An Unlikely Champion
When we think of people who hit high levels of achievement there’s an assumption that he or she grew up with privilege.
It’s assumed that they had a foot up in support from their parents and community. We figure they had advantages in both childhood opportunity as well as inborn genetics. Think Tiger Woods holding a golf club as early as he could walk. Or a musician being given a violin the moment they could utter their first words. But there are those who don’t fit this mold at all. Here’s a story about one young boy who became an unlikely champion.
Our unlikely champion was born at home. It was in a dilapidated backyard shack that was 600 square feet at most. There was nothing about it that reeked of privileged opportunity.
A few years later he was uprooted. His family had to move from his birth home near Los Angeles, California half way across the country to St. Louis, Missouri. His father had been accepted into the only medical school who would take someone over thirty years old, which his father was at the time.
I know that “doctor” sounds like “privilege and wealth”, but none of that was around this family. They had nothing.
They lived those years in the poorest and most dangerous part of St. Louis in a funded area called The Projects. The Projects were low-cost tenement housing that at the time were mostly African-American. This unlikely champion was white. He rarely saw any other white kids and could do nothing to blend in and make friends in the playground that was built in the middle courtyard area of the complex.
His brother, who was three years younger, had been born in the same run down shack in Southern California that he was. His brother had Downs Syndrome. But to our unlikely champion, his brother was just his brother. It was just part of his life like the rest of it.
For two years in The Projects he rarely went outside. He was taunted as an unwelcome outsider on the playground. But inside held little comfort either.
There was a lot of violence in the Projects at that time. Everyone was desperate and poor. Nothing could be counted on to be more than bare survival, including meals. Many times dinner was a large can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup heated up and a few Saltine Crackers split between the four of them. Not exactly the table of champions. This and more is what make this boy such an unlikely champion.
Living in a situation where there was tension among the poor of different races gave him a yearning to know the answers to life’s bigger questions.
Why do some have seemingly everything needed for a dignified life and some have nothing to prop them up? What gives meaning to a life that is deprived of any kind of comfort? Is life really unjust or is everything just a test to see what we’ll do with it?
The boy wondered these things as he sat alone staring out of the twelfth floor window of his tenement apartment looking down at the other kids playing on the playground. He’d wonder why he was born with all the basics intact but his brother was not. Why was his brother born struggling to do simple things like talk that this unlikely champion was able to do without a second thought.
Maybe this unlikely champion had some kind of latent natural genetic gift for sports that just needed some coaxing with guided training and a good meal to bring out.
As a young boy even that seemed lacking. In second grade when physical education testing started for the first time he was found to be one of the very slowest runners in his class. He was always the last one picked to be on a team where a ball was involved. This boy got a “C” in his physical education class in middle school. The only other’s who got C’s in PE were the kids who never showed up for class.
But this boy had been trying with all his might to do well because there were things he really loved about sports. He loved the parts where everyone was running, not just the stars. He loved the games that had no scorecard and the only thing that signaled the end was when everyone was too tired to play anymore. It would take years, but eventually this boy would become an unlikely champion.
There was a tilt in the playing field when he joined a small local swim team at age ten.
Swimming was a sport where the kids were placed in competitions according to their ability (or lack thereof). So even the slowest could compete against others of the same level. It fostered the idea in this boy that even if he would never be close to being one the best, that at least he could be better than he was yesterday and maybe someday one of the faster ones in the slowest category in the pool.
He didn’t come from a sports privileged background. There was nothing for him to model off of. Not once did he ever see either parent exercise as he grew up. He himself ended up swimming, but not on a team that was a high-powered world-class development program. He never rubbed shoulders with champions or world record holders. But he did train. He swam for twelve years week in and week out. He made dreams for himself to try to achieve, ones that were never about being the best in the world, but about being better than he’d ever been before.
But still at the end of those twelve years, there was zero foreshadowing that this boy would become the best at anything, especially in the realm of sports. However, nine years after he swam his last lap as a competitive swimmer he would become the best in the world at something. He would become the IRONMAN World Champion. And yes, that boy is me!
My story played out in a way that no one could have predicted. I was an unlikely champion.
Even in my first years racing triathlons no one could have predicted what I would end up doing. In 1983 in my first IRONMAN World Championship finish my marathon split was 3:15:26. That was over thirty-five minutes slower than I would eventually run for the marathon in my first win in 1989 where I ran a 2:40:04. In 1984 my IRONMAN finish time in Kona was 9:35:02. That time was over an hour and twenty-five minutes slower than my first win five years later when I posted an 8:09:15.
My approach every year was simply to bring more into my racing than I had been able to in the past. My dreams did get bigger over time as I got close and closer to winning. But the fuel that kept me going was not really about trying to get good enough to win in Kona. What made the journey that traversed endless miles of training worthwile were the small moments where I got better that no one else saw or took note of.
Swimming a second per hundred faster in a workout felt like a huge personal victory. Running several seconds per mile faster on the track was like sitting on top of the world. And both gave me so much inspiration not because I was faster, but because of how I felt. Those moments came because I had more ease, more fluidity. They were when I found more strength and stamina. Breakthroughs came when my mind was more quiet than ever before. That helped me feel like I was winning in life itself.
I never gave up asking those bigger questions either. I’d lived through too much to think that the most important reason to be on this planet was to win a race.
I searched religions and spiritual traditions to help give me the perspective to embrace it all: the privileged and the desperate, the kind and the ruthless, the times of bounty and the times of near starving. I found that place in 1989.
It was by connecting with the Huichol Indian tradition from Central Mexico. It came through a world-renowned highly respected shaman and teacher of that tradition, Brant Secunda.
Half way through the marathon in the 1989 IRONMAN World Championship I was literally steps away from giving up.
Dave Scott was putting on the pressure and I was ready to crack. In that eternal space between when I told myself I couldn’t keep going and when my body was going to respond, out of the corner of my eye I saw Brant’s teacher and grandfather, a 110-year old Huichol Indian shaman named Don José Matsuwa.
I’d seen his picture in a magazine two days before the race. There he was next to me off to my right. It was like I was seeing him in a dream floating next to me in the lava. But it wasn’t a dream. I was awake and I was racing the best in the world at the IRONMAN World Championship. I felt energy, life force, coming from Don José that filled me back up. It gave me the energy to keep going. I knew nothing less than giving the best I had was what the race was calling me to do.
The race changed in a way that was like an earthquake changing an entire landscape.
It wasn’t from grabbing an extra glass of sport drink or pouring more ice down my singlet that brought me back. I wasn’t able to reign in the desire to quit by adjusting my pace or my stride. The turning point came from the vision of a 110-year old Huichol Indian shaman.
In that extreme moment on the day that set a new mark for what is possible at the IRONMAN in Hawaii this experience seemed pretty normal. Everyone who has raced the IRONMAN World Championship knows that the Island of Hawaii has a way of taking you to places within yourself that you have never experienced anywhere else. Giving everything you have, which I was on that day, reveals an awareness about life that would be impossible to access through logic sitting on your couch in the comfort of your home.
After the race I told my friends and family about what happened out there. I quickly got that it didn’t match what they were expecting to hear about what brought the race back to my favor. It’s an unlikely story yes, but then I’m an unlikely champion.
Become your own unlikely champion.