From the time I took my first running steps as a 13-year-old, representing my country in the Olympics symbolized the peak athletic experience. But this was a dream, disconnected from the reality that I was a fat kid who struggled to finish every workout during my first year of running. I failed miserably in the test of future distance running potential—qualifying for the state championships—during my first three years of high school.
Finally, in my senior year, fitness and racing intelligence came together. I competed in the Georgia state championships, and continued to compete in college (without an athletic scholarship). Upon graduation, at the high point of the Vietnam draft, I did not make any national ranking list and was not invited to join the Olympic development teams from any of the armed services.
With a draft number of "3" I enlisted in the Navy. Most of my service was aboard a ship on which running was not possible. I gained about 20 pounds and lost my conditioning. Upon my release from active duty, I had no vision of my running future. Running at any speed made me feel better. But I was 25 with no career path and felt the need to get on with my life. Friends, family members, and myself posed a question that I could not answer: Why would I want to spend two years or more working myself to exhaustion for something that would never help me with my professional life?
The decision to continue strenuous training was inspired during many night watches aboard ship. We talked with each other to stay awake, and sports experiences were often shared. One statement that was said repeatedly during those conversations would later haunt me as I drove from California to Atlanta in 1970: "If I had (a certain opportunity), I would have (accomplished something significant)."
I chose graduate school at Florida State University to prepare for a teaching career. Running the trails of the Apalachicola National Forest brought a joy to training that I had never experienced. I also joined the brand new Florida Track Club. My only goal was internal: to see how good I could be. I continued to improve gradually but made no one's list of prospects for the 1972 Olympic team. This did not bother me—I was enjoying the journey.
A breakthrough experience for me was training with my FTC teammates Frank Shorter and '68 Olympian Jack Bacheler in Vail, Colorado. For eight weeks we drew off one another's strengths and humor. The revelation that changed my life was discovering more spiritual strength inside than I knew was there. I needed to improve about a minute in the 10K to qualify for the Olympic trials and applied this new empowerment a few weeks before the Olympic trials at the AAU national championships.
Even in my own mind, I was an outside contender for a spot as a marathoner, with no chance in the 10K. But since I had qualified for the shorter race, I "lived my dream" running in the trials heats, and was able to qualify for the final. When the gun fired for the race to pick the 10K team, I dropped into last place for the first mile. Then, I made it a game to see if I could catch the next person ahead of me. Picking off one and then another runner, I enjoyed the moment.
With about six laps to go I suddenly realized that I was in second place! I cannot describe the joy as I qualified for the Munich team, just behind my friend Frank Shorter.
Teammate Jack Bacheler was not a 10K qualifier and it became my mission to pace him through the marathon trial one week later. He seemed to be suffering from over-training earlier in the year so I kept us on a fairly conservative pace, passing runners throughout the race. We entered the stadium together with only one spot left on the team. At the finish line, I dropped back and Jack made the team.
Helping my friend gave me more satisfaction than any medal, record or trophy. This experience showed me that the joy in helping others unleashes powers inside us that can change lives for the better—including our own. So pursuing an unlikely dream for two years connected me to the principle upon which I've based my career.
You never know...