Last week I enjoyed another “Life of Riley” moment. As a member of the athlete council for the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid committee (which I earned through doing nothing other than being a former Olympian) I was invited to be a “principal for the day” for a school the Chicago area. At first I balked as it meant taking a full vacation day during a very busy time at work – but eventually Diane Simpson one of the leaders of the athlete council talked me into it.
I am glad I made the time.
For about 3 hours that morning my feet squeaked through the shiny white tile floors and peeling paint on the cinder block hallways of the Betsy Ross elementary school in the heart of the south side of Chicago at 59th and Wabash. Christine Kijowski. the P. E. teacher walked me from room to room and was a study in grace.Per their instructions I wore my Olympic warmups, and then covered my bets in order to entertain the kids and brought props – the silver medal from the ’94 games, the shiny gaudy gold Olympic ring, the 18” blade and carbon fiber boot of my speed skate, and best of all (when I was allowed to light it) the still-working torch from the 1996 Atlanta Games torch run.
Kids love fire. So do I.
Let’s be clear. I’m a white guy. I sometimes forget this as I don’t really think about race or ethnicity very much, but in the 6 classrooms I visited there were only African American children – not a single other ethnicity represented. Whatever I was supposed to think about that I failed, as usual, to do so. They were just kids, sitting at the same uncomfortable wooden desks as I did at their age with remarkable discipline that dissolved and reformed quickly with a teacher’s voice. So I spoke loud to cut through the chatter, asked names, and mostly handed them stuff to look at – they liked to see and handle stuff. Were they any different than kids in any other school? No.
And it was fun – they asked lots of questions, some of which I couldn’t answer, and politely handed around and returned my ring, medal, skate, and torch. The most rewarding moment of the whole morning was when I spoke to the entire preschool of about 80 kids sitting in a circle (after they read me poetry and sang songs in honor of my visit) and they then swarmed me to give me group and individual hugs, hugs and more hugs. Damn little knee biters nearly took me down – I loved it.
I then proceeded into the city up Indiana and then Michigan Avenue to the Hilton Towers where a “Principal for the Day” luncheon was held for all the other volunteers and athletes. Special guests were Mayor Daley and Brian Clay – the Olympic gold medalist in decathalon from the Beijing games just a few months back.
I wandered into the huge ballroom and had no idea where to sit. Just then Diane intercepted me and ushered me to one of the athlete’s tables. I sat down and recognized a face across from me – none other than John Vandevelde – the father of this year’s 4th place finisher in the Tour de France. We had met earlier this summer. I said hello and shook hands and then let my eyes drift to the person in between us. I stopped cold. You’re… You’re Christian. (Christian Vandevelde his son – 4th in the tour de France this year – another super-stud.) I smoothed out my words and held out my hand. He was funny and gracious and we talked quite a bit over the next hour before he left to get ready for the AC/DC concert to be held that night.
We also talked about my former nemesis Jamie Carney – I described some of our old antics and a recent event where I had seen Jamie after 20 years this summer at Downer’s Grove. I laughed and recalled how the old tension still seemed to be there. Christian laughed too and said – yeah, that’s Jamie – he’s never going to change. He then referenced Jaime's name change a while back to "J-Me" but referred to him as "Jay-dash-me" and I howled in laughter. He then said, "my Dad can’t stand him." I understood.
Rewind: a while back I had received this email. It was regarding a different event than the one described above, but it does capture the lucky club I’ve found myself a member of. It is from the "Godfather of Michigan Cycling" Ray Dybowski - a friend, Wolverine teammate, and fellow disciple of the Walden school. More accurately Ray is the heir apparent to the Walden coaching legacy:
From: firstname.lastname@example.org [mailto:email@example.com] Sent: Monday, September 15, 2008 1:17 PM To: Coyle, John Subject: [WSCRacing] TBAM: Week of 09/08/2008
In my searches of your blog, I found an article about you being invited to a gathering and were told "there would be other fellow Olympians there." This line stuck in my thoughts.
Of course there is the fact that even though I spent time at the OTC (Olympic Training Center), I am not a fellow Olympian. It made me think of all the people that go to the Olympics and miss a medal by the greatest and smallest of margins but are still fellow Olympians and the few that rise to achieve a medal and the incredible odds of it happening.
I think about Lance and his great abilities never accomplishing that goal and Michael Phillips almost making it look easy. The athletes with confidence that show up expecting to and do win and the underdogs unexpectedly standing on the podium and better yet to listen to their National Anthem.
I think about Mike Walden and his almost 'shoot from the hip' style and the successes a number of his athletes enjoyed, and those that dreamed and strived for it........ All those great athletes around the world with talents and abilities but would'a, should'a, could'a and never made it and wonder why. And the Kacey’s and Luke’s that have a chance and are trying to learn how to get there.
Also, the fact that being a part of this (Olympic) club, that has probably close to the same chances of as winning the lottery, yet does happen to people from all social structures around the world.
So the question is; What does it take for an athlete to become a fellow Olympian?
Well Ray, that’s quite a question. One deserving of a rich response, so I'll post the long answer of what I think it takes – it will probably take me 4 or maybe 5 posts… starting next week. My honest belief is that Walden Principle #1 is the reason that some join "the club" and others don’t – "Race Your Strengths, Train Your Weaknesses."
More to come next week,