You never really know when you’ll reach your sporting summit until you get there
Chelsea Sodaro, Genevieve Harrison, Rosie Brennan, Eliud Kipchoge, Zola Budd, Derrick Rose and Herb Kirk. What do these athletes have in common? Each one of them was the best.
At some point.
Sodaro swam, biked, danced, and played competitive soccer as a kid growing up in Davis, California. She became a four-time NCAA DI All-American at UC-Berkely and scored an upset USATF indoor 3,000-meter title in 2013. By 2017, she had given up the sport completely. Last month, 18 months after giving birth to her first child, the 33-year-old became the first American woman since the Jefferson administration to win the Ironman World Championship.
Deep in the bowels of the Letsrun.com messageboards, I found this poignant comment: “It’s awesome to see her reap the benefits of years of perseverance,” a poster said, one paragraph after detailing Sodaro’s injury history and spartan approach to cross-training.
“She had more than her fair share of setbacks and good reasons to give up. I think most people in her situation would have ended their athletic careers at 19 or 20 and here she is at 33 reaching the highest point of her career to date. It couldn’t have happened for a better person.”
The SparkNotes version of Harrison’s journey reads like this: the 35-year-old ultra-trail breakout star had to walk away from a USA Triathlon career at 17 — and organized sports altogether – to really find out why/where/how she needed it …. over a decade (and two kids) later.
Brennan didn’t fit the mold of the U.S. Ski Team’s development pipeline, mostly because she started skiing at 14, which is apparently on par with trying to get a college degree when you’re 90 (hold that thought). Thus, she’s been cut from the team twice. At the Beijing Olympics, her perseverance resulted in two sixth-place finishes as well as a fourth and a fifth – some of the best results in the program’s history. If Jessie Diggins wasn’t around, she’d be the undisputed poster-child for the women’s team.
Kipchoge is an ageless wonder — I’m not even sure why I mentioned him, other than failing to include the Kenyan in a running column is almost offensive.
Zola Budd was just 17 when she broke the 5,000-meter world record in 1984, and most of her best times quickly followed; she won world cross-country championships in 1985-1986.
Like Budd, Derrick Rose reached his peak early in his NBA career as the youngest MVP-award winner (22) in 2011.
I juxtaposed the last two athletes with my first few to establish a clear thesis: one never really knows when they are destined to reach their athletic peak. It might be early and in the sport you’ve adored since diaper days, and it might be late, doing something that once held the attractive equivalent — for you — of watching paint dry.
The takeaway, I believe, is to never stop grinding or dreaming. Those with a vision, and the determination to see it through — coupled with the flexibility to adapt the avenue, without sacrificing the standards – end up standing on top of some podium, somewhere, eventually.
So, who is Herb Kirk?
I’ve probably inserted my own athletic journey into this column too many times — for that, I sincerely apologize, primarily because, well, it was far from special. I not only never made it to state in any of the three sports I played in high school — I never even made it past the second round of a section tournament! In college, I became an all-conference honorable-mention runner and my best race happened 1 ½ years before graduation, thanks to a miserable, injury-filled homestretch filled with a lot of literal and metaphorical limping. My only real claim to fame is probably setting my family’s consecutive free throw record when I was 12.
I joke because, reflecting on the twists and turns my life has taken, having my athletic ambitions swallowed in obscurity and characterized by anonymity — despite grinding and striving for the exact opposite for thousands of miles and tens of thousands of hours — was perhaps the greatest gift I ever received.
I often tell my wife my current life objective is still the same as it was when I was three: to represent the USA at an international competition.
Christie is a wonderful helpmate in every sense of the word, and since we are unified in our beliefs, dreams, values, etc, I’ll try and comfort my father-in-law by promising this goal will not take away from me being at the dinner table… unless that’s the best time for a ski …ok, bad example. The point was supposed to be that in the context of my actually important priorities, I don’t plan on chasing Salt Lake 2032 at the expense of my family’s best interests.
Thus, Christie and I both understand, when we romantically twinkle our eyes at one another, that this finish line is probably going to be crossed by 98-year-old Ryan Sederquist, the alternate for Team USA’s underwater basketweaving 95+ age division squad. Which is to say, it will be crossed by someone many of you would say just “couldn’t give up sports” as a “child’s game.” If you view it the way I prefer: someone who was never satisfied — even for one day, in any activity — to give less than his best, and who never stopped setting and chasing goals.
That’s the real gift.
Sports is about fostering excellence. If someone had handed me a medal at 18, the foot probably comes off the gas. The ramifications — in regards to the consequential drive I’ve since tried to pour into everything — can’t be understated.
Kirk (stay with me here, you’re almost to the end….) was the oldest Montana State University graduate ever (96) when he left the Bozeman school with his art degree in 1993. (Do you feel a literary fulfillment with that collegiate callback from 14 paragraphs ago?).
You might be tempted to assume this factoid proves my point, but there’s more. An avid tennis player — he has an event named after him — he gave up the sport when his eyesight failed during his 80s. Turning to running, he amassed M95 World records in the 800, mile and 5,000-meters.
He was the best at his thing, in his time.
At one point, he held every American age-group record from 200-5,000-meters, a feat not even equaled by Steve Prefontaine! (Since every skieologians piece must either reference Pete Maravich or Pre, I can officially consider this writing a success).
Even though he holds the distinction of being the oldest person to ever compete in an organized running event (104), it was perhaps his most meaningful medal which took the most patience to receive. Born in 1895, his college experience in Pennsylvania was interrupted by World War I. At 104, he was finally given the rank of Chevalier in the French Legion of Honour for his service in the protection of France during the war.
So, here’s a toast to big dreams, to patience and to the pursuit itself …
… to Herb … and all of us who want to be just like him.