These pivotal instances in our life are at times the result of actions. But there are occasions when these moments simply consist of words. You not only recall what was said, but every detail about the time when you first heard it. Most importantly, you remember these words at times when you need them the most.
One of these moments came to me while I was on my bike. After 13 years of playing rugby, I decided to try something really hard a triathlon. I had a competent background in swimming and my rugby years meant my running was decent, too. The weak link for me was cycling. I not only needed work on the bike, but I needed to learn more about the sport of cycling. I needed an education.
You know what they say: "Be careful what you wish for "
In Cape Coral, Fla., where I lived at the time, there was a bike shop up the road from where Iived. It was owned by a guy named Clint. It was well-known that Clint knew more about cycling than anyone in Southwest Florida. It was also well-known that Clint was a tough nut to crack, to put it mildly. To say it more succinctly, Clint had a reputation for being a jerk.
But he didn't just talk the talk. When it came to on-bike prowess, Clint was (and still is) "The Man." From his shaved, tree-trunk quads to the scowl he wore beneath his handlebar moustache, one could tell immediately he was a man to be reckoned with on two wheels the kind of person about whom legendary cycling tales are told. Six days a week Clint took off from his shop for his infamous morning rides with a gaggle of followers willing to punish themselves just to try to keep up.
No one could match the guy. He was like a Spandex-wearing gunslinger. Any new riders in town had to check in with Clint for the seal of approval. And if they passed the test, chances were they would join his merry band of morning masochists.
This is where I came in. After making some phone calls and asking people around town, I tracked down Clint and managed to find out his morning ride schedule. Tuesday and Thursday were known as "death rides" I opted for the Saturday breakfast ride.
Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I actually showed up for my virgin ride wearing cut-off jeans and riding a bike from Wal-Mart with a child seat on the back.
I was dropped on the warm-up.
After a few weeks of making a fool of myself, I actually got a decent bike (without a child seat) and continued to show up for the rides. Clint still had not spoken a word to me (maybe I should have bought my new bike at his shop).
Anyway, these so-called breakfast rides were anything but for me. While I was making the distance, (17 miles to the halfway point and breakfast) I was still getting dropped five miles into the ride. And by the time I got to the breakfast stop, they would be coming out of the restaurant with full stomachs, ready to head back.
I was starting to question my existence.
Time went by. Same routine: After working my second job as a bartender until 1 a.m. and getting to bed at 2 a.m., I would wake up four hours later to torture and humiliate myself yet again. Exceptionally tired, I still managed to make it to the shop for the 7 a.m. start. Still unspoken to, still treated like a stranger, still, I was there.
We were about five miles into the ride on this morning and I had not only avoided being dropped by the group, but I was actually able to take short pulls on the front. At last, a breakthrough!
After a well-executed turn at the front of the group, I pulled off to recover at the back. I was winded, yet quietly impressed at how far I'd progressed. I didn't have much time to pat myself on the back, though.
In the blink of an eye, they were gone, sprinting away from me just after my work at the front. Clint was leading the way. I can't tell you what I said as they opened an unbridgeable gap. Suffice to say I had enough of this crap and turned around not only to head home, but also to put an end to my hope of becoming a competitive cyclist and triathlete. I wasn't going to suffer this humiliation over and over again.
After a few minutes, I heard "crunch, crunch, crunch ..."
The sound of someone mashing a big gear grew louder behind me. It was Clint. He downshifted to match my pace. The scowl on his face looked different somehow. Like something was coming but what? I was still pissed off as Clint saddled up next to me.
"Hey, I've heard a lot of things about you, " Clint said.
"Yeah, like what?" I said behind clenched teeth.
"I heard you were a good swimmer and a good runner."
"But there's one thing I never heard about you," Clint said.
"I never heard you were a quitter."
With that, he turned back around to chase after the group. That stung. No, sting doesn't even describe it. It was like being hit upside the head with a cinderblock. I turned and caught him, started to say something, but he said, "Stay on my wheel and shut up!" And I did.
The rest of the story doesn't matter. I had success in triathlons; more than I would have ever imagined. Clint and I became good friends and I found him to be one of the most honest people I have ever met. Perhaps most importantly though, his words have stuck with me.
Miles of running, cycling and rugby tackles resulted in two back surgeries and have limited my athletic endeavors to open-water swimming. Two years ago, I attempted to be the first person to swim the 18 miles around Estero Island, FL. It ended up being the coldest day of the year, air temperature of 44 degrees, water temperature a chilly 66 and me without a wetsuit. Even the fish were in shock. But I had opened my big mouth, told everyone I was going to do it. This was the day. I had to go for it.
I was halfway through the swim, shoulder throbbing, body freezing. I had reached the "What the #*&@*$" am I doing here?" stage of the swim. I wasn't racing. I was doing this for myself. I could just quit and the world would go on spinning, the sun would rise and set nothing would be any different. Then I heard it:
"I've heard a lot of things about you. But I never heard you were a quitter."
It took eight hours and 10 minutes, but I finished.
Gregg Cross, 44 lives in Ft. Myers, Florida where he coaches the Estero High School Swim Team and USS age-group team, Swim Florida. His next goal is the 24-mile Tampa Bay Open Water Swim.