Every Olympian Has to Start Somewhere

by

Daniel-2As some of you may already know, I recently completed my second Half Ironman triathlon. That means I can swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles, and then run 13.1 miles all in one day. That’s insane, right? I think so, too. Over the course of my training, I talked to a lot of people who shared their expressions of amazement or pride in what I was accomplishing. I heard a lot of “that’s amazing!” or “you’re crazy!” but more often than anything I heard, and still continue to hear, “I would never be able to do that.” To all of you who think that, I want to tell you that you are wrong.

If you think that I woke up one day being capable of doing a triathlon, you are mistaken. Before I could run 13 miles, I could run 10 miles. Before I could run 10 miles, I could run 6, and 3 before that, and 1 before that. And before I could run 1 mile, I could run 0 miles. Zero! I think we all too often look at other’s athletic accomplishments and marvel at how great they are, how strong, how brave, but we forget about where they started. We forget that Olympic swimmers, before they were Olympians, were just great swimmers. That way before any of that they were just little kids taking their first swim lesson, afraid to put their faces in the water. No one wakes up one morning and goes to run a marathon. We cannot forget that every runner, every swimmer, every Olympian had to start somewhere. Because although what they can do now is incredible, it is getting through the beginning that is the hardest and often the most important.

Over the last year, I have witnessed many great success stories of individuals who started from nothing and reached their goals because they never gave up. I would like to share one of them with you now.

Flash back with me to last September, the first day of Sea Dragons Fall swim team practice. A new swimmer walks nervously over to where the rest of the swimmers are lining up to start practice. His name is Daniel. A coach asks him how old he is, to which he quietly replies, “seven.” He lines up in the first lane, behind six other kids, all older than him. The coaches tell the kids to swim a 100 freestyle to warm up and they begin to call out to each swimmer to dive in and start. Daniel watches as the other kids dive in and begin swimming. He fumbles with his goggles as he shuffles forward in line, getting closer to his turn. “Daniel, go.” A coach says, but he doesn’t hear. “Daniel, go!” He panics and attempts his best dive, which turns out to be more of a total belly flop. He hits the water and loses his goggles. He tries to start swimming anyway but his eyes fill with water and he has to stop and grab the side of the pool. And so began Daniel’s first and worst day of swim practice.

Daniel-1I still remember that day like it was yesterday. I remember walking over to the pool to find a small boy sitting on the side of the pool crying into his goggles while everyone else was swimming. “Oh no,” I thought. “He is so small and we have already made him hate swimming.” As I got closer I saw a coach approach him and sweetly ask if he was ready to try the next lap. I thought, “No, of course he doesn’t. He is crying and he hates this.” But then he surprised me. He could barely breathe through his crying, but he nodded his head, shakily brought his goggles to his eyes, and made his way to the end of the lane. After practice, I watched him leave, still crying and shivering in his towel and I thought for sure I would not see him again. But at the next practice, there he was, ready to swim. I went up to talk with him mom to make sure he had been okay after the last practice. She told me he thought it was so hard and that he didn’t feel like he was good enough for the team. Then she said, “But he really wants to be able to do it.” His mom was worried we wouldn’t want him on our team and I had to try not to yell that of course we wanted him! Here was a 7-year-old, hardly able to swim to the other end of the pool, crying so hard he couldn’t see, but refusing to give up. I had never been more proud.

I think Daniel must have cried through every practice for the first 2 or 3 weeks. He took a lot of breaks, mostly to cry, but never left the edge of the pool and always got back in when he was ready. I will never forget the determination in his face and his movements. The way he would stand up and adjust his goggles, his tiny body shaking from the cold, ready to push through no matter what. Looking at him, I just wanted to tell him he could stop, that he didn’t have to cry, but he would never have agreed to that. He wanted to swim.

Flash forward to February, our first meet of the new season. Daniel prepares for his first event of the night, Boys 7/8, 25-yard backstroke. The announcer calls, “Swimmers, take your mark!” The whistle blows and Daniels goes, without missing a beat. From the first few strokes I can tell, Daniel is in the lead. I can’t believe it. I start running down the side of the pool, following him, pushing through spectators, cheering. I see his mom at the end of his lane, arms in the air, cheering his name. They are nearing the other side and he is ahead, but barely. “GO DANIEL! GO!” I am screaming, jumping up and down on the pool deck. It is so close I can hardly watch, but in the last second he pulls ahead and finishes first, not even a second before the next swimmer. I look over at his mom who looks so happy I want to cry. I may just be imagining it, but I’m pretty sure I see her start to tear up.

Daniel went on to place first in all three of his events that night. The following week at practice, I brought his blue ribbons to him as he walked over to line up for practice. We high-fived and a giant smile covered his face as he accepted the ribbons. There he was, celebrating an amazing achievement in almost the exact spot he had sat crying just a few months before.

Daniel-4Over the next few months, he would only continue to improve and still continues to improve today. We recently had our summer conference swim meet and Daniel placed first overall in the Boys 7/8 breaststroke. That means that out of all the 7/8 boy swimmers in all 4 teams in our conference, he was the fastest. I look at his accomplishments and it scares me to think about what might have happened if he had left after that first day. If, instead of crying through every lap, he had decided to give up. I sure am glad he didn’t and, as he adds to his stack of blue ribbons, I know he is, too.

During the summer before my first triathlon, back when I hardly knew what a triathlon was, I had a friend that told me I could do it. “Just do it.” She said. “I know you can.” This statement, of course, was ridiculous considering I could barely run to the mailbox. But for some reason I believed her and I started to train. To this day I still can’t believe it, but she was right. Since completing my first triathlon and seeing the impossible was, in fact, possible, I have come to realize that anyone who has a goal is capable of accomplishing it. If someone tells me they want to do a triathlon, I say, “Yes, you can do it.” They look at me like I’m crazy, like they don’t believe me, just as I looked at my friend two years ago. Just as Daniel’s mom looked at me when I tried to tell her that her crying son would get better with practice. I don’t mean that they will be able to do it tomorrow or even in six months. I mean that if they want it enough, if they are willing to work for it, it is possible. No one starts at the top. Being good at everything from the beginning wouldn’t be fun anyway. It’s about the journey, about starting from zero and seeing how much you can grow and improve. So for any of you out there who have a goal, no matter how big or small, all you have to do is start. Start with anything, start anywhere. Start and don’t give up. You may not cross the finish line tomorrow, but you can take the first step today. You never know where it could lead.