Lemons, sweet lemons.

DNTO had a great topic today…

What happened when life handed you lemons? [podcast link here]

So many successes are the result of quick hands rescuing things from the fire. Which sounds like this entire spring for me…as half the household fights off pneumonia.

But I digress.

I really feel for the athlete highlighted named Israel, in his tale of continual tribulation and that its important to keep trying, in some cases no matter what, but in some cases it’s also important to know when to let go. I struggled for a few years with a similar scenario. It was the only life choice I’ve made that gave me nightmares…for years.

In 1995-96 I was wrapping up my competitive collegiate career at the University of Arkansas, in one of the most successful track programmes in the history of the NCAA – and one the most prolific programs in all NCAA sport, period.

The team was amazing. We were used to pulling victories from hats all the time. Our presence turned heads in a good way, no matter how silly we were. It was normal for us to be watched; studied even. Our NCAA division 1 team appearances were scrutinized for every possible glitch, tactical change, and team change-up. Meaningless details took on meaning for people. Rumors abounded and we always had to be careful about what we said or did at most times.

We won. A lot.

John McDonnell: The Most Successful Coach in NCAA History

In 1995 I was busy racing, training and prepping for the defense of my 1994 NCAA Indoor Men’s 5000m title. However things were unravelling quickly after a good start to the season. By late February I had missed too many workouts due to a three week long series of sinus infections, colds, and a bout of bursitis on one knee. Training had derailed so badly that I was moved to the 3000m because my fitness was deemed poor enough that I was likely to win too few points in the 5000 should I have competed.  I was the defending champion in the 5k and despite my intentions to compete in 5k I was overruled because I could not prove I was ready. Fair enough. I took the assignment.

But it gets worse. I was knocked into a somersault in the first 70 meters of the race:


That’s me going down along with the fellow in Orange – the defending 2nd place finisher from the year before. He had been race favorite and was ready to win. He dropped out shortly afterward having dislocated his shoulder in the tumble. I was assuming my role was to tag along and try to stay close to the front. The fall startled the field and the pace lagged and an opportunity emerged. The video tells the rest.

Fast forward to 1996 and a similar situation arises in a different context. 1996 was a key year with the 1996 Olympics going on in Atlanta GA. My plan was to make the team in the 5000m, Competing for Canada. If all went well I’d be a shoo-in.

By Feb, I was in the best shape of my life, ripping out some very fast times that were nearly world-leading in the 3k indoors. A small nodule appeared on my achilles one day and after some discussion I and my physiotherapist decided to “work it smooth” thinking it would dissolved after one or two sessions. Instead it inflamed like a balloon, and I was again missing workout after workout with a comically swollen achilles.

I was able to get it recovered to normal in about 4 weeks, just in time to whip together some good workouts just before heading to the World Cross Country Championships in South Africa in mid March. I was feeling pretty good merely getting to compete again even if I was not ready to run at top form. On that trip, almost the entire team ended up contracting salmonella poisoning, some were so sick they were hospitalized prior to departure from the country. I ended up seemingly ok, but became violently ill upon return to University. I dropped almost 20 pounds in the next week.

Once again, I had to recover to form, finish my NCAA season, and move onto post-collegiate competition chasing that elusive Olmpic ideal.

NCAA Championships went well enough. We did win yet another team title. My teammate and I were significant contributors to the win (1-2 and 2-3 in the 10k and 5k).

NCAA Men’s 10k race

Two things still had to happen for me to make that Olympic team in late June: run a fast 5k (faster than 13:29) and finish top three at the Olympic trials. The former was simply not possibly at that point since fast group races were hard to find and I’d missed my early season chance with the salmonella bout. The latter happened after trying unsuccessfully to run very fast *at* those olympic trials. I was top-three, but the olympic deadline was the event itself at the Olympic trials. To make matters even more insulting a local favourite in a field event was allowed to petition to have his event re-run after the medals were handed out as he missed making standard as well. That opened up an opportunity for a legal challenge for every other competitor. This would factor in later. I walked away from those trials making the statement that I would have Olympic standard by July 7. The Winner of my 5k Olympic trials race sued to get the deadline extended to July 6th when he would try to make standard.

I went on to not only run standard, but I set a Canadian record of 13:22. Seven seconds faster than the standard. I was also returning to form and ready to run faster. I returned to Canada to a flurry of press and legal activity. I ended up not being allowed to compete, despite the American Olympic team coach offering to help find the funding if the COC could not find it. Lot was going on and it was focused on the man-made hurdle that was in front of us.

July 17th. It was two days before the games opening. Then something horrible occurred.

A friend from the U of Arkansas, a retired U of A athlete, and well-loved friend of the team named Dan Gabor was heading to Europe. He was typically travelling to perform tree-ring analysis work for the Geography department, and had gotten a stand-by seat on a trans-Atlantic flight to meet his girlfriend in Paris. It was TWA flight 800. The flight blew up over ocean past Long island. No one survived.

Dan Gabor Memorial gate

At the point of hearing that we was on the flight it was clear that the lemons I was handling were a very sweet variety compared to the kind I thought I had on my hands. I did not mind missing the games at that point. Disappointed yes, but more opportunities and challenges would arise later on, but I still had my legs, my life, and my future. Dan was gone forever and he *enjoyed* his life and everyone around him. People enjoyed him. He was gone to us now. So how to put the so-called lemons into context?

Each problem was in itself nothing different from any of the successes I was enjoying. A down should be no different from an “up”. They are all challenges.

So I eventually retired with as little fanfare as when I got into the sport, and moved onto many other great and interesting things (to me anyway), and got married and had children. Every lemon has been as enjoyable as everything else that wasn’t. And what I learned from that final lesson is that it’s important to make the most of every day you have no matter how good or bad. If you knew it was your last even a bad day would be a blessing.


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