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Big Fish In A Small Pond

April 17th, 2012


Champions are not born - they are made.
Champions are not born - they are made.

When I was eight, I played Pee Wee League tackle football in Burkburnett, Texas, population just shy of 10,000.  “Burk,” as we called it, was about two hours west of football and cheerleader-crazed Dallas, Texas.  I was a pretty good eight-year-old football player, and I thought we had a pretty good team.  But if you consider the size of the talent pool in a town of 10,000 people, and that we only had one football team, it’s easy to understand why I felt so secure about my future as a Dallas Cowboy and the caliber of team on which I played.  It goes without saying that all of my fellow Burkburnett Eagles and future Dallas Cowboy teammates got a rude awakening when we traveled to the bustling metropolis that was Wichita Falls, Texas.  With nearly 100,000 people, their Pee Wee League teams had a little deeper bench.  I vividly remember losing at least one game by 60 points.  There was no “mercy rule” in 1972 – not even for eight-year-olds.

In fourth grade I moved to Bossier City, Louisiana.  Bossier, as we called it, was in the northwest corner of Louisiana – right on the border of Texas.  Even though we lived in Louisiana, we were too far north to be New Orleans Saints fans.  And besides – the Saints sucked.  Therefore, I still worshiped the Cowboys and grew increasingly fond of their cheerleaders.  I continued to play football, and continued to play very well unless we were playing another team – in which case, and for reasons I failed to comprehend when I was ten, I was horrible.

About half way through seventh grade, I moved to the desert southwest – Tucson, Arizona, specifically.  Football was not as popular in Tucson, Arizona as it was in Burkburnett, Texas and Bossier City, Louisiana.  This was due to several factors including, but not limited to: a severe shortage of grass, a lack of autumn, and a lack of Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.  Ironically – swimming was a very popular sport in Tucson.  And despite the lack of water, just about every home and neighborhood had a pool.  And since it was quite hot in the desert southwest, we were able to swim year-round.

Due to countless hours of swimming pool play with my friends and neighbors – I became quite the swimmer.  I could easily beat my two younger sisters who, unfortunately for them – didn’t know how to swim in water that was over their head.  I could not beat my younger brother, but reasoned it was because he was taller than I was and therefore had a shorter distance to swim.  For example, most of the times that he gave me a head start – I could beat him.  Therefore, when I started high school, I decided swimming would be my sport.

Having never been on a swim team before, there were a number of eye-openers during my first week of swim practice at Santa Rita High School:

1. There were no cheerleaders.
2. The typical warm up for our team was 500 yards - the length of five football fields, 20 lengths of the pool - and is supposed to be done without stopping - and considering that it is “warm up,” is supposed to be done before the two-hour practice ends. 
3. Side-stroke is not one of the four competitive strokes.
4. Despite the obvious optical superiority, it’s totally uncool to wear a mask instead of goggles.
5. Despite the under-rated handiness of pockets and a zipper whilst swimming – cut-off Levi’s are also uncool to wear during swim practice or meets.

Fortunately for me, Santa Rita High School was a small and inclusive team.  And despite the fact that I was the worst swimmer on the team – male or female (really), I survived my year of daily 7,000 to 10,000 yard workouts.  By my senior year, I was the team captain and fastest 200 and 500 yard freestyle swimmer on the team (male or female)  – neither of which were good enough to earn me a spot in the top 16 at the divisional meet, which would have earned me a coveted spot in the state meet.  I think you get the picture – I was pretty good on my team, but we weren’t winning many dual meets.
In 1982, I decided to attend the University of Arizona.  I was not good enough to swim in college (not even close), and was left searching for a sport in which to participate post high school.  I rode my bicycle to school daily, ran occasionally, and continued to swim 5-7,000 daily yards on my own.  I took a water polo class that was taught by George Dallum (future first Head Coach of USA Triathlon).  I’m not sure why (perhaps because I commuted by bike and liked to run stadium repeats), but George encouraged me to give triathlon a go.
From the beginning, I fell in love with the sport of triathlon.  Three to five times per day I pushed myself to the limit – swimming, cycling, running, lifting weights – searching the roads and trails of Tucson in a solo pursuit of supreme fitness.  I fed off of the inevitable success one has when his only opponent is the terrain and a sun-faded and salt encrusted Timex.  On those solo days I was, of course, unbeatable, invincible, Guinness Book Of World Records worthy.  Then a funny thing happened.  I went to a race – with other competitors – and did pretty well.  At the 1985 Phoenix, Arizona (Lake Pleasant) stop of the United States Triathlon Series, my fourth triathlon ever, I finished (a distant) second to triathlon legend, Scott Tinley.  I’ll never forget the genuine shock and amazement that I felt, that my friends and family felt, that my Saturday Shootout peers felt, over my result that day. I had a knack for finding sports that were small enough to nurture the dreams of a hard-working average athlete.
For the next 20-something years, I went on to have a reasonable amount of success as a professional triathlete, but never reached the tippy-top.  Being a reasonably intelligent person with lots of experience as a big fish in a small pond, I initially reasoned that even though legitimately phenomenal athletes populated the summit of triathlon, the depth of field was never as strong as the mainstream sports.

As time rolled on, however, I came to realize (too late, perhaps) that an average, at best, swimmer from Santa Rita High School, and former crappy peewee football player from Burkburnett, Texas, could have success in sport through perseverance, dedication, and hard work.
I’m now more than eight years removed from my time in the elite ranks and it seems the entire sport of triathlon is on a rapid rise towards mainstream legitimacy.  The popularity of triathlon is at an all-time high.  Ironman events are selling out 2000 entries within minutes of registration opening.  Famous actors and actresses, Indy car and Formula One drivers, elite swimmers, cyclists, and runners looking for new challenges, or perhaps lured by the Olympic dream that may have been just out of reach in their “former” sport, are crossing over to triathlon with increasing regularity.  And this summer’s London Olympics, of course, will point millions of eyes – many of them virgin – towards our sport.  All of these factors will combine to cause a convergence of talent our sport has never seen before – making 2013 a season to look forward to and remember. 

Looking back on my life as a lover of sports and a dreamer of success from small-town, rural America and an eternal fan of the little sport that has been triathlon, I’d like to take this time to remind the other dreamers out there that champions are not born, they’re made.  Everybody has to start somewhere.  It’s true that it will be harder to earn results that are a surprise to you and your friends now that triathlon has grown.  But do not be discouraged.  Pound the surf.  Run the trails and the roads ragged.  Ride like the wind.  Push yourself to the limit in pursuit of your potential.
Who among you will rise up to the challenge?  You will have to start early and start hard.  You will have to persevere.  It can be done, and you can do it.  Never be surprised by what hard work, dedication, and dreams can produce.  Without exception, the champion athletes (and successful people) that I know are the hardest workers.  Hard work always pays off.  Keep this in mind because the pond is about to get a lot bigger.

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