needing one.
“He was swimming every day after school,” said Douglas. “Any boy who could take on that commitment at age nine would understand the demands my job had on me.”
The concern on the part of the case worker was that Douglas wasn’t the athlete that Tidwell was. But the two hit it off immediately. Douglas has now been Tidwell’s Big Brother for eight years.
“They said they’ve never had a match so strong, so quickly,” he said.
The ordinary Big Brother commitment lasts around 18 months. The tie has been so strong that it compelled Camille Cashatt to join the organization’s board. She has been a member for three years.
“Rick has always been there for Joe,” she said. “A little boy obviously needs this type of (male) relationship. It’s something a mother has a hard time doing.”
Douglas has been a fixture nearly every weekend. He attends as many swim meets as possible to the extent he feels guilty if he misses one. In turn, Tidwell has watched him perform in local plays.
“The major strength I brought was I lost my father to cancer when I was five,” said Douglas. “I can empathize with a boy like Joe. I help him over the rough spots - and there are rough spots.”
They have visited Douglas’s hometown of Boston, where they took in Red Sox games and toured the venerable Boston Garden. They’ve been to Calgary and watched Flames hockey games and seen Wayne Gretzky play in Los Angeles. They seldom miss a Spokane Chiefs game and play backyard basketball at Tidwell’s home.
“Rick is more like a friend, really,” said Tidwell. “It’s hard to put someone in place of a dad but we do stuff all the time. It’s great actually.”
And it has all been part of Camille Cashatt’s plan for doing right by her family. As a single mother, she has raised two children, Joe and his older sister, Cassi, 20, a sophomore at Arizona State University.
Cashatt parlayed her love of music into a teaching career that enabled her to spend as much time with them as possible.
“It was my responsibility to raise two children,” she said. “I don’t feel my kids have missed out on much, if anything. It’s been a terrific family situation with my mom, younger brother and cousins. We’re a close-knit family.”
And she was able to use swimming to help bridge whatever gaps there might have been.
“I got into swimming because mom didn’t want me to do anything else,” said Tidwell.
She wanted to keep him occupied and free from the temptations of alcohol and drugs in junior high and high school. She felt that swimming offered the least risk of injury.
In turn, Joe has become consumed by the sport. He rises at 4 a.m. nearly every day to practice at the Shadle Park pool before school and is there again at 3:30 p.m. each day for another session.
“I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s not a big deal,” Tidwell said.
In addition to bi-weekly area and regional meets there are two junior nationals, in March and August, and an occasional international meet to participate in.
It has become a $6,000-a-year pursuit that has paid off in national recognition.
“If I didn’t place so high nationally, I wouldn’t do it,” said Tidwell. “That’s what keeps me going.”
Ironically, because Spokane does not offer swimming in its high schools, athletes like Tidwell receive scant recognition locally. That is something his mother and coach would like to change, even if it comes too late for him.
Despite his talent, Tidwell won’t receive a high school letter and won’t be allowed to compete in the state prep swimming meet.
“I really wanted to do that and maybe even win a championship,” Tidwell said.
Nationally, it’s a different story. Some day there is the possibility of competing in the NCAA championships and even the Olympics.
But even if he doesn’t reach those goals, Tidwell’s personal achievement in overcoming family misfortune has been success enough.
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