I have a crazy story to tell you, that started mid- October and came to a head this week. But first, this.
Yesterday on Facebook, I posted a picture of myself holding a certificate that had just arrived in the mail – my USA Triathlon Youth & Junior Certified Coach certification. I had already been certified back in 2010 to coach adults, but this youth certification is a new offering by USA Triathlon and since I have been coaching kids since 2010, I am thrilled to have this newest proof that I somewhat know what I’m talking about.
I hesitated to post the photo of my latest accomplishment, though. Some of the hesitation came from the “is this bragging?” filter, but most of it came from the “what will this post attract?” filter. What I mean by this, is that every time I post something, I am conscious that on some level, it is influencing how I am perceived – how people on some level think of me in terms of what interests me, what I am seeking, with whom I like to hang out, what choices I make, what I am all about. Even, what opportunities to throw my way. So, before I hit “post,” I asked myself, “do I want to be labeled as a triathlon coach?” And, of course, this is a silly question at this point, because if anyone knows me or follows me on Facebook or has read any of my blogs over the last several years, you know that I have been doing triathlons since 2005, even competed in a triathlon national championship and have qualified for it several times but only bothered to do it once, and I have been coaching kids via ACHIEVE and Race4Chase Youth Triathlon programs since 2010. I have finished two Ironman triathlons. I love triathlons. And yet, I hesitated when it came to posting something that I felt would be like getting an Ironman tattoo, which I never did – I think I am one of the only Ironman finishers who doesn’t have a tattoo. I never wanted the tattoo for several reasons, but one of the main ones is that I have always felt that while I adore triathlon and triathletes and that whole subculture, it doesn’t define me. It’s something I do. It’s a means, not a destination. It’s a bridge.
And here is where my crazy ass story starts.
Back in October, the kids and I were wandering round Manhattan waiting for Bill (my husband) to get off work. We were crossing through Rockefeller Plaza when a scruffy guy came up to us and asked if we would like a free NY hat. Of course, my inner skeptic kicked in, because we all know nothing is free, especially in NYC. We also know that people coming up to you in an area that is mobbed with tourists, are probably looking to scam you in some way. And, as a mom with kids in tow, obviously I had to role model to my kids how we handle these kinds of situations. So I politely declined the offer, and was about to shepherd the kids across the street, when I decided to really look at this guy. And I was surprised to note that atop his scruffy blond head sat an Ironman hat. Not just Ironman – but Kona – as in, world championship. The race that you need to be practically superhuman to qualify for, or at least be ridiculously lucky and win a lottery bib. People were already crossing the street but I had to ask.
“You’ve done Ironman?” I don’t know if John (I would soon learn his name) detected my incredulity, but I am pretty sure he’s used to people making assumptions about him so it didn’t faze him. See, this is totally stereotyping, but most male triathletes who roam the planet with an Ironman hat, are clean-shaven (their heads often included in the ritual), have a certain physique that shows through whatever moisture-wicking shirt, and have this really intense (cyborg-like) look. I can pick them out of a crowd in a heartbeat. When I was at my coach certification trainings, for adults and now for this youth one, the rooms were filled with these intense humans. John looked more like a surfer who was scamming tourists for money to buy weed, than like the typical Type A triathlete. So I had to hear his story on how he got a hold of the hat.
With tourists swarming around us, in a rush to cross the street, we stood at the curb and he told me his story. He had just done Ironman in Kona. He qualified for it (because it turns out he has done several Ironman triathlons), but he actually, on top of showing up, raised $50,000 for a little boy dealing with cancer. I admit, I was still skeptical at this point. My kids were getting impatient. And then he turned to my kids and said, “You kids should appreciate your mom. She’s awesome. I had a really rough childhood. My dad was an alcoholic and my brothers and I were so abused that we got taken away and put in a foster home. And that was awful too – we were abused so badly. And then we were put in a group home and that was terrible – we were bullied, beaten up.” So, at this point, I was totally intrigued, but at the same time, I was aware that my kids were standing there, and who knew what they were thinking about this weird stranger that had their mom intrigued, who said he was giving out NY hats for an optional $5 donation that would go to a soup kitchen?
And, I was still skeptical. The story got even better. John started getting into serious trouble on the streets. He was constantly in fights. He got into drugs and was selling them. He was arrested. A lot. And then at some point he got into punk rock. And that was the beginning of his transformation. And he was led to the Hare Krishnas. Which then led to yoga, veganism, sobriety, triathlon…
I think we stood there for about twenty minutes, talking. His story was incredible. So much, so that I didn’t totally believe it. But something compelled me to stay, to ignore my kids’ impatience, to listen to this man. So, of course, I did the logical thing and asked him if he was on Instagram. When I asked this, I still thought he was some bum who had found or stolen an Ironman hat and had an amazing imagination and personality. On some level, bringing up Instagram was a test – did he have an account? Was he really an Ironman, a member of a famous punk rock band (a genre I know nothing about, beyond the Sex Pistols and the Violent Femmes), spending his days raising money for kids with cancer and soup kitchens?
He told me his Insta and I looked him up right there and followed him. He took out his phone and followed me back. I looked briefly at his photo and thought, well, it does look like him. But he could totally have made this account up for the purpose of scamming tourists of $5. (I know, I am even embarrassed to write this). Then he asked, “Do you know who Rich Roll is?” I said sure, he’s the vegan ultra-runner who used to be an unfit, alcoholic lawyer, and now has inspiring books and a great podcast. So John now opened his Twitter app and scrolled to Rich Roll’s account and gleefully said, “I am one of his most popular podcast guests. Check this out.” And sure enough, Rich Roll tweeted a link to a podcast episode with John Joseph, stating how this was his highest rated podcast episode.
At this point, I didn’t know what to think – but I did know that my kids had had enough, and that this man, whoever he was, was one of the most compelling people I had met in a long time, and even if he was scamming me, I was going to hand over a decent bill out of gratitude for his entertainment. We took a selfie and shared a hug, and then my kids and I finally crossed the street.
I mulled over this interaction, and a few hours later pulled out my phone and looked at John’s Insta more closely. “Holy crap!” I showed Bill and the kids – “That guy John has well over 20k followers – I guess he wasn’t bullshitting me!” We all had a good laugh, and I pointed out to the kids something deep and meaningful to the tune of, you really can’t judge people based on their appearance, and it really is worth it to pause and have a conversation, because everyone has a story, blah blah blah (I think they only heard the blah blah blah part).
So, soon after that, I looked up his Rich Roll podcast interviews and listened to them (I think at that point there were three episodes – he is that popular a guest – as of today, Rich as interviewed him five times). His story is incredible. Listen for yourself. So, you could leave it there – fun story, another hero in our midst that I got to bump up against, another door opened because of the commonality of triathlon, and then really widely swung open because of our common passion for yoga, staying sober, eating plants.
But no, that wasn’t the end of it.
A couple of weeks ago, I was out running with my friend Sandra. At some point, she started to tell me about a friend of hers, who lives in our small town, a woman named Diane. Diane started running 5k’s a few years ago and has now done a few marathons. She runs to raise money for the Child Tumor Foundation – her four-year-old son has neurofibromatosis (NF). Sandra went on to say that last year, Diane was diagnosed with Guillian-Barre syndrome, which rendered her quadriplegic. And then, against all odds and medical predictions, Diane recovered and ten months later completed another marathon. Sandra shared with me that she hoped that Diane would have her other son participate in the Race4Chase Youth Triathlon program this summer, since she believes he would love it. I marveled with Sandra how strange it was that I had never met Diane – we have some mutual friends, we are both runners. I told her I had read Diane’s story in the Patch, and I had even shared it on my Facebook Reboot Coach page – an inspiring hero in our midst!
So, this is where John Joseph comes back into the story. This week I had a long drive to a treatment center where I was teaching yoga to people in recovery from brain health disorders/addiction, so I decided I wanted to listen to one of the latest Rich Roll podcasts as I had two in my queue. It turned out that one of them was John Joseph – again. So I started to listen – and was again blown away by him. This time, he really got into some stories about his horrendous childhood. He just published a book, The Evolution of a Cro-Magnon, which unlike his previous book Meat is for Pussies, is about his childhood – and how he has overcome extreme adversity. I immediately ordered the when I got home. Near the end of the interview, Rich pointed out that he (John) is going to do Ironman Kona again, and John confirmed this, and added that he is once again doing it for the little boy with cancer. He then went on to say that they found some more tumors on Alex’s spine, and that he really wants to support Alex and his family, whom he has grown to love. And then, John went on to say that Alex’s mom has an autoimmune disease that left her paralyzed, but she worked her way back and ten months later did a marathon!
When I heard that my jaw dropped. What?!?!?! As soon as I had parked, I looked it up. Could this possibly be the same family? Is it possible that this guy I met while wandering round NYC last fall, whom I almost dismissed for reasons most people would have kept walking after a polite “no thanks” – is it possible that he raised $50,000 for this little boy whose mom is good friends with one of my dear friends? I looked up Diane. Then I sent John a message, asking if this was the boy he was once again raising money to support? Affirmative. This was the same family.
I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe that God puts people in my (and your) path for a reason. I also believe that every day, we all have opportunities to make these connections. Often, we are too busy to see the opportunity, or if we do, we say no – we are too busy, too rushed, too self-conscious, too uncomfortable, too fearful. Totally normal. And I can’t help but wonder, how many times has an amazing opportunity passed us by, because we chose not to be open to it? We stood on one side of the bridge, but dared not step onto it.
I looked Diane up on Facebook and sent her a friend request. I saw we had over 20 mutual friends and didn’t bother to look up who they were because I rushed off to the next domestic task, so I assumed our friends were all local moms and runners.
But Diane noticed a mutual friend and sent me a message – how did I know this other woman, whose name is also Diane? Once again my jaw dropped. This mutual friend, Diane J. – I met her when I was in Brussels three years ago, visiting my sister. Diane J. is one of my sister’s best friends over there, a fellow ex-pat. It turns out Diane J. is Diane’s cousin! In fact, today Diane sent me a photo from a shower she was attending – of herself and another young woman. I sent the photo to my sister in Brussels, who has no idea all of this story has been happening (I am enlightening her with this blog entry) – and my sister said she knows the girl, how do I have this photo??? The young woman is a good friend of her daughter’s (my niece’s).
Suddenly, the world is indeed a small place. It was once said that we are all separated by six degrees, but with social media, I recently read that we are actually now separated, on average, by four degrees. How many times have we had the opportunity to knock off one of those degrees, or all four of them, simply by crossing a bridge? Every interaction, real or virtual, is a potential bridge. When I changed my pace during last year’s Labor Day half marathon in New Haven, CT, to chat for a few minutes with an acquaintance and she mentioned a woman in my town who runs to bring awareness about and funding for NF, that conversation planted a seed. When I stopped and talked with a total stranger wearing an Ironman hat in NYC, that planted a few more seeds. I don’t know where these seeds will lead to, but I suspect it will be an ongoing, long-term journey of seed-planting. To me, running and triathlon and yoga and everything else I do, is not a bucket list item, an end goal or destination, or a source of identity. Rather, each of these endeavors, which I am passionate about and seek to bring more people into, is merely a medium – a bridge – to something else. To connection. This crazy story is a tangible, graphic illustration of the ways that we can forge connection, once we are open to it.
A few days ago, a neighbor told me how sad he is that we are moving. He described me as a bridge (yes, he actually used that word), saying that I had connected so many people in our area with each other, and with people from other communities – people who would not have otherwise met or have thought to get to know each other. It truly meant a lot to me to be thought of that way.
Yesterday, Diane and I met for the first time, in person. She came to my house for lunch and we chatted for almost three hours. I don’t know why God decided to connect me and Diane a mere month before my family and I move away from this area we have called home for 16 years, but as I make plans now to introduce my other friends to this incredible woman, who truly is a living, breathing example of steadfast faith, hope, perseverance and love – I suspect new beautiful bridges are being built.
Love is the bridge between you and everything.
Motivational coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.