Over the years, I’ve witnessed a lot of impressive performances. Rare, though, is the performance that is both impressive and inspirational. The performance which connects to you and urges you to be a better person or athlete. The performance that resonates with you so deeply that you see the world from a different view.
Two weekends, ago, I was inspired. Impressed, yes, but more so inspired. I had the opportunity to travel to Florida to support one of my athletes at a race. The experienced changed me. In a good way.
But first – let’s go back a few pages.
Back in the late autumn, I got an email from a well-known and well-accomplished paratriathlete. Melissa. A new mother who was hungry with Olympic dreams and ready for a change. For years, Melissa competed at the world class level in her paratriathlon category. Why paratriathlon? Melissa is missing a leg aside from just a few inches of the femur. In telling her story, I will hardly do it justice. A forever patriot who bleeds red, white and blue, she was in the ROTC program in college. A few years later, she was deployed. Within 3 weeks of her deployment, her convoy was hit by a roadside bomb. Melissa was hit – and she lost her leg.
When telling her story, she recounts swimming laps, sometimes twice a day, at the Walter Reid Medical Center during her recovery. Swimming seemed to be her therapy. She found the motivation to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. The outcome wasn’t what she worked for. Not surprisingly, her Olympic dreams persisted.
She tried triathlon. She did an Ironman. She competed at multiple world championships. She traveled all over the world competing at ITU events. Together with two of her American teammates, they are not just the best in the country but have established themselves as the best in the world. When you’re the best in the world, you dream big and work hard. You let nothing stand in your way.
So last autumn, Melissa contacted both myself and Jennifer Harrison. Jennifer is my long-time friend, mentor, former coach and one of my athletes. We’ve got history but more importantly we share the same approach, style and passion in our coaching. Realizing we were the final two candidates, I had a wild suggestion: we should team coach her. We tossed the idea out to Melissa and she agreed to it.
The past few months have been an exciting challenge for both coaches and athlete. From the coaching side, any time an athlete makes a change, it’s a delicate transition of getting to know each other quick. We had to tackle some big questions – is coaching a paratriathlete different? If so, how? What works, what doesn’t work, how do we build her strengths while also improving her weaknesses? From the athlete side, you are putting your trust and future into a new program. It’s a big risk, understandably.
And together as a team or coaches and athlete, our biggest challenge arrived two weeks ago. It was the qualification race – the race to qualify for one slot to the Paralympics in Rio.
After a long evening of travel, Jennifer and I woke up on Saturday morning ready to fully support Melissa in her pre-race preparation. It started with a meeting with the National Team Manager. These days, it takes a lot to “wow” me as a coach but Mark Sartino, the manager, did just that. The level of detail and knowledge he had not just about the course but Melissa’s competition was beyond prepared – it was meticulous. He talked us through everything; strategy, course and weather.
After that meeting, we headed to lunch with Melissa and a fellow teammate, Andrea. It was a conversation that very well may have changed my life. Those with a story to tell want to tell their story. Andrea told us hers. Andrea has short arms; her hands are at her elbows. Nothing has slowed her down. She played all sports through childhood and has now taken on triathlon. The brain is designed for survival, no matter the challenge, it will adapt. She talked about the challenges she faced socially growing up. Everybody has their thing, the only difference is that you can see mine.
Next , we headed to the race site for course familiarization. This was the only time the athletes were allowed to preview the course – at 1 pm in the afternoon the day before the race with the hot sun of Florida blazing! A few hours later was the course meeting. ITU staff explained all of the nuances of paratriathlon racing – each category with its unique rules and stipulations. Afterwards, another meeting with Team USA.
An hour later, we were at dinner with Melissa’s family and support staff. Melissa’s support team is composed of her husband, son, in-laws, parents, strength coaches and the man who makes her legs. It was an incredible outpouring of support and excitement for one woman’s brave dream.
Race day, we were up at 4:30 am. With all of the activity the day before, we felt like we had already raced! We arrived at the race site at 6 am for an 8:30 am start. Think about all that you have to carry to the race site – your bike, your wetsuit, your transition bag with your helmet, shoes, gear. Now add to that a bag of legs! Next, we waited in a very long to get checked in by ITU staff. Each athlete needed to have their helmet, bike, prosthetics and uniform checked. It was a very lengthy process and one that made me realize I will never again complain about the wait time in a pre-race porta-potty line.
After waiting for transition to be set up, we entered as Melissa’s support team. We watched as she set up her gear and legs. I’m familiar with the usual choices and thought processes to get ready for a triathlon. But as a paratriathlete there’s a whole new level. Melissa had to decide which leg to put on after the swim, a decision that depended on the distance, terrain and surface leading into transition.
And then – we waited at the beach. The scene was nothing less than amazing. At times, I was so choked up with awe and emotion that I had to walk down the beach to take a few moments for myself. This is inspiration: watching someone with no legs crawl their way into the water, seeing someone who is blind fearlessly commit to swimming 750 meters tethered to someone else. Wheelchair athletes, those missing arms, feet, legs – either from disease, accident or genetics. Not only that but the team of volunteers practicing how to carry athletes from the water or the ITU staff working tirelessly to ensure safety and the schedule. There are good people with good hearts in the sport of triathlon. There it was – right in front of me.
Finally, Melissa’s category went off. She led out the females on the swim and emerged first out of the water. In transition, we urged her to control the race, to not give anything up on the bike. The bike was 3 loops. Jennifer ran out to the half way mark while I stationed myself with her family half a lap away. We relayed splits back and forth between coaches, husband and family. She not only maintained her lead on the bike but for the first time ever – she gained.
She came into transition and I simply told her to have the run of her life. At this point, it was hot, windier and the competition was hungry, chasing fast. She held strong to her lead until the halfway point at which point she was caught. As I saw her hurtling her leg the final bridge towards the finish line, I could tell she had given it everything but would come up short by less than a minute today.
At dinner the night before, Melissa’s father looked at Jennifer and myself. His eyes glistened with tears that only a parent could understand. The heartfelt struggle of wanting the best for your child, of wanting to protect them so they never experience pain, heartache or loss. But knowing that these messy emotions are part of life that we all must experience.
What do I say to her if she doesn’t reach her goal?
We told him that she had done everything in her power to prepare. She could, honestly, cross the finish line with no regrets. If the outcome isn’t what she worked for, she could not regret the journey or the effort. In her preparation, she gave it everything.
Melissa crossed the finish line spent yet visibly disappointed. It’s a tough place for a coach to be – on one hand you want to commend the effort but also respect the athlete’s space to be upset. Having been a long time competitor, it’s a feeling I know intimately well – when you’ve given it 100 percent and come up short by a matter of seconds. It makes you realize, painfully, how delicate and unpredictable success is. You can control your controllables but the one thing always out of our control is the most important thing: the outcome.
You had a great race, I said. Melissa acknowledged that and then paused. But it wasn’t enough today. This is the truth and pain of high performance. When you prepare everything you can, you simply have to race the race. Race it to the best of your ability. You can’t ask anything more of yourself. Her result was the fastest she’s ever gone at this distance race. It was the first time she’s had such a big lead off of the bike. It was a lot but not enough on this race day.
We walked away from the finish line when she saw the woman who beat her. Immediately, Melissa said she needed to go up to her teammate to offer congratulations. I read somewhere recently that people don’t remember your successes as much as they remember what you did when faced with failure. Melissa was the ultimate example of sportsmanship and athletic maturity: commend your competitors, take a few moments for a personal pity party and then – get over it.
Melissa’s road to Rio isn’t over yet. She is hopeful for an invitational slot in early July based on her results. Her performance in Florida rightfully placed her second in the world in her category. She will continue on her road with the same fight, dedication and intensity. Jennifer and I are thrilled to be a part of the journey.
On Sunday night, I boarded the plane utterly exhausted but grateful for new perspective. Sometimes you think you know what a challenge is. Or you think you have it hard. Or you think races are hard. Or lines are long. And then you experience something that completely changes your definition of everything. When you carry your legs into an event, that might be hard. When you have to crawl yourself into the water, you might find it challenging. Yet there are people out there doing it – doing it with the same passion, strength and competitiveness as able-bodied athletes. Maybe more. Because life has given them very visible and large reasons to not even want to try for it. Yet something drives them forward – up and over those obstacles. Something compels them – I must do this.
That, my friends, is inspiration.