Let me begin by stating that I am Canadian which means that I will not hesitate for a second to throw down and engage in an all-out fist fight (known up here as a Donnybrook) for the last chocolate-glazed doughnut (notice the spelling) at Tim Hortons. Of course, I will apologize afterwards, but the doughnut will be mine (or would have been, I am now vegan, so you can have the damn doughnut). In addition, I will drink Molson at noon, watch curling in July and punctuate most sentences with the customary, “eh”. Of all the things that makes me Canadian, the fact that I played organized hockey from the age of four right up into my twenties, is probably the most meaningful. Growing up, hockey was pretty much all I thought of, and had you asked me back then what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said that I wanted to be Guy Lafleur. I didn’t want to be like Guy Lafleur. I wanted to actually be him. I have many memories of my hockey-playing days, but I was recently reminded of one while be interviewed on the Fitness Oracle podcast because it was similar to something that occurred in my first attempt at triathlon.
After having already played a year of college hockey, I went into selection camp full of confidence, and it showed in my play. Of all the defencemen trying out for the team, I was clearly the most skilled. Unfortunately, as had quite often been the case, my paralyzingly shy demeanour off the ice had been transformed into rage when I was suited up in skates and carrying a hockey stick. During the last practice (the one when the final cuts were made), I decided it was necessary to get into an argument with the head coach and launched my hockey stick, helicoptering it in his general direction. Needless to say, my name was absent from the final roster and I was sent back to the dorms with my tail between my legs, a six-pack of Molson Ex in one hand and an all-dressed Bambino from Jerry’s Pizzeria in the other.
The whole way home I chided myself for being so stupid and worried that my days of playing hockey were over. When I arrived, I checked the phone machine (this was 1986) and to my surprise, there was a message waiting for me from the head coach of the local Junior hockey team asking if I was interested in a try-out. He mentioned that the squad had pretty much been finalized, but that he was willing to give me a shot. I took this as a good sign and returned the call and told him I was very interested but that I didn’t have a car and the team’s home arena was a thirty-minute drive from campus. He said the team would spring for cab fare and told me to arrive at seven for the eight o’clock practice
The practice/try-out went very well, and I was pretty certain that I would make the team. All that remained was a full scrimmage at the end, something I was certain would cement my spot on the roster. Though there were twenty of us, seven of whom were defencemen (myself included), and I was the newbie, the coach told me to put on a blue pinnie and start at right defence for the first shift. We would square off against the number one line who wearing red pinnies. As we lined up for the opening face-off, I had a feeling I was being watched, so I surveyed all the players around me. Nobody seemed to be paying any particular attention to me, so I prepared myself for the start of play. Just as I was about to crouch down and put my weight on my stick, I looked straight ahead at the left defenceman on the red squad, directly in front of me. He was glaring at me and it appeared he was making sure his gloves were nice and loose. I remember wondering what his problem was and observed that he stood straight up and unbuckled his helmet. It was at this point that I noticed that he was a minimum of five or six inches taller than me and easily 40 or 50 pounds heavier and stronger…AND that he appeared to have developed a keen hatred for me. I tried to shrug it off and concentrate on the puck-drop, hoping that my centreman would win the face-off and get the puck to me so I could really show the coaches that I belonged on the team. Just as the assistant coach was getting ready to drop the puck, I felt a huge presence, preceded by a dark shadow, coming menacingly in my direction. As the puck hit the ice, everybody turned to look my way as the giant defenceman on the red team threw down his helmet to the ice and shook the gloves from his fists. I knew instantly what was about to happen, so in an attempt to hide just how terrified I was, I tossed my gloves down and quickly removed my helmet, throwing it towards the boards with force. I rolled up my sleeves so he wouldn’t be able to grab my arms and took off to meet him at centre ice. Since he was way bigger than me, I figured that my only chance to win the fight was to hit first and hit hard, so that’s exactly what I did. I launched my best punch and tagged him right below his left eye, opening up a large gash. It was a beautifully timed knock-out blow, but he didn’t see it that way. He didn’t even flinch and simply smiled. Knowing he just might kill me, I got as close to him as I could, grabbing fistfuls of his jersey so he would be unable to extend his arms completely. What ensued was a powerful barrage of his right fist hammering the back of my head until we both ran out of energy and fell to the ice, him on top of me. At this point, the coaches intervened to get him off of me and the fight was over. He was, quite obviously the victor.
As it happened, the entire try-out was designed and preordained to culminate with this fight as its climax. The coaches simply wanted to see if I was tough enough for Quebec Junior hockey and that’s why they had Pascal (the large defenceman on the red squad who I found out that night everyone referred to as Pitbull) go after me. It was nothing personal and when all was said and done, I made the team and Pitbull and I received stitches from the same team doctor almost simultaneously. It was a terrifying experience, but I made it out alive and nothing that season was as hard to handle as that try-out.
My first triathlon experience was surprisingly similar. I had been dreaming about it for quite a while and when the day came, I was brimming with confidence. Up until then, I had competed in several marathons and had experienced quite a bit of success. In addition, I had developed a healthy interest in cycling and had spent hours and hours training on the bike riding farther and farther every week. To complete my triathlon training regimen, I had gone out the week before the event and purchased a wetsuit which I felt, at the time, would be more than sufficient ‘swim’ training. Other than doing cannonballs in my backyard, above-ground pool, the purchase of the wetsuit was all that I felt would be necessary to complete the swim in a sprint triathlon. How hard could 750 metres be?
When I arrived at the race venue on the morning of the event, everything felt new, exciting, and a bit scary, but I expected that to be the case, so I told myself to celebrate the newness of it all. As the start drew ever nearer, I was handling everything well and adapting seamlessly to my new environment. For so long I had been dreaming of becoming a real triathlete, and now all that remained were two minor details: 1. I needed to complete an actual triathlon (which was about to happen), and, therefore, 2. I needed to swim with my fancy new wetsuit on. I’m not sure which of these two things I was looking forward to more. I mean everyone I knew was capable of running and they had all at least ridden a bike before, but how many of my friends and family could boast that they had slid their bodies into a slick, neoprene and rubber, entirely professional-looking wetsuit and swim in the ocean, while racing against other people? None, that’s how many. Of all the things that triathlon is, it is the swim that made it unique for me and, done properly, was the most beautiful of the three components to watch. I had been doing a significant amount of watching on Youtube leading up to the race, so I was very aware of what good swimming looked like. I hadn’t any actual swimming myself, but the videos made it look so effortless, relaxing even.
As I walked towards the beach in my wetsuit, pulled up to the waist, I felt like a self-assured, virile and proud gladiator about to enter into battle with a worthy, but hardly formidable opponent. When my feet finally made it to the edge of the sand and I could feel the salty water tickle my toes, it was time to don the rest of my battle armour and fully zip up the wetsuit. I shimmied the rubber up and over my hip bones, slid my arms into the snug sleeves and reached back to pull on the ripcord to raise the zipper and seal my body inside. I pulled slowly, hearing each tooth click and lock into place, secretly hoping someone would take a photograph of this very auspicious beginning. As the zipper reached its upper threshold and my girlfriend fastened the Velcro strap at the top of my spine, the feeling of intrepid cocksuredness that I had experienced ten seconds earlier, drained from my body along with the healthy pinkish colour from my face. In an instant, I was no longer the brave warrior. I was now reduced to the skinny, eleven-year-old, bespectacled wimp getting bullied by his older sister. I felt as claustrophobic and confined as I did back when we were kids when she would sit on my chest, constricting my breathing and pinning my arms down so that I could not move. Standing there on that beach, I experienced the realization of a recurring nightmare I have experienced since I was a child where I am trapped under the wreckage of a levelled building, unable to move my limbs. My mind and body were overcome by an intense feeling of utter helplessness and I was certain I would not be able to race.
My girlfriend, seeing the colour leave my face and my body begin to shake, asked if everything was all right. I lied and told her I was merely visualizing the race, then I turned towards the vast open water in front of me and dove in, hoping these feelings would disappear once I was submerged. Unfortunately, they did not but, instead, were exacerbated ten-fold by the waves, salt, jellyfish and by pound after pound of pressure from such a massive quantity of water. It was as though I was sinking into quicksand and I couldn’t breathe. Soon it would be time for the horn to blow to signal the start of the race, but I had absolutely no idea how I could participate feeling like I did. I truly believed that if I started the swim with all the other competitors, I would die in the Long Island Sound.
Before I could take more than twenty or thirty pathetic attempts at freestyle swimming strokes, I was choking on litres of salt-water and experiencing a full-blown panic attack. Luckily, I hadn’t gone too far, and I was able to simply stand up and walk back to the beach where I met up with my girlfriend. I was about to tell her that I was going to quit, but she said they were about to play the National Anthem and she led me to the masses of people dressed in the same rubber straight-jackets as I was, who were making their way to the starting arch. I was too deeply in a state of shock to protest, so I followed along like a lemming.
When the starter sounded the horn, the horde melted into the sea and took me with them. At that point, I had no capacity to choose what to do for myself, as I was only capable of one thought: “Today I will die in the water”.
I remember very little about that swim other than I stopped thrashing at every course marker buoy to hang on so that I could unsuccessfully try to catch my breath and thank God for not taking me yet. At one point I hung onto a kayak and I distinctly recall telling the teenager who was paddling it that if did not allow me to hang on for a while, I would rip him out of it and paddle it myself to safety.
I have absolutely no clue how I made it to the end of the swim course, but when I did, I felt like a hostage being rescued. I guess it was because I did not have significant time to think about what was happening, before I was forced into the water and that permitted me to simply autonomically react to what was going on. Like with Pitbull in the hockey tryout, had I had time to really think about what was about to happen, I may have done something to avoid the conflict, and that avoidance, that giving in to fear, would have allowed me to opt out of an uncomfortable situation that, ultimately, helped me to grow. I would not be the same person today without Pitbull or The Long Island Sound.
(For a much funnier telling of the Long Island Sound story, check out my book which is available by following the link on the home page. If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment. Don’t forget to visit the ‘My Sponsors’ page and leave your email to receive updates whenever they are posted.)