It was Sunday, Jan. 25, and the junior point guard on the Abilene Christian University women’s basketball team had just been baptized – along with Swinford – at Redeemer Church in Abilene when both were asked to say a few words to the group of family, friends and teammates there to cheer them on. Swinford went first.
A Lampasas, Texas, native who came to Christ after a knee injury cut short his senior season of high school football, Swinford spoke of wanting a faith that produces spiritual fruit and a love that could be expressed in speech and action. He meant every word. In fact, he meant more than every word. His testimony was actually setting a back screen for the big question he was preparing to propose. West never saw it coming.
“On this day that I’ve been given the opportunity to outwardly profess my faith in Christ through baptism,” Swinford said, “I would like nothing more than to outwardly profess and proclaim my love for Whitney through a marriage proposal.”
A perfectly executed pick and pop.
The assembled on-lookers gasped and squealed, but West still didn’t realize what was happening until Swinford pulled out the ring and got down on the same right knee that ended his football career and began his life of faith.
“I hate talking in front of people,” West admitted. “So the whole time he was talking, I’m freaking out about what I’m going to say. So I’m looking at him, but I’m not listening all the way. So he literally had to say, ‘Will you marry me?’ before I picked up on it.”
Picking up the question proved considerably more difficult than answering it. Yes.
West and Swinford first met in Spring 2013 at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes function for students from ACU, Hardin-Simmons University and McMurry University. Swinford had matriculated at McMurry, having rehabbed his knee strongly enough to earn a scholarship as a sprinter before transferring to HSU to finish his degree in fitness, recreation and sport management. But it wasn’t until a few months later that their relationship went to a higher level. Much higher.
In August, the two found themselves reunited a few miles west of Abilene at Butman Methodist Camp and Retreat Center. Swinford was there to complete his certification as a ropes course instructor. West, there as part of a team-building exercise planned by ACU women’s basketball head coach Julie Goodenough, was on the ropes, 30 feet above terra firma and firmly terrified. The daughter of a pole vault champion is scared of heights.
Depth, on the other hand, is a turn-on. As their crosstown, intercollegiate romance began the next month and blossomed in the following days and weeks, West was immediately impressed by Swinford’s character.
“I always have fun around him,” she said. “But I think the most attractive thing is his desire to become more like Christ every day.”
By the end of that fall semester of 2013, the two were an item. Swinford accompanied West’s family to Lubbock where the Wildcats were playing in a holiday tournament hosted by Texas Tech University. The weekend was like an early Christmas present, on and off the court. West made all eight of her free throws, including four in the final 20 seconds, as ACU earned a narrow victory over Jacksonville University then followed that up with a stunning upset of Tech the next day. Meanwhile, Swinford and West’s father, Greg, were exchanging a gift that keeps on giving.
“We’re both talkers,” said Swinford, “and we hit it off that weekend.”
It was a relationship each welcomed. Greg and his wife, Holli, have two girls, Whitney and younger sister Mackenzie, but no boys. Swinford has a father, but – for the last several years – no dad. His parents split up when he was in high school, and he has been estranged from his father ever since. Swinford is quick to say Greg has been careful not to overstep his role but has become a father figure anyway.
“A lot of people take it for granted when their dads text them encouragement before a game or a race. I never had that until Greg started sending me messages before my meets.”
One of the top collegiate vaulters in the 1980s at Southern Methodist University and then Texas A&M University, and now a vault coach, Greg West has reset the bar for Swinford on what a husband and father can be.
“He told me, ‘If you ever need anything, I’m here,’ ” Swinford said. “ ‘You and Whitney could break up tomorrow, and I wouldn’t take back anything I said.’ ”
None of this surprises Whitney West: “My dad is a big softie but doesn’t want anyone to know.” Oops.
Swinford had already bought the engagement ring when he flew down to visit with the family at their home in the small South Texas town of Portland in January of this year to ask for Whitney’s hand in marriage. Greg gave his blessing on one condition: Clear it with the coach.
“Whitney had told me she was getting baptized on Jan. 25,” Julie Goodenough said. “So when Tanner called to say he’d like me to be there, I told him our whole team had already planned to come. He said, ‘Well, I’m also going to ask her to marry me that day, and Greg said I need to make sure that’s OK with you.’ I laughed and told him he, of course, has my permission. I hope all of my players find someone like Tanner.”
As West and Swinford think about it now, having both big events on the same day makes perfect sense. Both had been baptized at earlier ages (West as a baby, Swinford while in middle school) but wanted to publicly profess their faith as adults. And what better metaphor for baptism and discipleship than a wedding and marriage?
Both the baptism and engagement apparently agreed with West. She made a splash in her first game after accepting Swinford’s proposal, burying a three-pointer with a minute left in the game to beat Houston Baptist University.
For someone who quit pole vaulting in high school because she didn’t like to find herself upside down, West’s world has been turned that way during her playing career at ACU.
By the time she finishes her senior season a year from now, West will have changed coaches (she was recruited by Goodenough’s predecessor, Shawna Lavender), positions (she’s played the point because it’s what her team has needed, though she’s better suited as a shooting guard), leagues (she was the 2013 Lone Star Conference Freshman of the Year before the Wildcats joined the Southland Conference), NCAA divisions, and soon last names.
As it was with her team’s move up in classification, so it shall be with West and Swinford: The II shall become I.
The wedding is set for Aug. 8 of this year at a pecan farm along the Frio River. If you think West’s feet will be frio, you’re nuts. She’s all in with Swinford. And this time when the question is popped, West will be ready.
“Alive” – All Sons and Daughters