Sunday, April 26, 2015

Believing in Superheroes



Bruce Jenner, 1976 Olympic Decathlon Champ
When I was seven years old, my twin brother, Darrin and I watched every second of the 1976 Olympic decathlon. I still remember the two of us on the floor in front of the TV, watching a man named Bruce Jenner break the world record en route to his Olympic gold medal. Like thousands of people around the world, Bruce was like a superhero to us. Without question, he was my first real hero. He inspired in me a love for the decathlon and Olympic Games that remains to this day.

I have been fortunate in my life to have met a good number of famous people. Some have been kind and some of been jerks.  I once met one of my greatest athletic heroes who rolled his eyes when I told him what a big fan I was, and asked him for an autograph. I very conspicuously tossed the autographed piece of paper into the trash as I walked away, crushed. 


And then there was Bruce Jenner. In 1995 I emerged on the scene as a rookie, national class decathlete. In 1990, Visa became the signature sponsor of the US decathlon, sponsoring the top ten US decathletes each year. It was an amazing partnership, connecting current decathletes with the greats of the past. I finished 5th at the ’95 US Championships and was named to the Visa USA Decathlon Team. The morning of the ’95 team announcement I stepped into an elevator that Bruce was in. I’d like to say I introduced myself in that moment and finally met my childhood hero. Instead, I was transported back in time, a seven year old, too star-struck to say a word to his hero.  Through the Visa sponsorship I did eventually meet him, along with all the other living US decathlon gold medalists. I found Bruce easy to talk with and genuine. In fact, I am very happy to say they were all great, great guys. 

Bruce Jenner
One year later I was in my Atlanta high rise hotel room the night before the 1996 Olympic Trials. It was after midnight and I was too keyed up to sleep. I decided to take a walk. I remember riding down an enormous escalator and seeing Bruce all by himself in the lobby. He saw me as I stepped off the escalator, smiled and walked up to me. He correctly assumed I couldn’t sleep and asked how I was feeling about my chances of finishing top three. I played it cool, but was thrilled to run into him. Then, in one of the most surreal moments of my life, he told me a story. He told me how he had been in the Quad Cities (where I grew up) a couple of weeks earlier for an appearance. He said he was at a media event where local reporters were asking him questions. “One of the reporters asked me if I thought you had a chance to make the Olympic team in the decathlon,” he told me. “I told them, You know, I just watched him compete, and that guy’s pretty darn good. I said, Yes, I think he’s got a real shot.” His words just hung in the air. Here I was in front of my childhood hero, and he was telling ME a story about a reporter asking HIM a question about me. And he knew me well enough to answer the question. I remember very distinctly thinking to myself that I have no idea what it feels like to “make it,” but this was good enough for me. Bruce didn’t have to share that story with me. I wasn’t a star of any kind, and he had been around long enough to know that I would never be one. The generosity he showed me in that moment has always stayed with me. My first hero in life was worthy of my admiration. 

Through the years it has pained me to see and hear the ridicule directed at Bruce Jenner. I’ve always been quick to defend him. I have watched the Kardashians, and my opinion of Bruce hasn’t changed. Even on the show I find him kind and generous. I see him as the voice of reason. This past year the rumors regarding his gender identity have been frequent. Selfishly, I’ve not accepted any of it. “It’s for the show,” I’d say. “Nope. No way.” I am accepting this is a very real issue thousands of people (millions?) must deal with. But Bruce Jenner was my hero. I just couldn’t accept that someone so influential to me was somebody else.



Ashton Eaton Winning the 2012 Olympic Decathlon
This weekend I brought my athletes to the Drake Relays. My famous former athlete, Ashton Eaton and his coach, Harry Marra were there as well. I’ve known Harry since 1995- he was instrumental in the Visa partnership and is a personal friend of mine, and of Bruce. A more decent man- more committed to the decathlon, you’ll never meet. Friday evening Harry and I ran into each other outside of Drake stadium, right around the time of the Bruce Jenner, Diane Sawyer interview. We discussed Bruce and our take on this- both wishing we were watching the interview instead of waiting for the hotel shuttle. We casually explored ulterior motives and possible explanations outside of face value. Finally, Harry said, “You know, I don’t know what the truth is, Dan. But I consider Bruce a friend. I’ll always consider him a friend.” And that pretty much summed it up. I can’t personally say he’s a friend because I don’t know him that way. But I can say he always was and always will be my hero.

Libby, Ashton and Derek at the 2015 Drake Relays
The next day I was able to watch Ashton interact with fans. I’ve known Ashton since he was a high school senior and I am proud of whatever role I played in his assent to becoming the world’s greatest athlete. I swell with pride watching the kindness and generosity he shows to a young athlete I currently coach who says Ashton is his hero. Just last week I told Ashton’s mom, Roz that I was more proud of the man Ashton’s become than I am the athlete. Of course, she concurred. Watching Ashton with his fans is surreal. I see myself with Bruce and sit in awe at the incredible connection between the seven year old I was, Bruce, Ashton and the current generation that sees Ashton as a hero. 

I got home last night from the Drake Relays and the first thing I did this morning was watch the entire interview of Bruce on Hula Plus. Maybe I’m na├»ve, but I didn’t see any ulterior motives. I saw my childhood hero, bravely telling a story that most of us would be terrified to tell. I take him at his word. Clearly, I know very little about the transgender community, but I have great compassion for anyone trying to navigate this life with a gender identity different than their gender assignment. I can’t imagine the courage it takes to go public with this. As if life isn’t challenging enough. 


So as it turns out, the man I idolized in childhood, (in his words) “has the soul of a woman.” At the age of 65, Bruce Jenner is courageously telling his story because he can’t live a lie anymore. And so begins his brave new authentic life as a woman. He aspires to change the world by bringing front page awareness to the transgender community. And I am forced to come to terms with the following truth: The man I saw as a superhero in childhood turns out to be a genuine, bonafide superhero. Who knew? And how lucky am I?