Chasing Your Best
Eragon: “I’m doing my best.”
Oromis: “No, this is not your best. We shall recognize your best when it appears.” He paused thoughtfully. “Perhaps it would help if you had a fellow student to compete with. Then we might see your best.”
(Passage from Eldest by Christopher Paolini.)
There’s a plastic shoe box in my closet in my parents house in Carbondale, Colorado. In that box are a bunch of ribbons and medals. Most are finisher/participation medals from triathlons and road races that I’ve completed since 2014. There are also a handful of ribbons from my brief career as a competitive rock climber in 2002 and 2003. A handful of medals hang on a display rack on my bedroom wall—Ironman Boulder 2016; Ironman Arizona 2017 and 2018; Walt Disney World Goofy Challenge 2015; Boston Marathon 2017 and 2018; as well as a few others. In my dorm room at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center I have my ITU medals hanging in front of my bed where I reach to grab my guide dog’s harness or a change of clothes. Every time I reach I hit the medals and they clang together. 2nd Sarasota Paratriathlon World Cup; 2nd CAMTRI American Championships; 3rd World Paratriathlon Series Milan; 2nd Magog Paratriathlon World Cup; 2nd USA Paratriathlon National Championship. In my almost 28 years I’ve never been the best at something… Well, except once. Buried in that shoe box is a crumpled Blue Ribbon from the 2005 James Weldon Johnson College Preparatory Middle School History Fair, Research Paper Division. That year’s history fair topic was “Communication in History.” At the urging of my seventh-grade geography teacher I wrote a research paper on Braille and how it contributed to the improvement of the lives of the blind and visually impaired.
Nearly 15 years later I’m fascinated by this 1st place Blue Ribbon. The History Fair topic “Communication” wound up being what I studied in college, it’s what I technically do for a living, and it’s something I’m at once good at as well as terrible at. Another thing that fascinates me is the subject of that research paper—Braille. A system of reading and writing developed by a young French boy who just wanted to read. Once he developed the system he began teaching it to others, and then made it a goal to spread it to as many blind people across the globe as possible. Roughly 176 years after Louis Braille’s death, Braille is seemingly threatened by digital technology such as screenreading softwares and fewer kids than ever are learning to use Braille. However, this isn’t a post lamenting progress. I mention Louis Braille because, in my opinion, he’s possibly the most influential—some might say the greatest—blind person in history.
As people we all want to be great or the best at something. We want to be the greatest employee, boss, co-worker, spouse, sibbling, parent, athlete. As an athlete competing on an international level representing the United States the goal is to stand on top of podiums. It’s spelled out in the agreement/contract I sign as a resident athlete at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center. If I fail—i.e., finish off the podium—then I get no funding and am subject to dismissal from the program.
Growing up I chased being the best. I was frustrated at how much easier it was for so many others. In my first year of competitive climbing I consistently placed in the top five or six at competitions even placing as high as second once. The next year, despite increases in strength and experience I struggled in every comp never finishing higher than second to last place. The next year, I was completely out of competitive climbing.
In middle and high school I chased academic and athletic greatness. Despite winning a 1st place ribbon for my research paper on Braille in seventh-grade, I failed to place at Regionals and never went on to the statewide competition. In high school, I always came second to my older sister in grades and test scores. In my chosen sport of wrestling, I drove myself crazy trying to make it to the Florida State Tournament, but never placed higher than third in a tournament and never made it out of the second round of the Regional Tournament.
In college I vowed to wrestle all four years of my eligibility but fell out of love with the sport and quit halfway through my second year because I was sick of the injuries, skin infections, and I just wasn’t any good. A year and a half later I graduated after just three years of study and went into the workforce ready to prove I could be the best at whatever career I chose. A year later I was turned down for a bagboy job at a supermarket. A year after that, the relationship that I’d been in for four years with a girl I thought I was going to marry fell apart as well.
In 2014, I turned to running as a distraction, as a way to chase away my mental demons. That morphed into triathlon, Ironman and eventually chasing representing the USA at the Paralympics in Paratriathlon. So far my chase to represent the US at Tokyo 2020 isn’t going bad, but it’s not going great either. In major races I’ve failed to deliver either by not getting onto the podium or not finishing within the correct time percentage of the winner to earn a spot on the National Team (which is how we receive funding from USA Triathlon). I’ve been passed over several times to represent the US at other major international competitions and now I’m currently battling my biggest physical setback.
I’ve been told I need to have a more positive attitude/mindset, that I need to live more in the moment, spin things more positively. It is something I’ve tried very hard to do, but it’s really hard. When you’ve chased being your best your entire life, and quit more often than not, it’s hard to not look back over your results and question whether they really were successes. Did I really do my best? Did I really give everything I had, or was there a little more that I could have given?
Yes, this post makes it sound like I’m purely chasing medals or outside recognition, but to be truthful I’m chasing something deep inside. An urge, a fire that life continually tries to put out. My friend and mentor, Erik Weihenmayer was once given the advice “Don’t let Everest be the greatest thing you ever do.” Well, I haven’t summited my Everest just yet. Triathlon is that thing that has made me turn my life inside out and up side down. It’s something that I wasn’t particularly talented at, something where I really had to build from the ground up. Right now, chasing those who continue to finish ahead of me on the race course is the closest I’ve been to finding my best, but I’m not there yet.
I’ve had many setbacks, physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally. Many of them I don’t talk about. Those setbacks, bounce backs, triumphs and failures all define me. There have been many times that I’ve quit and others where I haven’t. Retired Admiral William H. McGraven said in his 2014 commencement speech at the University of Texas “If you want to change the world don’t EVER, EVER ring the bell.” Winston Churchill was once asked to give a piece of advice to a group of middle school-aged boys. He stood up and said “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up,” and then sat back down. So when I reach for Skye’s harness, a fresh T-shirt or pair of pants, my hand hits those second and third place ITU medals. When I’m back home and I rummage through that box of participation medals to find that crumpled blue ribbon; when I re-read my previous race reports; when I scroll back through my memories of past successes and failures; I’m reminded to never give up, to never quit, and to never ring the bell.
If you want to be great or be the best, find that passion that makes you sick and satisfied at the same time. Find the thing that reminds you to keep pushing for your best. And whatever you do, do not settle or be satisfied with anything less than your best, no matter how others try to spin it. You’ll know when you find it.