Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Swimming with Guy #2

Shortly after Guy Vitale was diagnosed with cancer, my dad told me a story. I would love to say that my dad has the kind of memory that leaves no detail unremembered, but unfortunately it is more accurate to say that you’re just lucky if he remembers your name. Regardless, I have been using this story as motivation for months, so I will do my best to tell it accurately on my end.

I think it’s safe to say that there are some universal fears. It is a rare sixth grader that doesn’t dread walking the tiled hallways of junior high for the first time. In my time as a teacher, even the most confident students suffered the uncontrollable hand shaking, blushing, and accelerated speech so symptomatic of the oral presentation. It is rare that a day goes by in my house without my wife or daughters screaming “SPIDER!!!” and pointing to a small black speck moving slowly up the wall. But there are other kinds of fear. We are afraid of that lump just under our skin or that mole on our shoulder, or even worse, the look on our doctor’s face before he or she tells us that it is indeed cancer. I can’t imagine my reaction in a situation like that, but I know I wouldn’t be as brave as Guy was. When Guy was diagnosed, he had to endure that meeting—had to hear the words and process them just like everybody else who is attacked by cancer. He had to hear his oncologist, someone he trusted, tell him that he had stage four cancer, and he had to endure another specialist’s more pessimistic assessment that he only had three months to live. These are the kinds of moments that define us. There is no right way to react to a proclamation that you only have three months to live, but I think Guy’s reaction says a lot about who he was. Guy’s only words in that fateful moment…”Bull Shit.”

I can’t even begin to articulate the effect this story has had on me. As a writing teacher, I preached the importance of the minutest choices that we make as writers. As a parent, I lecture my daughters everyday about the importance of making good choices. In my attempt to be a triathlete, I am faced everyday with choices that will most definitely affect my performance on August 20th in the Three Rivers Triathlon. But I don’t think I understood what the important decisions were until my dad told me this story about Guy. I used to think that the important decisions were more macro than micro—that the choice of college was more important than the work put into a particular paper or the choice of job was more important than the choice to do your best every day or in each moment. When Guy said “Bull Shit”, he didn’t just say it once. He said it every day. He said it every time he felt nauseous but went for a swim anyway. He said it every time somebody poked him with another needle or made him lie still while they scanned his body. He said it every time he got out of bed in the morning and with every breath he took. Most importantly, he said it every time the voice in his head said “Wouldn’t it be easier to just let it happen? You’re tired. Nobody would blame you. Its stage four cancer, your chances are slim at best.”

I have spent too much of my life letting that voice influence my choices. I have spent too much of my life thinking that the choice to do something only happens once—that commitment means that all you have to do is show up. I used to think that if someone beat me at something it was because they were simply more talented or had been doing it longer and there have even been times that I very absurdly thought that they were just having a better day than me. I used to think that doing my best was only about giving everything of myself to a task on the day it “mattered”. I did my best last year at the Three Rivers Triathlon. I didn’t have anything left when I crossed the finish line in just over one hour and twenty two minutes, and I was proud of my performance on that day—I was proud that I finished, and I actually believed the voice in my head when it told me that the people that beat me were simply better. I actually believed that the men and women that seemed an endless parade passing me on the bike and the run were simply better than me. Now I know that they just made better choices—I know that they worked harder. Thanks to Guy, I approach these choices differently now.

Last year, if I was having a bad morning, exercise was the first thing to go. If I got up later than usual, ML was in a bad mood, or IR was especially sensitive, I would skip going to the gym. This year I have made different choices. Even if I work eleven p.m. to five a.m., then sleep until awakened at eight by two little girls fighting over a toy they hardly play with anymore, I still eat breakfast, feed the girls, feed the dog, get everyone ready and go to the gym. Last year, if I had made it to the gym on such a day I would have taken it easy. I would have let the voice in my head convince me that it was okay to make it a light day. I would have let it convince me that thirty minutes on the bike was enough, that nobody expected me to do much in the triathlon and that I knew I could finish and that was enough. This year I push just as hard as any other day. I make sure I get at least eighty minutes of exercise five days a week and I don’t let excuses get in the way. Swimming has been the biggest revelation. I realized that I have to choose to make every stroke count--that momentum is too easily lost when I don’t concentrate. When Guy said, “Bull shit”, he committed himself to the idea that he could beat cancer, so when I decided to do this triathlon to honor him I committed myself to the idea that I could win. Guy didn’t exactly beat Cancer, but he did beat his cancer for a while. His commitment to beat Cancer allowed him to live more than a year beyond his doctor’s original prognosis and he fought with everything he had until the end. I don’t think Guy would say that he regretted his commitment to beat cancer, knowing the outcome, because there were many rewards. He got to meet his first grandchild and be in the pool with him when he swam for the first time, and that is just one life experience of many that I’m sure he would never give back.

Like I have said before, my odds of winning this triathlon are only slightly better than the Cubs winning the World Series this year, but my commitment to win has driven me to work harder than I ever would have if I had just committed to finish. I have learned things about myself that I would not have known otherwise. At the time of the triathlon last year, I weighed in at 228 lbs. As of right now, I weigh 188 lbs. Last year, I competed in the Shamrock Shuffle, which is a five-mile race in Downtown Chicago and I finished in 47:50. This year, it was a stepping-stone in my plan for the triathlon and I set a goal in January to finish in 35:00. I didn’t quite reach that goal, but on April 10th I did finish in 37:31, bettering my previous time by more than ten minutes. More importantly, before that day, I didn’t think I could run a mile in 7:30 and not only did I do that, but that was my average pace over five miles. None of this has anything to do with talent. It all comes down to a commitment to the effort of achieving something that seems beyond reach. It is ignoring the voice that at this very moment is telling me to delete this entire paragraph because it seems like I am bragging and, worse than that, is creating expectations that I am afraid that I will not live up to. Just like Guy, win or lose, succeed or fail, I would never give back the life experiences and lessons that I have learned in the pursuit of this triathlon.

Guy’s daughter Alexis is an inspiration too. In fact, my decision to publish a blog at all was somewhat influenced by her bravery. I was terribly impressed by the idea of someone creating an organization, let alone a charity. It is one thing to have a good idea or a good intention, but it takes a special kind of drive to follow that idea all the way to fruition. Hopes Song is still fairly young though and, like all charities, needs a lot of people to believe in it enough to support it and give it strength. Sometimes I think people get discouraged from helping because they don’t think that their contribution is enough. What is the point? Right? We can’t listen to that voice. Credit card companies make billions on transaction fees that are sometimes less than five cents apiece. If ten people give ten dollars apiece, does that money somehow have less power than if one person gives one hundred? Yes, this is my appeal. According to the stats on my blog, more than three hundred people read my post “Swimming With Guy”, but less than twenty have pledged any money. If you don’t like my convoluted pledge scheme of giving Hopes Song more money the better I do, then just give whatever you can. If everyone gives a little, it can make a huge difference in the lives of the families that Hopes Song benefits. Hopes Song is a 501(c)3 charity and all donations are tax deductible. Please visit the website to learn more about the people Hopes Song has helped and donate if you can:

Here is my convoluted scheme again, if you would like to pledge based on this send me an email at

If Mike…
Finishes I will give ______
Finishes in the top fifty I will give_______
Finishes in the top twenty I will give _______
Finishes in the top ten I will give _______
Finishes in the top five I will give ______
Wins the triathlon, I will give ________

A character in Paul Coelho’s book, The Alchemist, said “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” I would like to believe that is true, but I have a friend who said something that is easier for me to believe. He told me, “Contrary to what you might think, and how some people act, most of us like to see people succeed and we combine our hopes with the hopes of people who are brave enough to declare their intentions to succeed.” I am asking you to combine your hopes with ours and give other people the chance to fight Cancer like Guy did.

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