In a suburb of Houston, a non-descript, one-story house is nestled on the corner of a quiet neighborhood. It’s easy to drive right by the League City, Texas home —a smaller space that Tim Swords moved into 15 years ago— except for the garage.
The separate unit is necessary because of what the garage at his last home did to the drywalls. You try dropping 200-lb. at six or seven feet, a daily occurrence at Swords’ place, and it gets rough on the rest of the infrastructure. This garage, which recently saw Swords’ 879th athlete come through, is like no other in the country.
It houses nearly 20 Olympic lifting bars, 150 bumper plates and several platforms and squat racks. Swords’ garage has trained competitors from all over the world, including the Swedish Olympic team and current Olympian Sarah Robles.
The door has never been locked. Swords, who started the non-profit Team Houston weightlifting program for at-risk youth, is one of 15 USA weightlifting (USAW) international-level coaches. And he’s never once turned a kid away.
“Money is not an issue,” said Swords, who estimates he’s coached at around 65-70 national meets. “We will do what we can to get you to competitions.”
“I’ve had a lot of kids who come through the door who are single-parent kids. Raised by grandparents, who go on to play college football. They are like my own children. Black, white, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter. I’ve had military kids, who are now in the Marine Corps or Air Force. Some gang members who wanted to wear their colors. Couldn’t do that. Some you can’t reach at all. Some you can. I’ve got some kids who have great family situations and whose mom or dad are doctors and lawyers. And then there are guys who would probably be dead if it wasn’t for me.”
Swords, who moved to Texas in early 1988, never saw this coming.
A former football player, and then strength coach at East Carolina University, Swords started going to a regular World’s Gym when he moved.
He hated it and found himself gravitating back toward the Olympic lifts. When his friend asked if Swords would coach his high-school aged son and his friend, it was a no-brainer.
He had always liked working with children, volunteering Saturday mornings at East Carolina to work with inner-city kids in the weight room.
So, they set up a single platform in Swords’ garage, an old-subdivision, for him to coach the two boys. Within four months, Swords had 11 kids in his garage. And they just kept showing up after that.
“He’s a father figure,” said former Swords pupil Adrian Briones, who is currently the head strength coach at Delaware State.
“He’s the first man not related to me that truly believed in me. When I needed to eat, he gave me money. When I needed a place to shower, he let me in. That’s why I am where I am today. The fact that I met a man, that loved me so much that changed my heart forever. That’s what Tim does to this day.”
“I came from a good home, but my dreams were very big and sometimes my friends and family would be like ‘What are you talking about?.’” Briones said. “I remember being there and a boy who was 12 or 13 being really disrespectful to his father. Coach Swords doesn’t put up with that, he got into that kid. He always said, ‘In this gym we do unordinary things. Successful people do unordinary things.’ To this day, I still use that phrase.”
Over the past 27 years, there are countless success stories like Briones.
Swords has had 16 athletes on international teams, 79 who got college football scholarships, 15 in college baseball and 49 national champions. There have been guys like David Choi, who wasn’t overly athletic or confident.
Swords poured his heart into him and Choi now works for NASA. Or a little nine-year-old girl who Swords took to the states that came home with a bronze medal.
“She was so proud, so happy. Hell, I cried like a baby,” Swords recalled. “You can’t beat that. And that little girl now is a wonderful mother. That’s what this is all about.”
“Everybody has got a story. They all have learning disabilities. The pressure of being a young person in this day and age is pretty tough.”
Sitting in his living room, Swords again gets misty-eyed.
The father of three sons, he lost his middle child about eight months ago, prompting him to retire from his full-time job at Bayer aspirin.
This garage is what he truly loves, what he’s always loved, and Swords doesn’t want to waste one more minute of his life not having an impact.
“This is the one true thing that really makes me excited every day. That I can give something back to help somebody,” Swords said.
“I am highly motivated to do the right thing. I’m very passionate, but I’m intense. Some people don’t like my intensity. There’s not too many people that love the sport as much as I do.”
Swords gestures about his living room, the only place in the house where his trophies and posters of some of his more accomplished athletes are laid out.
“This has nothing to do with Tim Swords winning trophies and stuff. Nobody cares about this stuff in boxes. It’s about these kids,” he said. “It’s because people believed in what we are doing here and they continue to come back. They believed in me, simple schemes, hard work, doing the right thing nutritionally and just paying attention.”
Swords’ no-nonsense approach to coaching has had a far greater impact than the platform.
“Yes it was the technical aspect and philosophies [of lifting] but it was really the environment and mindset he instilled in us,” Briones said.
“That’s the difference between coaches like Tim and coaches that are there just to get the paycheck. He pours into your heart and mind so much, he manipulates you in a positive way. That’s the biggest thing that he did for all of us. I couldn’t tell you the astronomical amount of people that he’s impacted.”