What I Learned by Nearly Drowning

drowning waterI’ve been spending a lot of time thinking these last few weeks. Thinking because the TV show I’ve been working on has adjourned for the season and now I, like much of Hollywood, am sitting on the bench waiting for my next job.

Entertainment is a frightfully competitive business. It’s not for the faint of heart. Lately, I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions about who I am and how I got this way, what I want and what I’m suited for, and if I’ve still got the guts to go out there and get it. I’ve been licking my wounds and mending the cracks in my foundation, and at times, I’ve been looking for reasons to remember why I believed in myself to begin with.

And as I do this, I keep coming back to what I now realize was a seminal experience in my life: from the age of 4 to 21, I was a competitive swimmer. I started my career at the Louisville Boat Club and finished it at the University of Pennsylvania. Along the way I was a high school All-American, a U.S. Open Qualifier, and an Ivy League Conference semi-finalist. And I think that what I learned on that journey full of 5:00 AM workouts, crappy hotel rooms, and over-chlorinated pools was the indispensible experience in my life.

But see, for all those years in the water – kicking, pulling, nearly drowning – it wasn’t swimming I was learning about, it was living; because preparation, competition, teamwork, and trust are at the center of everything I’ve ever done since. So whether it’s a long day in the office, a stalled career, or a relationship headed for failure, I’ll always remember these three things.

Sometimes, It’s not Up to You

My best friend in high school probably wouldn’t have called me his best friend. TJ Barron was an adrenaline junkie who had a skateboard, a snowboard, and a surfboard, despite the fact that he lived in Louisville, Kentucky, where most of these objects were functionally useless. We grew up swimming together on the Lakeside Swim Team and by the time we hit high school, both of us had moved up the ladder enough that we could no longer find competition locally. At least one weekend a month, TJ, myself, and the rest of the Lakeside National Team were on the road competing in places like Indianapolis, Nashville, San Antonio, Fort Lauderdale or even Mission Viejo, CA. We roomed together on those trips and as much as I’d like to say I was the team leader, the truth is that TJ was its heart and soul. He was everyone’s favorite person and perhaps more important for that age, he was also the best looking.

Now, there are a lot of handsome guys at a big swim meet, but as soon as girls saw TJ, we all became invisible. He was olive-skinned with a linebacker’s shoulders, a figure skater’s waist, and an almost aboriginal broadness to his face. He had chlorine-bleached brown hair that curled up like he’d been struck by lightening and that, in the style of its time, combined the best parts of Justin Timberlake’s frosted tips with Ludacris’s afro. For the girls on the pool deck, TJ was basically a walking romance novel – he was hilarious in words and he was fearless in action, which they could see every time he raced.

But that still only scrapes the surface of TJ’s character, because TJ was also the boldest person I ever met. He broke his tailbone snowboarding one weekend and qualified for the All-American swim team the next. He ate 50 ounces of steak once just to say he’d done it. He swept the entire Kentucky State Championship, winning 9 out of 9 races, something that Olympians before him and after him have been unable to do; and when we competed at pools near the ocean, he would spend his down time surfing while the rest of us slept off our fatigue. TJ was a fully cognizant human being and yet he seemed to operate on a jellyfish’s instinct: always move towards light – and move fast.

For the better part of a decade, TJ and I were inseparable. But now, twelve years later, I hardly ever see him or hear from him. Our estrangement was slow in the making and now that it’s happened, I can’t really blame him for it.

I guess it all began when I came back from my first year of college. TJ was a year younger so in the meantime, he’d made some new friends that weren’t straightedge jocks like our old crowd. They were rich kids with fast cars who had easy access to liquor and weed, which meant that they were exactly the friends we’d been trying to make for years.

While in the long term, this was the beginning of the end; in the short term, it made for one hell of a summer. TJ would pick me up at my parents’ house late at night and we’d drive through the woods, over the floodplain and onto River Road, a narrow strip of asphalt that runs up and down the banks of the Ohio River. He’d turn the radio up all the way and we’d pass a bowl of marijuana back and forth, smoking, talking, and soaking in the rush of life at high-speed as we barreled down the dark and curving road.

Somewhere up the way there was a cluster of unfinished condos standing on stilts over the river. We’d park in the lot in front when TJ’s bowl was empty and he’d cut the engine, cut the music, and refill it as silently as possible. TJ would make a joke or flash a smile and I’d look out the window – I’d see the Ohio River in the dark – a mile wide and pearl colored in the glow of the moon and the stars and the city not far away. You could hear the sound of the wind in the trees and when it slowed, you’d hear the rush of the river’s current, washing by on its silty banks that smelled like catfish and misty mud. Somewhere, over the inland hills there was a city. But here, on the empty flood plain, it was always a quiet night.

We went on those joyrides night after night and then, one day, I realized I could not remember the last time I’d seen TJ in the daylight. TJ, my friend who I’d seen twice a day, every day, for the last six years, in pools, in classrooms, in hamburger dives – who had the same summer job as me – I no longer saw him in the daylight. And I now know that that summer was when I stopped being TJ’s teammate and started being something else: another friend who liked to party. And he already had plenty of those. We both did.

TJ disappeared in pieces over the next few years. He swam in college but lost interest in the sport. Then, he fell in love and stopped coming home; and when he did, he was almost impossible to contact. I’d try calling him but he rarely answered and over the years, he began to ignore my texts too. Four years later, at 22, I realized that TJ had moved on in life, not because he was spiteful or mean, but because his most charismatic attribute, that instinct that told him to swim towards the light, had guided him elsewhere. And now, 12 years later, I am writing about my best friend who isn’t there.

To this day, TJ is one of my favorite people I’ve ever met. Every few years I’ll get a phone call from him or see him at a bar, but I’m older now and I understand that we were probably different people all along, that we were joined together in a friendship born in extraordinary circumstances: being teenagers on the road, competing under a lot of pressure, far from home. We didn’t know then that the triumphs and heartbreaks of swimming were ultimately inconsequential; in fact, we thought that galaxies were balancing on their result.

But now that TJ is gone, I’ve learned this hard lesson in life: love and friendship are not equal exchanges; in fact, they are almost always valued differently between two people, just like a pound of flour, a used car, or a share of stock.

I failed to keep TJ in my life and in the end, I’d bet that my persistence probably only drove him further away. That TJ and I were as close as we were for as long as we were speaks to another great lesson of sports, a sort of construction of character that brings people with diverse backgrounds together to accomplish a singular goal, and in so doing, cements extreme bonds in unlikely places. I am just sad that TJ’s and mine didn’t hold. But I don’t take it personally.

Life is big, the world even larger. It’s hard to accept, but people go places and find new direction; and in a way, I’ve learned to hope for that, because it’s the wild turns, the sudden arrivals and the heartbreaking departures that make people so interesting. Life is crazy. Embrace it – don’t run from it. I know TJ never did.

I miss TJ. I miss him lots. But I miss a lot of people and the truth is, I’m really happy to have shared the ride with them, however long it was.

Learning to Fly Again 

Here is something that is really annoying about life: you can be seriously good at something for years, then wake up one morning and find it gone. That’s the nature of a slump, something we all experience on a bad day or a tough week, but sometimes a slump can be worse than that. Sometimes slumps can stretch for years. It happens to movie stars who bomb, bands that can’t find their voice, and once-great business leaders whose new companies fail over-and-over.

I learned what it felt like to hit a truly desperate slump when I was 17 years old and trying to lock-up a college swimming scholarship. At the time, I was training harder than I ever had, clocking work outs that pointed towards a career-making season but when it came time to race, I was turning in some of the slowest performances of my life.

At that time, I’d gotten used to coaches calling me at night and asking if I’d be interested in joining their team in the fall, but as the season stretched on, the phone stopped ringing. No one wanted me anymore and with my back against the wall, I managed to put together two good swims that were enough for one team to take a risk on me, the University of Pennsylvania.

I found a new low my freshman year and was rewarded by being cut from our travel team. Then, the following season, thanks to an ugly situation in our locker room, I was elevated onto the conference championship team. And that’s where I found rock bottom – in the team hotel, a mile from the competition pool at the Ivy League Championships.

Sure of failure and unable to sleep, I wandered through the silent hotels halls every night, watching the hands of the clock turn from midnight to 4:00 AM as my heart beat out of my chest. I was scared; I was terrified; and I could not stop imagining how badly I would fail when the morning came. I was quick to prove myself right. That weekend was the low point of my career: I scored zero points for my team; or put another way, I was as useful to them as a moldy loaf of bread.

Something changed after that. The next fall, we hired a redheaded surfer from the Jersey Shore named Brendan Gallagher to be an assistant coach. Brendan was a grad student who played drums in a punk band and probably operated at a 10th grade understanding of the sport, but he did something for me that I’ll always be thankful for: he taught me how to improve.

Almost immediately, he convinced our head coach to drop my weekly yardage from about 40 miles per week to just over 20. Then, Brendan picked out some small things in my game; minor components of my technique and mindset that by themselves didn’t account for much, but together were a wealth of opportunity for improvement. What was important was that each of these goals was specific, measurable, and achievable. They could be as simple as “kick four times off the wall, not three,” or as complex as, “average 26.4 seconds per 50 while taking fewer than 12 strokes per lap,” but whatever the goal was, it was always within striking distance of my current abilities and it was never ambiguous. It was as simple as racing itself: you either won or you lost; or in this case, you either measured up to the goal, or you fell short. And perhaps just as important, he reminded me that I was supposed to be having fun while I did all of this. It worked.

Whereas a year earlier, I had been sleepless and fearful; now, with Brendan’s help, I had taught myself to once again compete as a confident athlete. I could switch my adrenaline supply on and off as easily as a baby cries tears and when I hit the water, I could swim faster than I ever had, week-after-week, race-after-race.

That didn’t change the fact that I had a long way to go before I earned back my team’s trust. Despite having a career season, my coach didn’t take me to the Ivy League Championship. Instead, I was relegated to the ECAC Conference Meet, a B-squad competition between all the East Coast colleges other than the Ivies, which is sort of like a swim meet in the South without the SEC. I placed second in the 200 Butterfly there and officially earned my spot back onto the starting roster. I continued my rally through my senior year, qualified for the U.S. Open, and finished my career proud of what I’d done.

And though I never got back the three years I lost to my slump, I’d like to think that the lessons I learned busting it have saved me from much worse later on in life. To this day, when I meet an insurmountable obstacle or feel inadequate to a task that I’ve been given, I think of it in exactly the same terms that Brendan taught me: what combination of small victories will it take to climb this mountain, inch by inch? And how can I find a way to enjoy the struggle, hard as it may be?

Every time is just as hard as the first time; but thankfully, it works. 

Run Your Own Race – and Pick it Well

When I was sixteen years old, one of the kids I drove to swim practice (along with TJ) was Clark Burckle. His sister, Caroline, was my age and at the time it was an open secret that I had a big crush on her.

Lakeside was chock full of future scholarship athletes but Clark and Caroline were different. They were legitimately world class. In 2008, Caroline was an NCAA champion and that summer, she won a bronze medal for Team USA at the Beijing Olympics. By then I had mostly fallen out of touch with her but Clark and I were still reasonably close. We hung out on holidays and found ways to cause all the trouble you’d expect from college-age boys – you know, drinking too much beer and chasing around girls who seemed to always have something better to do.

Then, four years later, Clark did something spectacular: he qualified for the London Olympics in the 200 Breastroke. Like Caroline, his dream came true.

Now, in competitive sports, there are two types of happiness you feel for your teammates. There’s low-grade happiness, which is by far the most common. That’s what you feel out of obligation when really, you’re jealous underneath it all. And then there is real happiness, a sort of raw joy for another that is best described by the absence of jealousy. That you can be truly, deeply joyful for someone without envying them or wanting a piece of their success is rare in life; and when Clark and Caroline made the Olympic Team, I was swollen with that feeling. I think we all were.

But there was an underside to that happiness, something that was more important to understand, and that was the knowledge I had as a long time teammate of theirs. It was the full story of the 15 years of work that went into those 15 minutes of joy and I think it’s instructive for all of us.

See, your whole life you see quarterbacks lifting Super Bowl trophies over their heads and businessmen ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange when their companies go public, but there are no cameras following these people around during the years of anonymous toil that it took for them to reach that stage. Bob Costas simply isn’t there when athletes suffer through the tedious repetitions that make them who they are, and there is no CNBC segment for the anonymous entrepreneurs who work for years, never knowing if they’ll be successful, recognized, or even known.

Clark and Caroline were my window into this side of extreme success and as I thought about the hard road they walked to earn their victories, I realized that there were lessons to learn about what it takes to compete at a high level in anything.

First, they had an absolutely sublime natural talent. I can’t discount the importance of talent – it’s indispensible – but by itself, it’s worthless. Being one-in-a-million won’t cut it when your dream is to be one-in-a-billion. What it took to do that had more to do with this:

A capacity for improvement that was almost infinite. The Burckles were competing in a sport that was exactly right for them. Clark could have been a Division I athlete in almost anything but he chose to play a sport that was best configured for his skill set in the long term. If he put his mind to it, he could have played basketball for Duke but he would have sat on the bench behind someone six inches taller. Instead, he played a sport where a more compact body was a physical advantage.

An extraordinary belief in oneself. Now, I am going out on a limb here, because my two Olympians were actually some of the most humble people I ever met, but occasionally they’d let slip with a word or two and I’d see how deeply they believed in themselves. Clark lived by the phrase, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” and time after time, both he and Caroline would smash through impossible barriers, only to crush them again, and again, and again.

Swimming is no different than anything else: at high levels, fractional differences in mental will and technical ability separate Hall of Famers from the merely great; and whether it was by mental or physical will, Clark and Caroline always seemed to be on the right side of that equation. And I think a lot that had to do with the fact that they had…

A love for the sport before anything else. Clark and Caroline were in love with swimming. That’s a huge advantage to have because things that are worth doing are usually very difficult. Obstacles tend to be large, failures almost always outnumber successes, and let’s be honest, does anyone ever tell you good job? But that’s life, and one thing I’ve learned is that success can actually encourage capitulation. When we “rest on our laurels” what we are really saying is, the risk outweighs the reward; and then, we call it quits, standing proud on top of the hill we’ve climbed when we’re really just staring scared at the mountain beyond it. That’s what normal people do.

But Clark and Caroline weren’t normal. And whether or not my assessment of their character is true or false doesn’t much matter to me, because at the end of the day, watching them race changed my life. See, it is my contention that the Burckles were never scared of climbing that mountain because their love for the sport outweighed their fear of failure. They were always going to be happier trying and failing than resting and celebrating because when the chips were down, they were blessed enough to be doing the one thing they loved the most: swimming.

So I watched the London Games from my cubicle in the Cannon House Office Building, across the street from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. I was pretty sure that I’d made a good home for myself there and I had a path in front of me that took a lot of blood and sweat to clear. But I knew in my gut that I was supposed to be doing something else with my life.

I started to ask myself all these questions: exactly what is the goal that would satisfy you in this once-in-a-lifetime way? And do you have the right combination of skills to actually achieve it? What about your capacity to improve? Is it big enough to compete now? Ten years from now? Forever? And if you had to, could you survive for a decade, toiling in monotony, never knowing if you would succeed at all? Lastly, if you don’t – if you fail – can you still be happy in defeat?

It took me a long time to answer those questions and in retrospect, I think that was mostly out of fear. I think I knew what I wanted all along but lacked the grit to do anything about. That was a coward’s excuse and as the months ticked by, as summer became fall, then winter, I thought back to the closing ceremonies of the London Games, where International Olympic Committee Chairman Jacques Rogge stood in Wembley Stadium and read these words, the same words that close every Olympic Games:

“And now, in accordance with tradition, I declare the Games of the Thirtieth Olympiad closed, and I call upon the youth of the world to assemble four years from now in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate the Games of the Thirty-First Olympiad.”

And I realized that when that happened, I would be 30 years old. I would no longer be “the youth of the world” and that by any reasonable measurement, I would be a man. And if I was a man – well, then I’d have a life to answer for.

Almost a year to the day later, I made my choice. I quit my job, I bought a car, and I drove west.

I sure hope it works out.

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Clark at the London Olympics

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Brendan and myself. Philadelphia, PA.

 

Max Surf Board

Surfing between races with TJ. It worked better for him. Huntington Beach, CA.

 

max and alex OCCC costumes

One hell of a summer with TJ

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Swimming my own race

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…and busting a slump.

 

Alex Keeney 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “What I Learned by Nearly Drowning

  1. I love your article and I wish you nothing but the best. You have the drive and the insight. Go forward and do it!

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