Tenacity. Lessons from Kayaking.

I have been called tenacious as long as I can remember. I can remember driving in a blinding snow storm to get back to Ithaca, New York after Thanksgiving break. I was alone in my Honda Civic and regardless of the twists and turns down route 79, I was bound and determined to make it back to school. I did. When it came time to reopen my restaurant in Santa Rosa, California after the health department decided I needed a new tile floor at the cost of $20,000 that was not in the budget, I did. When my children wanted to go to Medellín, Colombia for Christmas and my home was ravaged by Hurricane Matthew, I still made it happen. If life throws down a gauntlet, I will pick it up and run with it.

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Vicki and I kayaking on Lake Titicaca.

A few months back, my resolve and tenacity were tested. My friend Vicki and I sat in a two-person kayak a thousand miles from shore (well, that’s what it felt and looked like) on Lake Titicaca! The wind was pushing waves higher, the water was 40 degrees and there was no one in sight. At the time I wondered if I had bit off more than I could chew; that maybe this wouldn’t be a happy ending. Obviously, I am able to write about this now, but it was an experience I won’t soon forget.

 

This is what I learned about tenacity on Lake Titicaca:

 

Discern. As we headed to the launch site on a peninsula on Lake Titicaca, we were on a large, comfortable boat. I was observing the water. In retrospect, I was actually assessing the landscape. Vicki and I had initially decided we would be in single kayaks for the 3.5 mile paddle. As I watched the water out the window and saw the waves starting to rise, I asked Vicki if she would be OK in a two-person kayak.  I felt like a larger boat would be more stable on the waves. It was a decision I did not regret. Only one brave soul in our group, Debra, did a single kayak and she was sorely tested. When handed a big task, make sure you use your discernment before jumping it.

 

Gear. As we suited up in our rain jackets, life preservers and paddles, I thought back to kayaking on the Newport River about a month earlier with my boyfriend, Roy. I had gotten blisters from the 45-minute paddle. I quickly got the attention of one of the guides and asked for a pair of gloves in Spanish. Luckily, we were the last group to depart from the beach, and he made it back in time with two right handed gloves. I made due with putting the extra right-handed glove on my left hand. The water was cold and I knew that it would be a lot more than 45 minutes for the 3.5 mile trek. Tenacity is important but making sure you’ve got the right gear is important as well.

 

Learn. This was not my first time in a kayak. It was the first time I’d ever been in a two-person kayak. It was also the first time I would be steering the kayak with a rudder and pedals to direct the boat. We watched as two kayaks departed and how the rudder was deployed. Our rudder was not deploying via a pulley as expected. Once in the boat, I checked the pedals to make sure they were operational and asked one of the guys on shore to make sure he physically put the rudder into place. I also made sure my kayak spray skirt was tight so that water (did I mention the water was cold?) did not spray into the boat. I watched as others who had just deployed went in circles in the small bay from our departure point. As you gather information, make sure you use it to your advantage. I had used a kayak spray skirt some three days earlier and knew it would be important to be snug. I knew that operating the pedals for the rudder would be important. When you have a big project, make sure you learn as much as possible with the time allotted to gather it, and more importantly, use the information.

 

Team. The biggest advantage of a two-person kayak over a one-person is teamwork. Vicki and I paddled two strokes on the right side and then two on the left. We started off by saying right, right, left, left. Then we started counting 1 right, 1 right, 1 left, 1 left. This morphed into to 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, etc. We would decide initially on 10 strokes, then 15, then 20, then 25 and took brief rests in between each set. We took turns calling out the numbers and then finally decided to just count the first set and the rest were in our heads. We had the ability to adapt. If 25 strokes were too much, we cut it back to 20. If calling it out loud was too taxing (it was), then we would count to ourselves. If I started to get off course from the waves, Vicki would point it out. I’m not sure I would have made it across without Vicki. As Vicki said, “I really am glad that we did the 2-person kayak. It was only my third time in a kayak ever and my first in a 2-person kayak. I would have been miserable by myself and not sure if I physically would have been able to make it.It was a tough paddle that took about two hours. When you want to achieve something, use teamwork and devise a system, if possible.

 

Strategy. When we initially set off to go to Taquile Island on Lake Titicaca, we had no idea where on the island we were headed. We were in front of all the other kayaks and I just focused on the far-right end of the island, hoping that someone would point the way later. Eventually, a motor boat came along and pointed to the opposite end (the far left-hand side) of the island. I then changed strategies and steered toward the left-hand side. I was open to change in strategy and Vicki confirmed our focal point. A multitude of waves kept taking us off course. A second motor boat came up dragging another two-person kayak behind it. The man on board was shouting to me in Spanish: “Wait. There are dangerous rocks.” I hesitated. I told Vicki what I understood. We seemed to be about halfway to our destination and the lake seemed way too deep for rocks. We decided to muster on. We made the decision to move on but I was cautiously scanning the water for rocks. Once you decide on a strategy, be open to more information and adapt.

 

Calm. I was pretty nervous for most of the trip to Taquile Island. The waves were even higher than I anticipated. When one wave came across the kayak between Vicki (in front) and myself (in back), I was really nervous. What happens if we tip over?  I don’t see a rescue boat close by. I don’t think I can swim that far. I had a thousand concerns running through my head. I shut up the voice of doubt. On a rest break, I looked up at the blue sky, I counted two beats longer and just appreciated the fact that I was on the highest navigable lake in the world (at 12,500 feet) and just tried to take it all in. I kept my worried thoughts to myself and tried to remain as positive as possible. Panicking Vicki or any other kayakers was not going to help anyone. Keep calm and carry on.

 

We made it. A total of 4 kayakers were towed to Taquile Island. Three kayaks made it in one piece, although it was a lot more arduous than we expected. The current was against us rather than with us. It ended up being life affirming and I am proud that we made the journey. I believe that tenacity won out in the end and it made all the difference.

 

Tenacity and Grit: Lessons from my Son.

My son Benson has always been a gifted athlete. Although I don’t like that term, because gifted implies that it’s all in his DNA. As if the DNA fairy godmother waved a magic wand and suddenly he was running in the North Carolina State Championship Track Meet with little to no effort. There has been a lot of effort. Hard work. Hours and years of hard work. Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps and Lebron James all have worked hard. Sure, there were Tiger’s hard driving parents and his commitment to golf, Michael Phelps’ abnormally wide wing span (and his mother cheering him on) and Lebron’s height. Those are all part of the package. But at the core of it all is tenacity and grit. It takes tenacity to show up every day, regardless of the circumstances and work; as well as the grit to overcome adversity in order to continue forward. My son has both of these qualities in spades.

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I am writing this after a roller coaster weekend of watching my son compete at the University and U25 National Weightlifting Championships in Ogden, Utah. I am not exactly sure when Benson first started lifting weights. There are plenty of sports that he excelled at, most which had weightlifting as a part of the regime. He was an outstanding football player in high school and an all-state champion in Track and Wrestling. These sports usually have some sort of weightlifting as a part of the preparation. The first time he decided to compete in what is termed Olympic Weightlifting (as opposed to Powerlifting or Body Building), had to be sometime during his freshman year of college at the University of Miami. It requires technical aptitude, strength, grace and resilience.

This is what I have learned from my son:

Show up. Benson always shows up. Two years ago, we were in Northern California for Benson’s twentieth birthday. He is a native Californian and it was his first trip back to the West Coast in over a decade. It did not matter. He was at the gym practically every day. Random gyms. Unknown gyms. He was scouting places to work out and he worked out. There are no excuses for Benson. It’s a rainy day. I was up late last night. I have a ton of work to do. My friends are going to the beach. I’m on vacation. He shows up and does the work. If you want something? Show up.

Support. Regardless of the sport, Benson always has a team supporting him. It might be a coach, team mates, family or friends. As the saying goes, it takes a village. I’m proud to say I am a part of that village. While he does all the work, he has a crowd of folks in his corner cheering him on. It amazes me that I attend at least three competitions a year on the national scale and there are rarely parents in the audience. I’ve seen competitors without even a coach. Support is more that just cheering. It’s knowing that what you do matters to more than just you. Someone is invested in your failure or success. It’s the emotional buoy to get you through. Have support.

Grit. During the U25 National competition, Benson missed all three of his Snatches. I was disheartened. I wanted to go back into the training area and give him a hug. There was no way he could be the overall winner without successfully making at least one Snatch. His forte in competition has been the Snatch and now he only had the Clean and Jerk left. How in the world do you come back from that? I saw several other athletes bomb out on all three attempts. It was a war of attrition. He came back to successfully complete two clean lifts in the Clean and Jerk. That is grit. The ability to rally back. To not slide into the abyss of defeat and wallow there. I’m prouder of the fact that he rallied back than for his eventual Gold Medal. Find your grit.

Focus. Benson is single-minded. When I arrived at the competition, I sat next to him in the audience of the preceding weight class. We did not speak. He with his hood and headphones, me with my smart phone. We went out to dinner the evening before and I asked about his plans. He said, “I don’t know. I’m not looking past tomorrow.” This is a lesson for me. Focus on the immediate goal. The project that is due. The exam. Your workout. Month end. The drive home. Know what you want and focus on it. As for me, for the last ten months, it’s been sobriety. As a friend told me, “Just don’t have a damn drink.” For Benson, it is the competition at hand. Not the one next month. Not reliving the two bronze medals from last year. It’s about this competition right now.

I am amazed that Benson could rally back from the extreme low of failing completely in his first three lifts to come back and get the gold medal. That grit. That tenacity to succeed after failure. That is what I am most proud of. So even if you do fail, dust yourself off and stick with it. Success is around the corner.

Tenacity. My Son’s Secret to Success.

My son, Benson, just won a gold medal in a weightlifting competition. He wasn’t even a competitive weight lifter 12 months ago. I’m dumbfounded. How the heck did he do it? What about the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell espoused in his book, Outliers? My son hasn’t been lifting anywhere close to 1,000 hours. So what gives? The only thing I can figure is that it’s his tenacity. He has that in spades. Tenacity.  My son's secret to success.

He has always been an athlete. He started playing soccer at the age of 4, then basketball in elementary school, followed by football, then wrestling and track to fill out his school year with sports. I have to say, he always showed up to win. No matter the odds. The cross town rival high school with kids twice the size of our team and a bench twice as deep, Benson always planned on winning. No matter, he would plan on winning the next game.

So what is the secret to being tenacious? Here is my take.

1. Humility. Tenacity becomes stubbornness with the loss of humility. As written by The Innovative Brain, “We all have experienced the stubborn person, and know from direct experience that stubbornness gradually causes a person, no matter their brilliance, to be marginalized.” I have to say that this is where my son really has developed in the last few years. I can remember lost soccer games when he was about 8 years old and he would be inconsolable. It was almost like he didn’t understand how If he did his best, the team could possibly lose. I don’t remember the tipping point but he has gained humility in recent years. Perhaps it’s maturity, or self-awareness, maybe a coach. Maintain humility.

2. Point B. Benson always knows where point B is. Whether it was qualifying for a state wrestling championships or a gold medal in the state championship track meet. Benson always goes big. You have to have aspirations for tenacity to show up. What’s the point of perseverance if your point B is getting to Friday at the end of the workweek? Benson has had so many audacious goals that if he told me he was going to go on a mission to Mars, I’d believe him. Be very clear about what your point B is and go after it.

3. Work. You can’t just wish things into happening. Tenacity involves a lot of work. Hard work. Rain or shine, my son has been lifting weights for the last 9 months, regardless of the sport. If it’s Wednesday, and therefore practice day, and we are in Key West on vacation, then he’s running sprints at 6 AM. I remember when we were looking at colleges, we would have to stop so that he could do his allotted training in a random college track. “Mommy, it’s Wednesday, I have to work out”. I think he knows every Crossfit location in lower Florida and eastern Carolina. He does the work without fail.

4. Risk. Benson embraces risk. I wasn’t there the first time he lifted 300 pounds over his head but if he wasn’t willing to risk having that barbell fall on his head, then he might as well stay home. Tenacity always involves pursuing something regardless of the risk. This can be dangerous of course. I remember him at the age of 2, running to the deep end of the pool and jumping in (with no one to catch him). When I arrived, I saw his big brown eyes looking up at me. He obviously survived but he’s always been willing to jump. Accept risk.

5. Support. Have a team to support you. Whether it’s a running club for a half marathon or a spouse willing to support you as you pursue nursing school. Tenacity is pointless without strong support. Benson has always managed to find a group or coach or friends for support. Sometimes I think he must cast a spell on those folks. He always has an entourage of supporters. This is lucky for me because, we always get video and photos of his accomplishments (even though we are a twelve hour drive away). He has a gift with people; find yours.

6. Angle. Benson always has an angle of how he’s going to get there. And he’s flexible about how to get there. He wanted his girlfriend to come to our house in North Carolina over winter break. Benson started coordinating and strategizing some 3 months in advance. Dates and modes of transportation and accommodations were moving and changing. But I knew once he said he wanted her to come, that he was going to make it happen. Tenacity is flexible and always has to have a strategy.

7. Inspiration. Benson is inspired by others and inspires others. I remember the Monday after my marathon, Benson tweeted “My inspiration for getting to my 8am today is my Mom’s WDW Marathon 2015. Bucket list item” He texted me right before the weightlifting competition started, “If you’re pulling for me, I can pull this weight”. I have to say that this year I am on a team to walk/run 2015 miles in 2015. I have to walk at least 3 miles a day to stay on track. When my alarm goes off at 5:30 AM, I know I need to get up and get going. My inspiration is my tenacious son. I know he’s showing up and doing the work. I need to as well. Find your inspiration.

8. Own it. As Benson has shared, “My lesson to anyone is play your own game. When wrestling, you can’t let your opponent dictate your game. You’ll end up on your back. I went two years without being pinned, and each of my opponents had to go 6 minutes with me if they really wanted to win. In the 400m, every step counts. Even the last 50m matter, especially when running against Benny. Looking back, I might have crossed 300m first only one time, but I always kept coming through the finish.”

9. Be yourself. Benson again, “That’s why I like the bar. There are a lot of ways to get the bar from the floor to overhead, and you have to craft a form that works best for you. It’s the best training partner too, because it never has a bad day! So showing up and sticking around is easy, because it’s always on my own time, and I play in a way that is uniquely me.” I can imagine that if I told Benson to be a weightlifter or a juggler or a race car driver, it wouldn’t matter. He would not have lifted a finger. It has to come from inside and not from anyone else. Tenacity is about living your own dream.

My son insisted I watch “Survive and Advance“, a documentary on Coach Jimmy Valvano‘s road to the NCAA National Championship. Jimmy V kept telling his dad that he wanted to go to the Final Four in the championship. His dad’s response was always, “My bags are packed”. If you are truly tenacious, you better pack your bags, because you are going somewhere. Are your bags packed?