It’s my favorite commercial, ever. The camera pans out on a long country road, complete with three rickety mailboxes rising up out of the ground. They look more like tributes, or statues dedicated to rural America than simple containers designed to stick mail into. The grass is sprinkled with early morning dew and a light fog is lifting as the sun rises over the horizon. A new day has begun. Over the crest of the road a small figure begins to appear. It’s oblong, teetering side to side like a penguin racing to its annual migration at the South Pole. As the figure gets closer it becomes obvious its not a penguin at all. It’s a young boy, extremely over weight, shuffling his feet, knees rubbing together, shoulders slouched forward.
He’s visibly struggling with every step as he inches his way down this road that has become his arch nemesis, his Everest, his great white whale. The commercial is by Nike and the theme is “Find your Greatness”. I freak’n love it. I love the commercial, and I love that boy so much I want to start running behind him like he’s Forrest Gump, cheering him along “you can do it! You got this!” Oh, and I love, love, love the message. “Find your Greatness”.
Now, I know I’m not alone here. This message resonates with all of us and we all can see elements of ourselves in that boy. The empathy we feel is the timeless connection we share with every single person who has ever inhabited this planet and our common experience of life. We all struggle. We all will endure pain. And at some point, all of us must choose to overcome or be submitted by hardship that at times can seem as daunting as a mine field in Afghanistan. Notice I said “choose”. Greatness is not an accident. Greatness is not genetic and its not something you can get from making a wish while rubbing your legs together, snorting fairy dust and sprinkling powdered unicorn horn over your head. Greatness is a choice. It’s a promise, or a gift that each of us can offer ourselves, if we choose. But what is Greatness? What does it mean to be great, and how the hell do you get there when the universe constantly conspires to keep a brotha’ down?
Three years ago, I came out of a 28-year retirement to start competing in Powerlifting again. Powerlifting is an absolutely brutal, lonely sport. There is no money involved “except for the money you spend on it”. The trophies are shit. It tears your body apart, wrecks your central nervous system, requires massive amounts of time and energy and leaves you in a pile of primordial sludge that is more closely associated with an amoeba than anything human. But I love it… Why? Because it’s one of the most honest expressions of total, absolute effort (mental, emotional, physical, spiritual) I’ve ever experienced. You are either getting stronger or you’re not. If your head is up your butt, the weights don’t care. Good day, bad day, the weights don’t care. You either perform, or you don’t. Any excuse is just wasted energy. Powerlifting is not a team effort. Which is good, and bad. The good side is there’s no one else to steal the spotlight or take credit for your success. Bad side is there’s no one there for you to conveniently blame when the kaka hits the fan.
My dream as a youth athlete was to become a world champion powerlifter and drape the American flag across my shoulders as the National anthem played in the background and a shiny gold medal was hung around my neck. I wanted to be great. No, I wanted to be the greatest, just like Ali. Long story short, four long years in the Army sidelined my dreams until at the ripe old age of 46, those visions “or delusions” of grandeur started to stir once again. It was time to knock the dust of the uni-tard and crack Pandoras box once again. I say Pandora’s box because just like the ancient Greek fable, every amazing gift offered by the pursuit of greatness comes with a price. But what would be mine?
In a little over 30 months of training I managed to string together the following:
- South Eastern Regional Championships – Gold Medal
- Tennessee State Championships – Gold Medal
- USAPL Raw National Championships – Bronze Medal
- I also set an American record in the deadlift (514lbs weighing 159) and every state record for all three lifts (squat, Bench and Deadlift) and totals, in two separate weight classes (74kg and 84kg
I was kickin’ butt for sure, but my body “and mind” began to suffer. I struggled through several debilitating back strains, chronic tendinosis in my hip (high hamstring), and a week before the Tennessee State Championships I tore my LCL, which has still not healed. I was also constantly fatigued from cutting weight and the massive volume of weights I was pushing every week made it impossible to recover. The fatigue had a profound effect on my work and home life as well. I was crotchety, hangry, suffered mood swings and I found it impossible to focus on anything due to the constant brain fog. I was struggling so much the only choice that remained was to seize training and let my body heal. I was devastated. I had gotten so close to my dream only to see it slip through my grasp, once again. But, there was no other choice. Had I continued I’m confident a massive injury was right around the corner not to mention bankruptcy and probably divorce “my poor wife, GEEEZ!”
Al Oerter, the four time Olympic discus champion was quoted as saying “an athlete will eat brillo pads and bleacher seats if they thought it would make them better”. What Al is referring to here is the fervor that accompanies everyone on their path to greatness. This fervor can be blinding, all encompassing and it takes no prisoners. I’ve personally experienced it. I’ve also coached and mentored many athletes who suffered great pains physically, emotionally, and financially all for a fleeting moment as they raise their fists over their head in triumph, only to wake up the next day feeling empty and lost. Its so easy to get caught up in our dreams and ambitions for our future self, that we lose sight of the here and now. I’ve come to realize that greatness has little to do with the actual “moment”of success. This is a profound statement I know, given the awe inspiring sensations we all feel watching someone accomplish the impossible like Neil Armstrong waking on the moon, Michael Jordon breaching gravity or Nelson Mandela becoming president of a country that imprisoned him for 27 years.
What I’ve come to realize is that greatness has little to do with a fleeting moment when dreams become reality. Remember what I said earlier, greatness is not an accident. Great people achieve great things through sheer will and discipline cultivated through years of practice. It all starts with lacing up those sneakers, hiking boots, cleats, ballet slippers and pounding the pavement like our little chubby hero in the Nike commercial. It won’t always be pretty, it will rarely be easy, and you will be tempted and tested every day. But greatness is defined by your resilience, your dedication to the path and the process. Greatness is not about the trophy, it’s about how many mailboxes you pass today and whether you can make it past just one more tomorrow.