Like many people, I suspect, I have been engrossed in watching the Olympics. It's the first time I have had a chance to see both daytime and prime time events that are being televised....at least the first time since I have been a priest. For 16 days, I become an Olympics junkie. The summer games are my favorite by far.
Growing up, I was not an athlete. I was more of an academic. I did the usual physical education classes, played sandlot baseball and football and did my share of running about. I seemed always to "run out of steam" at some point. It was frustrating. Then, I gained a little weight in middle school. I didn't understand that, because I was not a "couch potato." I was a Boy Scout in a troop that was very active. I grew up in Central Florida, so I swam daily. Our troop hiked (did the fifty mile hike once), did extended bike trips (80 miles per trip), and canoed most of the rivers north of Lake Okeechobee. I had long-term endurance.
In high school, I learned to run and ran distances and cross country relays. I could not sprint for the life of me. I simply had no speed for short races. I trimmed down considerably in high school, but I battled a self-esteem issue. My coach (Bill Duncan) pushed me hard, but I could not deliver. I was strong and could run relentlessly in rough terrain (cross-country) but don't count on me in the flats...the final race to the line. Finally, in frustration, I simply quit.
Beyond the required courses in college, physical education and endurance exercise did not exist from me during those years between 1968 and 1972. I did quite a bit of hiking, however.
Then came my entry into the military. People in the Army and Marine Corps like to joke about the other armed services not having their toughness and preparation. My eleven weeks of training in the U.S. Navy had a huge amount of physical training. By the time I graduated from A-School, I was lean, hard and could endure long periods of physical exertion. It was there I found out about teamwork.
My training company had 72 young men. At age 21, I was almost the oldest...two guys were older than me. One of the hallmarks of military training is learning to work as a team. Ultimately, everyone helps everyone else in some way...encouragement, teasing, teaching techniques and other ways we each gave to the others that capacity to keep trying a little harder. I was able to go farther, faster and longer because my shipmates were there to encourage and support....as I did for them. As an individual, I became more than I was, but I did not not it by myself.
As a result, I developed a life-long love for running and weight training. I found out in 1995, that the reason I could not run fast was due to a congenital heart condition called coronary ectasia. My coronary arteries are 2.5 times larger than normal with "wavy' walls. Once my heart hits a certain pace, the coronary arteries lose efficiency, and I "hit the wall." HOWEVER, I could get to a pace good for me (around a 10 minute mile) and then run for miles -- usual 8 to 10 miles -- at a stretch. I loved it!
My muscles responded to weights, and I learned to stretch through hatha yoga. For a number of years I "worked the pile" three times a week (the "pile" is slang for free weights and their accompanying equipment).
I usually had a partner with whom I would both run and workout. Free weights require a "spotter," so two or three of us would meet at the gym and spot for each other. This included encouragement and the occasional correction to form.
One day, while stationed at the submarine base in Holy Loch, Scotland (1974), I found myself at the gym at the shore facility at an odd time. I had to be back for an "evolution" (military slang for an event that has many parts) and had only a short time to get my weight training accomplished. I got cocky and tried overhead pressing more weight than usual. After only four reps, I got the weight over my head and began losing control. The rule, at such times, is to throw the weight bar away...let go of it so it will fall in front of the lifter. I tried a control drop down without letting go and twisted my right shoulder...very nearly dislocating it. I was in a sling for two weeks.
Jump ahead twenty years to 1995. I had decided to run a half marathon and was training with a couple of friends in South Bend. I went on a private retreat at the seminary where I did my graduate work and decided, on the spur of the moment, to do a special run/workout on my own. I set out on a road I had not been on. Less than a mile out, I somehow stepped in a depression in the road, began to fall and twisted my left knee -- tearing the meniscus cartilage. Surgery was the only solution.
In both of those scenarios, I was working alone and trying to accomplish training tasks best done with at least one other person. The long-term results are obvious. A second meniscus tear on my right knee in 2000 and a second injury to my right shoulder with weight training led to no more running and arthritic knees; and a prosthetic right shoulder joint with arthritis in the left joint.
I grieve the loss of the activities I had come to love, but I have found replacements that, when everything is working right, allow me to achieve the goals of proper weight, muscular tightness, and healthy cardio-vascular efficiency. Now, I work with a trainer who monitors my activity and occasionally jumps in to adjust my form on machines (no more working the pile...ever). I work out aerobically on an elliptical rider or stationary bike.
A couple of days ago, the Jamaican runner Usain Bolt, won the 100 meter dash...becoming the fastest man in the world. Right behind him -- placing second -- was fellow Jamaican, Yohan Blake. Therein is a wonderful story. Bolt and Blake train together. They are close friends. Blake is obsessive about training, which sometimes frustrates Bolt, who has given his friend the nickname, "the Beast." However, Blake, the Beast, says that his friend encourages him. In turn, Bolt says that Blake's obsessive training style, calls him to push the envelope of his endurance -- becoming a better runner.
Yohan Blake ran to win that 100 meter dash. So did Usain Bolt. Each encouraged the other to push through. At the end, they hugged, laughed and shed tears of joy together. It was a true Olympic moment.
I watched the new world record holder in the men's 400 meter race, Kirani James, remove his name badge and trade it for Oscar Pistorius' name badge after the semi-final of that race. Kirani James won and Pistorius came in last. Pistorius runs on double leg prostheses. This trade of badges is a sign of deep respect for another athlete in a race. James, of Grenada, giving respect and admiration to Pistorius, of S. Africa. No dry eyes in the stands Sunday evening.
Every athlete who speaks with reporters or commentators doesn't simply talk about how they won but also about those who trained, encouraged, loved and supported them in the process. They pushed the envelope of human capacity in league with a host of people in that process.
In a society that has come to value the power of individual effort, the goal of being an individualist has been raised to a place of near worship. At a time in our society where, suddenly, folks are misusing the Bible to create a false standard, they fail to see how the disciples and the early community supported, encouraged and engaged in a mutuality of spiritual development. Their individual efforts to share the Good News was supported by the larger community's prayers and investment.
Sportsmanship is the art and craft of teamwork. When I hear of parents who attack coaches and referees because their son/daughter not getting what they believe they should have (individual stardom), I realize our society is, in fact, in some trouble. One person is not the definition of a sport, or a business, or a family. I am a priest, because folks in my home parish saw something that they believed to be the work of the Holy Spirit in me. That continues to this day...even in retirement. My vocation is only an aspect of community...not simply "my priesthood."
When we find ourselves in a place of success, or enriched lives, or new opportunities, take a look around. There are those known to us...and unknown to us...who have given us support in unique ways. I have been building a list of those who have been part of me being who and what I am now. That list gets longer daily. Daily I give thanks for all of them. Thanks!