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Inspiration Train

For the past few weeks, I’ve been on what I’d refer to as an inspiration tour.  Each event was a bit different, yet each one carried its own incredible meaning.

Three weeks ago (which seems like a lifetime now), I took part in the Greenwich, CT, Swim Across America.  Meeting cancer survivors and those currently battling the disease gives a sense of purpose when participating in the swims.

Two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be a spectator at the US Olympic Trials in Omaha.  The joy of those who made the team, in contrast to the disappointment of those who just missed, truly takes me back to a lesson my Dad taught me so long ago.  Victory is a two-edged sword.  For every victor there is someone who suffers defeat.  There is no event I’ve ever been to where that simple truth is more evident than at US Olympic Trials.  Second isn’t losing, and Third isn’t bronze.  Second is still victorious, and Third is the ultimate punishment.

For the past 5 days, I’ve been in Victoria, British Columbia at a CanAm Paralympic Swim Meet.  While words can’t begin to explain the perspective gained from witnessing one of these meets, Iet’s just say that complaining about cold water, or a sore shoulder or thigh isn’t something that begins to cross your mind.  While we may watch in wonderment and awe as these athletes work their way down the pool, to them, it’s all just Swimming.  They’re chasing the same dream we all know so well:  Find ways to improve…to win…to feel fit and healthy and on top of their game…to get paid back in performance for the work they put in…to have fun.

Our friend Dave Denniston was at the meet, and we had many opportunities to watch him swim, and to spend time with him.  When Dave prepared for a race, the look on his face was no different from the game face he wore when competing at the 2004 US Olympic Trials.  He still loves to race, and he still wants to win.  It was inspiring to watch how he focused on the task at hand, and then masterfully did what he had to do to get through it.   It is what it is… so let’s race.

Of course, in trying many new events, there were times when Dave was able to relax a bit prior to his races.  His focus prior to the 50 breast was probably a bit different from his focus prior to the 50 fly.  🙂

Watching these athletes perform was inspiring, to say the least, but it also reinforced our belief that there is no One Way to swim…or to swim fast.  Every swimmer has to figure out the best way for him or her, and this is especially true when a disability is involved.   If you’re a swimmer with a disability, you can’t simply open a book or, alas, buy a video, and find your answer.  You have to be more resourceful and creative, and more tuned in to your abilities.  The same goes if you are a coach of a swimmer with a disability.  The coaches we saw last weekend are the epitome of coaching artists.  They have to help each unique athlete develop the technique that suits him or her.  They have to draw on their entire knowledge of swimming yet at the same time give up all their preconceived notions of what works and what doesn’t work.  They have to embrace experimentation and try things that are radically innovative, simply because they have to.    

When I was young, I was fortunate to know and observe a swimmer with a disability.   My brother Kyle lost his leg to cancer when he was 17.  The next year, he competed in a few more swim meets but, back then, there really was no paralympic movement the way there is today.  I would have loved for Kyle to have had the opportunity to race with these swimmers.  We began filming these athletes on what would have been Kyle’s 50th birthday, July 11th. (More inspiration for me.)

I feel honored to have been involved in EACH of these events:  The Swim Across America as a volunteer, the US Olympic Trials as a National Team Alumni, and the CanAm Paralympic Championships as a videographer and observer. 

What it showed me, however, especially the final week, is how so many of these athletes have sacrificed, suffered, and forged ahead to reach their goals.  Each of them is inspiring in their own right.  The survivors with Swim Across America work toward curing their illness.  The athletes at the Trials worked to win, or simply participate in, the meet.  The athletes at the Can Am meet in Canada work to prepare for the Paralympics in Beijing, and, as we learned, to continue swimming so they can live a more “regular” life.

We all take too many things for granted, and take too many shortcuts to try to achieve success.  What I’ve witnessed the past few weeks are people who hold no self-pity but, rather, a dedication to succeed however they can.  I’ve witnessed so much resourcefulness and so much resolve that it’s almost hard to be impressed any more.   The bar has been raised for me again, and it’s not about how fast someone is… it’s about what they’ve gone through to succeed.

My final thought, as I fly home, is for Eric Shanteau.  I’ve gotten to know him briefly through Brendan, Aaron, and the Texas swimmers this past year.  I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone who has more class as a person.  He carries himself so quietly, yet competes so fiercely.  To learn that he competed at the US Olympic Trials just days after learning that he has cancer, was the pinnacle of it all.

All of us are constantly surrounded by greatness.  We’re witnesses to it all the time whether we know it or not.

The challenge is for each of us to be great ourselves.  There is much suffering in achieving it, but from what I’ve witnessed the past 3 weeks, a single person with greatness will inspire thousands. 

I thank each of the athletes and friends I witnessed for helping me strive for greatness.  I can only say I’ll try.  I can only hope each of you does the same.