The soul of humanity is exposed in the heart of competition. Sometimes, it grosses me out. Other instances, I am humbled beyond words. At Duathlon Worlds, humble pie was the meal of the day! Here are five stories that are forever a part of my memory. Indeed, these are the reasons I hope I can go back.
#1: Suzanne Svendsen raced as a representative of Denmark in the Elite Women category. Elite translates as “pro” or “the best.” She was in the top of the top category. If Duathlon was a part of the Olympic movement, she would be an Olympian.
Typically, your bib number represents your World Ranking for Elite racers. Suzanne wore #1. Boom.
In the moments before Elite athletes get individually introduced, there is chatter in the transition area. They are talking to one another. They are talking to other athletes on the sidelines, and their coaches often have a word or two to share. Suzanne was trying to make eye contact and talk to other athletes and individuals on the sidelines. Only one other athlete approached her and greeted her before introductions. Many of the other competitors were getting hugs from the sidelines and cheers from the bleachers. Young Spaniards who came out to watch the fastest women in the world fight for the title of world champion were yelling out and waving flags in support of the Spaniards in the race.
Suzanne looked right past me, even as my eyes dug into her, as she stood ten feet from me. It was obvious that she was comfortable in her emotions in the moment, but her body language was loud. She was alone. The two German girls were talking (to me, in fact), and the Australian girl was giggling, yet Suzanne stood alone before a really big moment.
This was not new to her. You see, Suzanne face was most certainly Chinese, yet she had a Danish last name. In a land of blonde people, there must be a story there. Adopted from a Chinese orphanage? But that wasn’t what caught my eye’s attention. She had a clef lip, and she had obviously gone through a couple of surgeries to address it. I remember making fun of kids with things like that when I was a young boy, and I could only imagine that she was the recipient of more than one of two moments like that…perhaps even that played a role in how she left China and ended up in Denmark.
Her response was simple and inspirational. She became the best in the whole world. I have never known anyone with character to respond like that.
#2: My car got towed. I had parked in a commercial only parking spot, and I didn’t know it. After discovery, someone called a taxi for me, so I could get to the place they put my car. When I got out of the taxi at the impoundment lot, I got met by a Spanish bureaucrat. He showed me documents that I had to sign and told me to pay a fine. I offered him a choice of credit cards, yet none of them worked, as they lacked the chip on them that the Spanish system required. He told me that I needed to get cash. Google maps showed me that there was a bank about 10 minutes away, so I took the walk to go to the bank to get the cash. When I got back, I was sweaty, so I took off my jacket. Then, magic happened. He saw the TeamUSA logo on my shirt, and he immediately got on his cell phone. He called up some other cops and began chatting really quickly. I don’t know exactly what he said, but it created the arrival of two more cops within 5 minutes. You don’t need three cops to get a car out of a parking lot, right? Yet, before another minute passed, they wanted their photo taken with me. I wanted to be mad at them for towing my car and fining me, but I couldn’t. Instead, I smiled and laughed out loud, seeing the power that National Team attention can gather, but I also curse that all this is happening because I couldn’t read a Spanish “no parking” sign.
They apologized that they couldn’t remove or reduce the fine, as it was already in the “system.” However, they said that they would escort me back to my hotel. So, after getting my car out of the lot, the police car got in front of my car, with blue lights running. They told me to follow them, and they took me through Pontevedra, back to the hotel. At one point, one of them jumped out of the car and held up a hand to stop traffic while signaling to me to cut from the left lane to the right lane in traffic. I hit my steering wheel and just yelled, “The power of this T-Shirt!! This is crazy. No one in Monroe, NC would do this!” And I switched lanes and had a belly laugh that I will never forget.
#3: Isabel is a mother of two and is of Mexican descent. She lives in El Paso and was a fellow teammate. As part of her preparation, she put her children in a cycling caboose and hauled them with her as she went on rides around El Paso, to ensure that she had the strength needed to be compete on the cycling portion of the event.
Before the race, I pulled her by the hand next to me and we lifted a prayer to heaven to take our best stab at saying, “Thank you,” to our Lord Jesus for giving us the chance to be here. She gave me a hug, ran back to her stuff, and she let her effort do the talking. She finished as the #2 ranked US woman and came home in the top half of her bracket.
After the race, Isabel was commandeered by Spanish TV while we were talking. They wanted to interview some members of TeamUSA, and they correctly ascertained that she spoke both Spanish and English. She translated as several of us sat on a panel and were interviewed. For all of us, this was the first instance to describe to non Duathlon World the power of the experience…being around the best athletes in the world in our sport. Without her, none of us would have been given that opportunity. Thanks, Isabel.
#4: William, my friend from Tucson was there. He remembered me as the “prayer guy.” I am convicted of Christianity! During the Championship, William and I were next to each other entering transition #2, and his bike slot was just a few steps down the row from me. As he approached his final transition, I watched him grab his left hamstring and hold back a scream of profanity. He stood motionless, holding his injured leg. I was in running shoes and passing him literally seconds later, and I yelled out his name and said, “pray.”
Moments later, he passed me, turning to me and saying, “That worked, Man!” He finished in the top 10 in the World. He should have DNF. Instead, he provides testimony to the power of a living God. William was God’s vessel that day. He probably still thinks it has to do with racing. On that day, his place in the world was to learn to trust God at a deep level, when one of the things most important to him in the world was on the line. Funny how God shows up in those moments…
Later, he sent me a text message, sharing that he has been telling everyone about the prayer moment. Teaching others about prayer may be why I am on TeamUSA.
#5: The day before the race, TeamUSA was to meet at the start of the run course, and we were to have a self-guided run of the course, so all of us knew where we were going before the starting horn sounds. The time for the practice run had come and gone, and 100 of us were all standing around, looking for a leader to take over.
The skills I learned in 9th grade took over, involuntarily. Step up, Mr. Eagle Scout. This is how I was made.
“OK, everyone. I am going to lead the run. We are going to run the course and finish it by entering the stadium on the far side and go look at the transition area. I know we are not supposed to be in there, but it is better to apologize than to get permission. Let’s go.” Or something like that.
Then, something crazy happened. This guy with a bad foot led a run that included some of the most consistent and fastest mid distance runners in the US. People who I didn’t know approached me and started conversation, asking my opinion for good places to eat, good pre-race meal ideas, etc. As I predicted, a group of us entered the stadium after the run and were kicked out within a minute. However, during that minute, we got to see the details of where we were to put our bikes and the path that we were to follow as we covered the course. Precious info to a racer.
Outside the gates of the stadium, no less than 20 people came to me and asked questions. “Gaura, where do we go after we enter the stadium on the first run?” “Where are the bathrooms?” “Which way do we go when….” The questions kept coming, all because of presumed authority.
Who said knowing what is going on is a prerequisite to leadership? I answered one question with a, “I don’t know, but I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.”
In the event that I never get to do this again, I have to have memories that I treasure. There are more stories about other athletes and even some time with an Olympian that I didn’t know was an Olympian. TeamUSA so exceeded any expectations that I had that I feel forever blessed by my brief time there.