Long Distance Swimmer
Middlebury College | May 25, 2014
...what are you going to do with this one wild and precious life of yours?
You know, to follow Jenny [student speaker], I think Iím going to dispense with the de rigeur opening formalities, and I want a selfie too. But I want you all to be up and raucous! Get up! [Applause]
So many people have said it in different ways, when you achieve your dreams, itís not so much what you get. And since that walk up onto the beach in Florida from Cuba last Labor Day, Iíve been getting a lot. Iíve sat in the Oval Office with President Obama, whom I admire terribly. Iíve sat down with Oprah for a long, long soulful interview. Iíve been honored with a book contract with the esteemed publisher of America Today, Knopf, who believes that I have a memoir of inspiration within me. And to stand with you today on your special day at this treasured American school, I can tell you means the world to me. And by the way, come on, Iíve been on Dancing With the Stars now, it doesnít get any bigger than that.
But the end of that phrase goes, when you achieve your dreams, itís not so much what you get, itís who you become. And I can tell you that that stumbling walk up on that beach, me and my team, we made history, it wasnít me alone. I was filled with those phrases that came out of that unconscious, dazed brain that day..never, ever give up.
And I was filled with questioning myself and fulfilling that question as to what is my life philosophy? What makes me proud of myself? And perhaps, oddly enough, my life philosophy came from a teenager..not a great president, a grand philosopher, and I was a teenager myself. Iíll never forget her words, and Iíve tried every day of my life sincerely to live by them.
So I was a kid who had Olympic dreams, and it came to be the Olympic trials for Mexico City, 1968. I believed I had a chance to bow my head and receive a medal for the United States of America, and my speed had fallen off somewhat, and now I was facing the 100 meter back stroke after 10 years of 4:30 in the morning every day, 365 days a year, 1,000 situps every day, never 999. And that last 100-meter back stroke was in front of me, and it was either going to be this one or the next one when the three go on to Mexico City.
But the end of that phrase goes, when you achieve your dreams, it’s not so much what you get, it’s who you become.
And I was walking down that pool deck, I remember it like it was yesterday, like I was in just a fog, I had no focus at all. The pressure, the perspective of all those years, all that sacrifice. I didnít even smoke pot in the parking lot in high school. I mean, the sacrifices were tremendous. My parents had given up so much, my brother and sister, their dreams were so small compared to mine. And a girl, a 17-year-old name Suzanne, with her own chances for Mexico City, she saw that I was in a fog.
And she came over and she shook me, and she said, ďWhat is going on? This is the most important race of your life! Why arenít you in a laser focus?Ē And I said, ďThe coach and the parents and the sacrifice and my brother and sisterÖĒ
She said, ďStop it, stop it!Ē She said, ďYou know youíre the one. Youíre the one whoís always telling us that you reach for the stars, and you have a vision of that dream. And even if you never make it, youíre working so hard to get there youíre up playing around in the heavens. But you have that dream and then you get to work..you work hour by hour, and month by month, and year by year, and then maybe you get there, or you get pretty darn close.Ē
And she said, ďRemember, we just saw the documentary on Billie Jean King, the great tennis player.Ē She said, ďRemember how she says when she goes to Wimbledon, she doesnít go over and look at the draw and see, oh yeah, I might play her in the quarter finals, and I heard her second serve has improved a lot. No, she goes on to the Wimbledon grass, she says, like a cheetah on the hunt. She has no idea who her opponent is, she doesnít know who the chair umpire is, she doesnít know what the impending weather is. She is playing as the first Zen athlete..not the ball..she is playing the fuzz on the ball. And as the ball comes over, all those years of practice, all that genetic talent comes oozing out, and she hits the most perfect backhand thatís ever been hit. If the ball happens to come out, cheetah, sheís at the net, sheís hitting the overheard, and Billie Jean holds the Wimbledon trophy above her head 20 times.Ē
So my friendís saying to me, ďYou know what Iím talking about. Youíve got to be in this moment!Ē And she says, ďOkay, look, itís not as poetic as the fuzz on the tennis ball, but I want you to take a look at this little half moon sliver of your pinkie fingernail.Ē I needed this girl at this moment. And she and I are standing on the pool deck like this. I said, ďYeah, I see it.Ē She said, ďAll right, why donít you tell me how long itís going to take you in the 100-meter backstroke to swim that little half moon.Ē
And I said, ďWell, thatís probably going to take about a thousandth of a second.Ē She said, ďNo it isnít, come on, letís do the math. Itís going to take a lot less than that. Whatís it going to take?Ē And I said, ďOkay, okay, youíre right, letís say itís going to take a thousandth of a thousandth of a second.Ē She said, ďThatís it, thatís what itís going to take. Why donít you get up there on those blocks and blast off with the powerful shoulders that you built, and the unique heart of yours, and dig in and swim the most perfect potential race youíve got, touch the wall, donít look up at the electronic scoreboard, donít look around the pool. Youíre either moving on to the trials or youíre not.Ē Youíre moving on to the rest of your life, and I guarantee you, if you can say it and mean it, ďI couldnít have done it a fingernail faster,Ē itíll all be all right no matter what you do.
And I get up there, now Iíve got the laser focus. The perspective, the big dream is somewhere down in the soul. Now Iíve got 100 meters of perfection in front of me, and I blast off with those shoulders, and with that heart, and when I touch that wall, I have no idea if I was first or third or eighth, and I closed my eyes and I closed my fists, I said it and I meant it, I couldnít have done it a fingernail faster! I didnít leave a fingernail in that pool. And I looked up at the electronic scoreboard and I was sixth. And this kid didnít go to Mexico City, and that girlís wisdom swam through my body. I went and shook the hands of the three girls who were moving on, wished them luck. I went in the locker room, I thought maybe a flood of tears would come after all the effort, all the belief, 10 years. But the tears never came. And you know why? Itís because it wasnít just that 100 meters, it was the whole 10 years. It was every day of the situps, it was every day without the alarm clock. And I said to myself, Iím just a kid, Iím a teenager, I was almost your age, and Iím going to go on and live all the rest of my life no matter what I do like that.
And so life happened. College, and frankly, the only thing I can share with you about my college experience that would be informative was that I parachuted out of the four-story window of my dorm, you know, without a lot of erudite research on the aerodynamics of that. And just to tell you, you need to go a lot higher than the fourth floor for the chute to open. But there was graduate school, and then I was introduced to marathon swimming, and you know, I got to be 60. Youíre not going to believe me, but youíre going to blink and youíre going to be my age. And, you know, as the president was just using that phrase, I really was, I was kind of staring myself in the virtual mirror with true existential anxiety. What had I done with my life? Who am I? Am I living this way, have I been all these years, these 40 years, not a fingernail better? And to me, the rhetorical question that asks it all is the Mary Oliver poem. And she says..ďSoĒ..and I was saying this to myself that summer of turning 60..ďwhat is it youíre doing with this one wild and precious life of yours?Ē
Cuba had entered my imagination years before I tried it. 35 years before, 42 hours, jellyfish, sharks, Gulf Stream eddies..itís the Mt. Everest of the oceans. Itís epic. People have been trying since 1950..strong men and women..and no oneís ever done it.
And at 60, did I have it? Did I have the will, the shoulders? I started to put it together. I started living with that unwavering commitment again. I was high. I was high on the passion and bringing my best self and everybody around me, the team. Then it turned out the world started getting involved, and I failed, and I failed again, and I failed again. And after the fourth time, each time, literally, life and death in the balance, my team started to say to me, ďYou know, Guam is awfully nice this time of year. Have you seen the Maldives? Just beautiful.Ē You know, island to island over there.
But it was always Cuba, and Cuba was never about athleticism and endurance records for me. Cuba was about life, and questioning myself if Iím living the right life. It was that metaphor. And I can tell you today that Labor Day 2013, to see that crowd on that beach, I cried with my 44 teammates who had given so much, and they deserved this victory too. And I walked up on that beach, I asked myself the fingernail question, and I answered it sincerely, Iím back. Iím back to living every day, so I canít live it a fingernail better. And Iím not a religious person, but the day thatís my last day to close my eyes on this Earth, Iím going to close my fist too and Iím going to say, ďYou know what? I couldnít do it all, I didnít succeed at it all, I wish I could have helped more people, gone more places, but it does go by awfully quickly, and at least everything I did, I did it so that I couldnít do it a fingernail better.Ē
And you, the Middlebury Class of 2014, I pose the question to you today. Jenny said it well, do we know what weíre going to do? Probably not. But Iím asking you, what are you going to do with this one wild and precious life of yours? And you know, in the end, youíll do many things. Youíll achieve much, youíll give much, and on your last day, what a goal it would be to say that you did all of it..this college experience and all the rest of your lives..so that you just canít do it even a fingernail better. Iím proud to be with you. I congratulate you. Celebrate and move on and ask yourself that question, because itís your life, and itís wild and itís precious. Thank you so much for having me.
Originally published: Middlebury College
Posted on: 11/01/14
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