Monday, August 13, 2012

IRON will

As most of you probably know by now, I have three pretty amazing sisters. In their own quiet little ways, they do things that most people only dream about doing and go about these accomplishments like it's no big deal. Run a Tony-award winning Broadway show? Sure. Travel around the world as a professional triathlete? Yep. Complete your first-ever Ironman in under 10 hours? Now that's been done, too.

Because of the nature of my job--and the fact that I'm the most vocal of the bunch--I often find myself telling my sister's stories for them. Not in a braggy-wow-how-great-are-we kind of way, but in an are-these-people-really-related-to-me? kind of astonishment. This was especially true yesterday as so many people asked me how the Ironman went for Laurel. I couldn't help but gush. She broke the 10-hour mark! Finished 10th! Ran a 3:16 marathon! But the most impressive part? She was still walking, talking, and fully functioning at the finish line. As though she could have gone for five more hours. So many other competitors crumpled into balls or stretched out in prone positions of agony around her in the massage tent, while she was gabbing away acting like she just finished a sprint. I felt more exhausted after simply spending the day tracking her from Jersey to Riverside Park. I was certain she'd feel the effects of the race yesterday, but 24 hours after crossing the line, she reported feeling "great!" and stepped out in five-inch heels. If she wasn't so nice, I'd hate her.

Seeing this sort of strength and pure power emerge from such a small package is inspiring, to say the least. We all know she works hard, but there's more to Laurel than just fitness and talent. There's heart. There's determination. And dare I say, stubbornness. She just doesn't give up. And like so many of her "super fans", I'm so excited to see where these qualities take her next.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Silver: The First Loser?

Like the rest of the country, I've jumped on the Fab Five bandwagon. I've been getting to know these girls since the Trials, following them on Twitter and Instagram and just loving their exuberance. They are quintessential teenagers...all sparkles and smiles, their tweets punctuated with OMGs and emoticons. They're pretty, hard working, and talented. What's not to love?

But that bubble gum charm popped last night as we watched McKayla Moroney lose what she clearly thought was rightfully hers: The gold medal in the vault. Yes, she was the best vaulter of them all. Yes, she soars higher over that thing than anyone else on the planet. But she landed smack on her butt on her second attempt. And that, my friends, does not a gold medal make.

Did she feel like she was gipped? That the judges low-balled her score? That her vault was more difficult, so she should still get the gold? Whatever it was, McKalyla was mad. Mad enough to go from teen queen to ice queen the second she stepped off that mat. I wanted to feel sorry for her. I wanted to see her shed some tears and bury her head in the shoulder of her all-too touchy feely coach. But after watching her morph into a Mean Girl who could not even offer a phony "congrats" to the much appreciative Romanian winner, I could only think that this "champion" needs to learn a lesson in losing.

Granted, the girl is 16. Gymnastics is her life. We put so much emphasis on getting the gold that silver becomes some sort of consolation prize. So who can really blame McKayla for letting her emotions fly? I'm sure that in a few years (heck, maybe even in a few days), she'll realize it's pretty freaking cool to go to the Olympics, period, yet alone take home two medals. And then she'll be able to see the, uh, silver lining in her London experience.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Golden Girl: Kayla Harrison

Well she was an American Girl...(photo by  LAURENCE GRIFFITHS/GETTY IMAGES )

Keeping on the Olympian theme, I wanted to touch on Kayla Harrison, the newly-minted gold medalist in women's judo. We chatted a few months ago about her goals and journey leading up to the Olympics, and she shared with me her dream of becoming the first American judo athlete to win gold. Because of the nature of the story I was writing (a positive, motivational service piece as opposed to an in-depth profile), we never touched on the startling fact that Kayla was sexually abused by her former coach when she was just 13. Knowing this now and everything she overcame to achieve her lifelong goal makes her story even more impressive. Here are four inspiring facts about Kayla. 

She uses failure as her fuel.
“One of my favorite quotes is by Michael Jordan: 'Failure is my fuel.' Any time something bad has happened to me, I've used it to make me stronger. Anytime I lose a match, or when something goes wrong, this is what makes me a better player and person.”

She's resilient.
“I usually don't take more than a day to sulk after a bad performance. The older I get, the more I overcome, the more mentally tough I've gotten. This comes from experience and getting back on the horse, and really having confidence in myself." 

She's focused.
"When I was 13, I was about to compete at my first Junior World Championships when I snapped a ligament and broke bones in my thumb. I couldn't compete and I was devastated. I thought my career was over. Missing out on that opportunity only made me hungry for more." 

She's a fighter.
"One of my favorite mottos is that a goal set is a goal met. No matter what, you are going after that goal. As corny as it sounds, never give up. If you have a dream and you're willing to work hard and make sacrifices, the sky is the limit." 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Manny Huerta's story

Olympic dreams coming true...

Another Olympian I chatted with in the months leading up to the Olympics was triathlete Manny Huerta. Manny's story is nothing short of inspiring--a true American dream come true. Since qualifying for London back in June, Manny has become a paramount figure in the triathlon world. But, like athletes in "niche" sports, his name has yet to make an impact in mainstream media. Hopefully, that will soon change as Manny has a very, very bright future ahead of him.

To give you more insight on this here's story I wrote for the summer issue of USA Triathlon's magazine. (Since I don't have the pdf, hopefully the text will do).  Manny will race the triathlon on Tuesday, August 7. Can't wait to see how he does. 

Manny Huerta knew he had had the race of his life. After two hours of swimming, biking, and running around San Diego in hot pursuit of a top-9 finish to automatically qualify for the Olympics at the ITU World Triathlon Series, he thought had it locked up. Or did he? Upon stepping past the finisher's strip, he was still not positive where he placed. So he started counting. With a shaky index finger, he pointed to the heads in front of him in the finishing shoot. One, two, three, four...he ticked off eight men before he reached himself. Suddenly, he looked up to the sky and buried his head in his hands, seemingly in disbelief of what he had just done. Huerta, 28, a political refugee from Cuba, was an U.S. Olympian.

Huerta's story is so profoundly impressive, it's almost hard to believe: A 13-year-old kid, his mom Marta, and his sister Claudia leave everything behind in Cuba to join his grandmother, who fled the communist country by boat in 1981. They have nothing. No money, no possessions. They don't even speak English. Slowly, Manny makes friends, joins the local swim team, then the cross country team at his high school, and starts competing in triathlons. He's a good athlete. So good, in fact, that he earns a running scholarship to Florida Atlantic University and, after that, a spot on the USA Triathlon National Team. But good enough to make the Olympics one day? Manny believes so. He leaves his family and friends in Miami to train in Colorado Springs, then Switzerland with Team TBB, and finally, in Costa Rica, where he sets up a training base in a secluded spot 7,000 feet above sea level in the Irazu Volcano. After climbing the ITU ranks for a few years, he's among one of the American men to watch in the Olympic year. The little boy who came to this country with nothing is within reach of gaining everything he ever wanted as an athlete: To represent his adopted home on sports' greatest stage.

Still, Huerta knew this dream would not come true without a perfect race in San Diego. “There are so many variables with ITU races,” he explains of the draft-legal and super-technical style of racing. “It might take a miracle, it might take everything on race day to fall in the right place. You may be in the shape of your life and if something goes wrong, it could change everything.”

But nothing went wrong for Huerta that day, and when he sprinted down the bright blue carpet towards the finish, it was as though he was floating. As though the weight of his past hardships—not only his rough upbringing but the death of his father to cancer in 2010 and his mother's subsequent battle with the disease—were lifted off his narrow shoulders, giving him an air of lightness that effortlessly carried his 125-pound frame along the home stretch.

“That was my entire life's work,” says Huerta of his performance. “It was not just a two-hour-long effort, I spent my whole life working towards that goal.”

Granted, this is just the beginning for Huerta. After all, there's an even bigger race in London coming up, followed by what Huerta hopes will be a lengthy career. For that, he looks to fellow Olympian Hunter Kemper as a role model, hoping to duplicate both his longevity and success in the sport.

“Triathlon has changed so much since Hunter began racing [in 1998] and he has been able to change with it. He actually gets better with age,” says Huerta. “I hope I can do the same. I'm sure I'll learn a lot from him during our time together in London.”

A realist, Huerta knows not to expect another flawless race at his first-ever Olympics. Still, he asserts that he's not taking a field trip to the U.K. “A medal would be great, but there are so many amazing guys out there. My goal is to finish in the top 10,” he says. “I just want to prepare the best I can and gain everything possible out of the experience.”

And with his girlfriend, Argentinian triathlete Pierina Luncio, and his mom (now stable after chemo and surgery to treat her melanoma) joining him in London, he plans to make the most of every second he's not racing, too.

“I'll go to the opening ceremony, the closing ceremony, and go watch some other events,” he says. “I want to look back in 30 years and say, 'Wow, I was an Olympian, and those were some amazing memories.'”

Missy Mania

Photo: Getty Images

One of the very cool perks of my job is to get to meet and chat with athletes of all levels, including Olympians. Just a couple of months ago, I interviewed swimming superstar Missy Franklin for an Olympic build-up story highlighting "Secrets of Champions". Admittedly, at the time I had a vague notion of just how talented Missy was. I'd read about her enough to know that she was making huge waves in the swimming world. But what I didn't expect to discover was just how poised she was. I was so impressed by her modesty and her enthusiasm. She is a rarity among elite young, so fast, but just so normal. 

With all of the Missy Mania happening at the moment because of gold and silver (so far) in London, I thought I'd post the outtakes of my Q&A so you all can read a bit more about this phenom.

Sarah Wassner Flynn: What is the best advice anyone has ever given to you? How have you applied that advice to your career as a swimmer?

Missy Franklin: I’m lucky to compete with many older swimmers on the National Team. It’s hard to pick out just one example as everyone has great advice for what it’s like to compete at such a high level and stay focused on racing while juggling things like school and times with friends. One constant theme has been to stay in the moment and enjoy every minute of the experience. That advice has really helped in practice and at competitions. In practice, I have fun with my friends and look forward to seeing them each morning and night. We support each other and this helps me get through some very tough sets. I was so fortunate to
go to Australia last summer with other National Team swimmers to train for the World Championships and
then to Shanghai to compete. I enjoyed every moment of every day. I appreciated that here I was, a 16
year old teenager, actually visiting these incredible places that most people will never see. I believe this
attitude assisted me in managing the pressures at the World Championships. I was relaxed and was able
to contribute 5 medals to Team USA.

SWF: If you could name one secret to your success as a swimmer, what would it be?

MF: My secret to success is to be mentally ready for competition. Yes, of course it is vital to be
physically ready, to set goals and train hard. But when the moment comes when I need to perform, I
know I’ve done the work necessary and it all comes down to confidence and faith in my abilities. At the
competitive National and International meets it can be very intimidating and easy to lose focus. Mental
preparation or the lack of it can make all the difference.

SWF: Have you ever had an experience where you surpassed your own expectations--or those of others,
especially when there were odds stacked against you? How did you manage to come out on top?

MF: In October 2011 at the World Cup in Berlin, I was tired and not rested for the meet. I had been training very hard and had just competed in Moscow. I wondered how I would do. I felt no pressure and went all out in my favorite event, the 200 Back. I felt good in the race. I got in the groove with my stroke. As I touched the wall I heard an enormous applause and wondered what had happened. I looked at the times and saw that I had won GOLD and also noticed a “WR” by my name. I had just claimed my first World Record! I learned so much from this! You never should give up and should always try your best. You never know when it will all come together and give you a moment to remember forever!

SWF: What are some tips you have for other people out there going after their own goals?

MF: My advice is to love what you do and have fun with it. As others have told me, stay in the moment and enjoy your sport. I try and live the life of a normal child or teenager. Take control of your sport and what you want to do with it. Don’t let it take over your life. Finally make time for your family and friends. I am successful because of the love and support they all give to me. I would be nothing without them.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Up with the Sun

We are spending the next 10 days in Corolla, North Carolina. Ten. Whole. Days. In the spirit of a true vacation, I'll likely be as lazy as possible without falling off the wagon. This means, squeezing in a run nearly every morning and then parking my bum in a chair (or, more likely, on the sand, digging holes and building castles with E & N) for the rest of the day. My goal is to get my runs in first thing...bypass the tempting donuts usually piled on the kitchen counter...which is somewhere in the ballpark of 6:30. Brutal.

For a lot of runners and triathletes, waking up at 6:30 is a lovely sleep in. For me, it's anything but. I stay up late (usually working), so mornings are always difficult for me. Running in the morning is even more of a challenge. But it always feels so great once I'm finished and allow myself to veg for the rest of the day. I just don't always remember that sense of satisfaction when my alarm's buzzing well before I'm ready to open my eyes.

But,the benefits of running before breakfast have been touted by plenty of researchers (it's better for stress release, speeds up your metabolism, keeps your energy levels up, and you're likely to run farther because of reduced heat and humidity). Plus, considering the fact that I have a bunch of extra hands to help with the little ones if they happen to rise before I return and that I can take a nap or two throughout the day (like the one I took on the sand this afternoon...just perfect), I am determined to churn out those miles with the sunrise. Or at least before high noon.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Chasing Sunsets

Last night I had a lot of my mind. So as soon as M walked in the door, I headed out for a head-clearing five mile run. After writing about meditation technique for Girls Life magazine, I made a point to not think about anything. I didn't want to search for answers. I wanted to focus on nothing but the road in front of me, inviting resolutions to seamlessly enter my conscious like a whisper. (Isn't it amazing how just one run can solve so many problems?!)

Typically, I'll run an out-and-back hugging the Hudson River, a meandering and flat route with million-dollar views of Manhattan's skyline. But last night, I felt a need for a lift, literally. So three miles into my run, I made a sharp left turn and climbed a rather ominous 150-foot-high hill to the top of the cliff-like overlook on the edge of West New York. Completely engrossed in my run (and still recovering from the climb), I continued to keep my eyes trained in front of me. But suddenly, I felt the urge to peer to my left. And this is what I saw:

A fireball over midtown Manhattan. 7/25/12

It was at that very moment that the sun began its final descent beyond the horizon. I reached for my phone, snapped the shot, and ran along. No more than 45 seconds later, I looked over my shoulder and the fiery sun had slipped out of view, leaving only a dazzling golden light in its wake. I ran home feeling lighter, refreshed, my mind disposed of the clutter I'd been carting around all day. 

After five years of living on this side of the city, I have yet to be anything but awed by its panorama. And it's these moments--these fleeting images of the day turning into night--that inspire me, take my breath away, and keep me motivated to keep chasing those sunsets.