If you are not British, into the Olympics, into athletics and did not watch telly in the 70s, then you are probably going ‘WHO?!’. Much like I did, which probably makes me a bad Terrier. But that’s partially what this story is about.
On my birthday last year, I found out that I was going to be inducted to the Wall of Fame of Boston University Track and Field. This would put me on the same sheet as Olympians, World Record holders and a crop of generally outstanding athletes, of which there have been quite a few in Boston University history. During my time as a BU Terrier, I walked through the hallways to the changing room, past pictures of NCAA champions and exceptional athletes, and I just thought ‘I want to be among them, I want my picture on the wall.’
I was good. I qualified for the NCAA championships in the 800m, was a multiple conference champion individually and in the team, and was part of the 4x800m relay team that set the school record that still stands, and I was part of the first women’s team that made it to the NCAA Cross Country Championships. I was good. But I never quite made it onto the wall.
Being told that my name would be put on a little plaque and I would join that exclusive club was therefore huge for me. The morning of the induction ceremony, I went on a run and decided to go and see my old coach, Bruce Lehane, to have a little catch-up with him. There I was sitting in his office, sweaty, dishevelled, walking up and down memory lane, when a rather tall gentleman walked in. He was dressed in jeans and a cable knit jumper, but had that air that immediately established a presence. He sat down in a chair and Bruce introduced me. “Christine”, he said, “this is David Hemery. David this is Christine, I used to coach her.”
Of course, I had heard of David Hemery. I had seen his picture on the wall in the hallway. He had been a fellow Terrier and must have been an outstanding athlete because they named one of the BU athletics meets after him. That was the extent of my knowledge.
We got chatting about running, about work, what times I had run and eventually, considering I lived in England, what I was doing here. When I responded that my name was going to be put up on the wall later today, he stood up, shook my hand and congratulated me.
The conversation moved on. At some point, Bruce mentioned that I was now doing crazy stuff, triathlon, and that I had swum across San Francisco Bay. When David asked at what level I was competing in triathlon, I was briefly considering whether I should play it down like I usually do or actually blow my own trumpet a bit, which generally I feel rather self-conscious about. However, I figured I could be proud of my achievements as a triathlete so far as much as I could be proud of my achievements as a runner. So I responded that I was European Champion in my age group. For the second time, David got up. Shook my hand, congratulated me and was genuinely impressed.
From snippets of the ongoing conversation, I then picked up that David had been to the Olympics. The story sounded almost like an athletics version of rumble in the jungle with one of his opponents smack talking. The guy actually ran a world record going into the Olympics. So psychologically, there was huge pressure. I think there is a great deal to learn listening to such stories, but I also started to think, ‘Oh, Olympics… who the heck is he?!’.
Back at the hotel, I consulted the omnipotent source that is Wikipedia. Turns out David Hemery was Olympic and Commonwealth Games Champion, a world record holder and a silver and bronze medallist at the Olympics in Munich. Apart from that he is a bit of legend for his performances on Superstars on British TV. I just thought oops! But it also got me thinking… if I had actually known the extent of his achievements, I probably would have been really self-conscious and played my achievements down rather than chatting about them like I would with a friend.
I also realised something else: he had genuinely appreciated my achievements, otherwise he probably wouldn’t have bothered getting up from his chair. This is something I’ve noticed with quite a few high-level athletes. Those I have met asked about my achievements rather than letting hang out how great they were. The ones I have met appreciated the hard work that goes into achieving personal targets, and that the PB that someone gets deserves as much appreciation as their world record. They draw strength and motivation from others and it helps them to last.
In contrast, I have met a few hot shots that were successful, really good. Almost unbeatable, young, and in many ways inexperienced, but believing they were god’s gift and knew it all. I heard them belittle performances of fellow runners, announcing that they did my friend’s new 800m PB in an interval session 5 times in a row off of a short break. Needless to say, they didn’t last; not in my team and not as an athlete. They lacked the appreciation of the work and commitment that each and everyone puts into their sport to become better than they have been the day before. They were not able to feed off the motivation and strength that others provide. Your own achievements are particular to you. Yes, they may open doors and provide opportunities, but in the end, we all have our own starting points, individual journeys and our own paths. So when I met David Hemery, I was reminded that everyone making that journey and making the commitment to improve deserves your appreciation, no matter who you are.