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Athletes Blog News QUAZ

Dave Tollefson

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I love guys like Dave Tollefson.

What I mean by “guys like Dave Tollefson” is guys who have experienced tremendous success in professional sports, then fade away and integrate into society. They were here, down with us, then they rose to the highest of heights. They drank the bubbly, they sacked Tom Brady, they won the jewelry. Then, when that ended, they returned to be with us. Happy, content and overflowing with amazing stories.

Dave’s story, in particular, is otherworldly. He was a kid from Northern California who jumped from junior college to Fresno State to working at a Home Depot to Division II ball to being plucked by the Green Bay Packers with the 253rd pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. That he wound up playing on two Super Bowl champions is a testament to doggedness, to hard work, to believing in oneself.

And while those rings are valuable, they’re no match for Dave Tollefson‘s latest honor: The 412th Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Dave, I’m gonna throw a big one at you. Having covered sports for a long time, and having gotten to know many retired NFL players, I sometimes wonder whether it was truly worth it. And what I mean is this: You played six NFL seasons. Six years—which fly by. And then you’re done. I’m speaking generally here, but your body is often beaten. Your mind is often beaten. You’re done doing the thing you absolutely love by 30, maybe 31. And then you’re left with the rest of your life, forever knowing what it is to have 60,000 fans cheer, but never getting that buzz again. And it just seems like a REALLY hard adjustment to life after. Am I exaggerating? And is it worth it?

DAVE TOLLEFSON: First off, thanks a ton for thinking of me for the world-famous Quaz!

It definitely is an exhilarating feeling having a packed stadium cheer you on. The job is tough, maybe that’s an understatement. I think most people equate the toughness to the physical part of the NFL, but I think the mental part is by far much tougher. Imagine someone filming you doing your job, the whole day. Then after work you sit and watch this film with your boss and other employees. While watching this film, 90 percent of what they tell is what you did wrong. The next day you do the same thing, also the day after that and so on. They also are trying to actively replace you this entire time. The actual playing of football is a sanctuary, the physical part of it for me was a time to take out all these frustrations of the mental stress. Ronnie Lott once said, “You get paid to practice and the games you play for free.” I totally agree with the Hall of Famer. I always knew that I was playing a kid’s game for a king’s ransom.

Retiring is not easy by any means. I think, considering how I got to the NFL, it was easier for me than most of the others who go through it. I always knew that my career had an end point. I took what NFL stands for (Not For Long) seriously. Being married to the right person is a tremendous help. My wife Megan is an unbelievable person, she has been very patient with anything that I have dealt with when it comes to retirement. I think the most important thing for me was finding an outlet. I love waterfowl hunting! The comradery is amazing and the work you have to put in to get results is most of the fun.

Would I play football again? Hell yeah and twice on Sunday if I could. Have me for another Quaz in 15 years and we will see if that answer changes …

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J.P.: You played in two Super Bowls with the Giants. A solid 99.99999 percent of people reading this will have never played in any Super Bowls. This is a broad question, but what is it like? Literally, what is it like, participating in a Super Bowl?

D.T.: It was surreal, crazy, fun, anxiety filled, amazing, scary, and—most of all—unbelievable. All of those things, not in that specific order and maybe all at once. I was on the Oakland Raiders’ practice squad in 2007 when the Giants picked me up Week 5. This is when Lane Kiffin was the head coach, the best thing I can say is he was not ready to be a head coach. The Giants were 2-2 at the time, so it wasn’t like I knew I was going to a Super Bowl contender. So that being said, the first one was an out-of-body experience almost. I really couldn’t believe I was there, playing, in the frickin’ Super Bowl!

The second was much different. I brought all my family and friends. I don’t think I actually made any money because I paid for everyone’s hotel, tickets and everything else. I didn’t care, either. It was one of the best experiences of my life and to be able to share it with the people I care about most meant so much to me.

J.P.: Your coming-up saga is pretty astounding: Played outside linebacker at Los Medanos College in 1999 and 2000; then went to Fresno State, but missed three years with injuries, worked at Home Depot in 2002 before going to Northwest Missouri and starring. Maybe this is overly simplistic, but why didn’t you give up? Quit? Move on?

D.T.: That’s always an interesting question. Honestly its tough to answer because I never really wanted to give up. One of my favorite stories that pertains to that mindset was when I was sitting on Tosh Lupoi’s couch on Walnut Ave in Walnut Creek California. He’s now the defensive line coach for the Cleveland Browns, and at the time he was playing defensive end for the California Golden Bears and I was a earpenter. We were watching an NFL game on a Sunday afternoon. I spoke up and said, “I think I can play in the NFL.”

Tosh’s response: “What the fuck! You think it’s a sign-up sheet?”

Tosh and I are still great friends and any chance I get I tell him that he missed the sign-up sheet.

There were definitely tough times when I thought I could make it and life was telling me a different story. I never thought about quitting, though, and the less likely it seemed that I would make it, the harder I would work. Don’t get me wrong, there were a number of blessings along the way that put me in position to get to where I got but hard work was always there.

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J.P.: You were the 253rd pick of the 2006 NFL Draft. Where were you? Did you think you’d get selected? What was your reaction? Emotion?

D.T.: I was in a 1985 17.5 foot Astroglass bass boat on the California Delta. My buddy Tosh entered us in a bass tournament on the second day of the draft. It actually was a brilliant idea to keep my mind off of everything.

I seriously thought I would not be drafted and that was fine with me. I was told by a scout my senior year at Northwest Missouri State University that I would definitely be a free agent signee. For me that was more than enough. I summoned my Lloyd Christmas and said, “So you’re saying there’s a chance!”

I could not believe that I got drafted. I was a carpenter just 2 1/2 years prior. I was a marginal junior college player and I couldn’t keep my grades right for the life of me and that cost me my chance at Fresno State and now I was drafted to play in the NFL. It was a dream come true. I cried, my mom cried, my girlfriend (who’s now my wife) cried. Again, it wasn’t just about me, it was about all the people who believed in me and loved me along the way.

J.P.: I don’t think most of us know what it’s like to get hit. Like, REALLY hit. So … what’s the story of the worst hit you ever took? And what did it feel like?

D.T.: Not trying to sound like a total meathead, but I rarely was the proverbial nail (be the hammer not the nail). One time Everson Griffin hit me from the side on Punt team, it was pretty hard. He actually got a late hit penalty on the play. It just hurt, I think my ego was more battered than my body to be honest with you. I always tried to be the last guy to flinch, typically that makes you the hammer.

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J.P.: You played with the Berlin Thunder in NFL Europe. And I’ve just gotta think—you’re 26, living in Berlin, playing football and getting solid money. Amazing, no? What was that experience like?

D.T.: Solid money? I made 500 bucks a week in NFL Europe. They paid for room and board but they didn’t pay for Internet and it cost like $350 a month. I actually loved the experience over there. I tell anyone who will listen to get out and see the world. It’s amazing how different parts of the world are. One thing that left an indelible impression on me was the visit to Dachau Concentration Camp. Its very difficult to describe. It’s a life-altering experience.

A lot of guys went out. I didn’t. I would tell the guys there that they didn’t send us here because we were good. I took it very seriously and I think it paid off. Playing with some high-level players and being out of a Division II college, my confidence skyrocketed. It definitley was a springboard for my career. I can’t leave out either, went to a Xzibit concert. It was interesting to say the least.

J.P.: I’m a New Yorker. I come from a family of Giant fans. That said, like most people I gave the Giants a 0.00% chance of winning Super Bowl XLII. Am I wondering—what did you think, heading into the game? Were you sure you’d win? Were you sorta sure? Not sure?

D.T.: As you know we played the Patriots the last game of that regular season. After watching the film of that game, we felt that if we had the opportunity to play them again, we would beat them. Well, we got to play them again and our confidence was sky high. We not only thought that we were going to beat them, we knew we were. It was honestly a kind of a weird feeling. They were undefeated and one of the best teams to ever take a field in NFL history, but we had Eli Manning.

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Dave with the family at a Mets game.

J.P.: Is hate a thing in pro football? Like, if you’re a Giant do you hate the Redskins or Cowboys the way fans do? Are there opposing offensive linemen or quarterbacks you hate, in a visceral way? Or is it more, “I have a job to do, no beef with anyone”?

D.T.: I wouldn’t say that the players take the rivalries nearly as seriously as fans do. With that being said, I absolutely hate the Philadelphia Eagles. That has more to do with them beating us in the playoffs in 2008 and The Miracle at the Meadowlands II. As far as individual beefs, those can be very real. I never had one myself but there were definitely guys who did not like each other. Some guys didn’t like their own teammates.

J.P.: How much do you worry about the long-term impact football has on your brain? And are you 100 percent comfortable with football, as we sit here in 2019? Can your kids play? Is it safe?

D.T.: I’m not to concerned at this juncture of my life. Worrying doesn’t get you anywhere in life. Could my brain be a problem for me down the road? Maybe. I try to take really good care of my body in the meantime and I will cross that bridge when I get there.

I’m comfortable with the changes the NFL has made. I think you’re seeing it trickle down also into lower levels of the sport, too. We can still be better though. I love football and it changed my life forever. There a lot of valuable lessons you learn in this sport and quite honestly there really isn’t a ton on the line. You can lose a game. I will repeat this, you can lose a game. I tell people all the time—don’t forget that this is a game.

All my boys play flag football. My wife and I won’t let them play tackle until they are at least 12. Most importantly though, it is their decision if they even want to play. I’m not some psycho dad who is worried about his legacy. I would be just as happy if any of my kids were artists, welders, or maybe even a writer.

Ultimately if it is coached properly I think it is safe. The game has came a long way and when my boys are old enough and if they so choose, I have no problem with them suiting up.

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J.P.: On Memorial Day you Tweeted this gem: (What an amazing day!!! I think about my brother, who did make it back from Iraq, twice. He made it back because other guys didn’t. I get too barbecue and drink beers because of those men and woman that aren’t with us today. Thank you, my children will not forget you.). So I wanna ask—your brother. What is he like? Why did he enlist? What does that mean to you?

D.T.: My brother is my hero. He’s by far the toughest SOB I’ve ever known and he’s grown into and amazing Father and husband. The U.S. Marine Corp was lucky to have a man like him wear that uniform.

I believe he enlisted basically because his options were limited out of high school and he knew they would pay for school afterwards. If he was going to enlist it was going to be with the most fierce force of fighters that this planet has ever known! I’m glad to say that today he’s about to graduate with a double major in economy and finance and a minor in computer science from University of San Francisco. Semper Fidelis!

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DAVE TOLLEFSON:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Pam Oliver, “The Karate Kid,” Jordin Sparks, Mr. Potato Head, “Get Out,” Jackie Stiles, Jeremy Shockey, date bread, Cuonzo Martin: 1. “The Karate Kid,” 2. Potato Head, 3. Pam Oliver, 4. Jeremy Shockey, 5. Jordin Sparks, 6. Jackie Stiles, 7. Cuonzo Martin, 8. Date bread, 9. “Get Out” (I absolutely refuse to watch scary movies. Call me what you want)

• If you’re the Democrats, and you wanna beat Donald Trump in 2020, what should the ticket be?: President: Joe Biden VP: Barack Obama

• The world needs to know: What was it like playing with Omar Gaither?: It was great! We only played one year in Oakland together, but we played in the Hula Bowl in Hawaii also. It was a senior all-star game.

• Five greatest NFL players from your time in the league?: Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Michael Strahan, Walter Jones, Eli Manning.

• How did you meet your wife?: In our college training room. I spit some game, she dug it and the rest is history.

• Did you ever think you were about to die in a plane crash? If you, what do you recall?: I am not a huge fan of flying in general. The worst time was when I was going to Justin Tuck’s wedding. It felt like we were flying through a tornado. I was absolutely terrified.

• My son thinks, with proper opportunity, Ahmad Bradshaw could have been Walter Payton II. I think he’s on crack. What says you?: Ahmad was an incredible talent. Walter Payton might be a little bit of a reach and I’m sure Ahmad would say the same thing.

• You help coach football at your nearby junior college. What gives you the greatest joy?: Seeing the young men I coach be successful. I try to keep in contact with as many guys I can after they leave. Football is just a footnote in all our lives and I just want to build real relationships.

• Right now, we give you four months to train, then you have to play for the University of Delaware Blue Hens this season. Twelve games, what are your sack, tackle totals?: No. Never. It hurts to think about it. I could give them maybe 10 plays a game and I wouldn’t practice. So I would get about 120 snaps, so if I do the math right, I should get at least one sack …

• What’s the best advice you ever received?: “Everything has a cost and I’m not talking about money necessarily”

Categories
Athletes Blog News QUAZ

Ryan O’Neil

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Because it’s a tiny Division III college in Gambier, Ohio, not a ton of people follow the Kenyon College men’s basketball team.

Which, if you’re a current member of the Kenyon College men’s basketball team, might not be the worst thing right now.

As I write this, the Lords are nursing the wounds of a 10th-straight loss, dropping them to 1-21 on the season. Yes, that’s correct. One. And. Twenty. One. This latest setback, a 98-94 home overtime defeat to Hiram College, came before 100 devoted spectators at Tomsich Arena and—I’m guessing—had to hurt even more than, say, the 112-61 demolition at the hands of Albion College earlier in the campaign. Losing sucks. Losing when you feel as if you should have won sucks, times 100,000.

I digress.

The Lords’ backup guard is a junior named Ryan O’Neil. He’s an aspiring journalist with a ton of writing talent, and he’s also—to his great credit—unafraid to bluntly explain what it is to lose and lose and lose again. So I brought him here, because nothing takes the sting off a 4.7 winning percentage more than life inside the Quaz.

One can follow Ryan on Twitter here, and learn more about the Lords here.

Ryan O’Neil, you are the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Ryan, you’re a backup guard for the Kenyon College men’s basketball team. Your record, as I write this, is 1-20. I’m gonna ask bluntly—what is it to be on a team that’s 1-18? And did you see this coming?

RYAN O’NEIL: It sucks, and there’s really no way around that. There’s no way to say it in a more eloquent or diplomatic way. There have been a lot of nights when I’ve called my dad out of pure frustration. I don’t particularly look forward to going to practice, and sometimes I don’t even get excited to play in games. I try, and often fail, to find consolation by telling myself that playing a sport in college is not supposed to be easy. But it’s difficult to remember that, and even when I do I find that it offers very little solace, encouragement, or support. I’m not having fun this season, and basketball is supposed to be enjoyable. I’m fortunate that I get to hoop every day with some of my best friends in the world, but I don’t really feel lucky. These days, basketball feels more like a chore or a job than a source of unbridled joy. Often, I catch myself comparing this season to high school basketball, when the sport was a distraction from school, when we would play in front of 1500 or 2,000 people on some nights, when my favorite thing in the entire world was to be in the gym.

More than anything else, this season has been disheartening because I didn’t foresee the struggles that we would have as a team. In addition to the four players who graduated from last year’s team, five others decided to transfer from the school. So I knew there would be an adjustment period as we learned to play without them and the freshmen acclimated themselves to playing at this level, but I didn’t think that we would struggle to this extent. We believe that we’re a better team than our record says, but it’s all too easy to invoke Bill Parcells in response.

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J.P.: You play Division III hoops, which is low on the glory but still high on the commitment. I’m guessing you’ve seen a lot of small, half-empty gyms through the years. I’m guessing you’ve had many a long road trip. So … why? Why do it? Why not just spend these four years partying your ass off?

R.O.: I actually believe that’s one of the most misunderstood aspects of Division III basketball. While there are many nights when there are fewer than 100 people in the stands, our conference has several programs that have significant history. Ohio Wesleyan, Wabash, and Wittenberg have all won national championships, and The College of Wooster is the winningest Division III basketball program of the 2000s. Typically, when we play at one of those schools, we play in front of a large crowd. With that said, those schools are outliers; more often, small school basketball is inglorious. As I’m writing this, the temperature in Ohio is below 0, and my classes for the day have been cancelled, but we still have to go play our game at Wooster tonight.

There have certainly been occasions, especially this season, when I’ve asked myself that exact question. Playing basketball has limited my ability to have a legitimate “college experience.” My Thanksgiving and Winter Breaks are truncated, and I usually don’t get full weekends like my friends who aren’t college athletes. But I know that it’s worth it. Since graduating from high school, I’ve become more confident, I’ve become more vocal, and I’ve learned valuable time management and leadership skills; I fully attribute this personal growth to basketball.

J.P.: You’ve told me you want to go into journalism—an industry that definitely seemed to be struggling right now. So … why? And what’s your plan?

R.O.: I suppose that it’s easier to answer your second question before getting to the first. Ideally, I would like to write nonfiction books that are culturally important. I’m fascinated by stories that are sports-adjacent, in a sense. My favorite book–which I am currently reading for the third time–is Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights. When I first read the book in seventh grade, it was illuminating and very literally life-changing. It showed me that sports can, and should, be used as a vehicle to tell a broader, more important story. So, I would love to write books that encapsulate sports, culture, and the world’s myriad faults.

There are so many stories that I want to tell. Recently, I’ve been obsessed with the history of lacrosse and the Native Americans’ relationship with the sport: how it began as a deeply spiritual game played by Native Americans; how the sport has been wrested from the Natives and appropriated by affluent white communities; how the Native American story is replete with tragedies including disproportionate rates of suicide and alcoholism and how lacrosse is an example of all that has been taken from the community; and how athletes like the Thompson trio who played at Albany show an attempt to recapture the sport. If I could, I would write a book about the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse team as it prepares to play in the next World Lacrosse Championships, an event that has only seen Canada and the United States win.

I’m also obsessed with Colin Kaepernick’s odyssey, although that’s a much more mainstream story of which most people are well-informed. To me, Kaepernick’s public conflict with the NFL offers the perfect blend of sports, politics, and culture; it is the perfect representation of the sports-adjacent stories that intrigue me.

I’m also interested in the youth soccer scene in America. The game is primarily reserved for and played by the wealthy elite, especially in U.S. Soccer’s Developmental Academy. The flaws of the Developmental Academy led to our nation’s absence in the 2018 World Cup and the subsequent election to find the new U.S. Soccer President; the election focused greatly on access to the sport in this country. This topic also involves the access that girls have; as the U.S. Women’s National Team is the best in the world, but receives much less funding and attention than the Men’s National Team.

I believe that these are stories that must be told, and that’s why I want to enter the field. Journalism, as much as our President tries to convince you otherwise, is a vital tenet of democracy and has the potential to very literally change the world.

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J.P.: Back when you graduated from high school, your uncle gave you a copy of “Into the Wild,” with an inside-the-cover note that read, “A good read here about family, choices and priorities. Seems we could all use a little bit of his spirit in our lives.” The book, according to an essay you wrote, has had an enormous impact. Why?

R.O.: Like Friday Night Lights, I’ve read this book several times; unlike FNL, I don’t quite know why I come back to it so often. It’s a story that both inspires me and frustrates me, because Christopher McCandless is both familiar and foreign to me. It inspires me, because there’s something profoundly simple in the idea that we should live how we want to, not in the way that the world has decided we’re supposed to. But it frustrates me because it’s ultimately a tragedy that was not inevitable.

In the essay that you referenced, I wrote most prominently about why I relate to McCandless. As a junior in college, I think I’m beginning to see the world with more clarity. It’s frightening how quickly college has been going by, and I realize, almost daily, that I am on the precipice of entering the real world. And as I get closer to the real world, I think I’m beginning to understand the way it works. Very few people get to do what they want to do for a living. So, I’m going for it: I’m starting a website with some friends; I’m writing as often as possible; I’m pursuing this career before it even starts. In part, this is thanks to Into the Wild. I’m inspired by the way that McCandless just said “fuck it,” and went out to do what he wanted. But it’s also daunting and terrifying: what if I’m not good enough to do this? What if it doesn’t work out for me? I’m aware that I’m setting myself up for a major disappointment, but I’d rather pursue my dream; I don’t want to sit back 40 years from now and wonder what could have been.

McCandless pursued his dream, and unfortunately it ended in his death. But at least he went for it, and I respect the shit out of that.

J.P.: I’m not trying to pile on, but I’m just as fascinated by losing as winning. And earlier this year you guys traveled to exotic Albion, Michigan, where Albion College beat you 112-61. What do you recall from that experience? Were they just THAT much better than you? And is there anything to gain from taking an ass kicking of that magnitude? Or does it just suck?

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R.O.: Oh, man. I’ve tried to erase that game from my memory completely. It was so humiliating. It felt like they were scoring every single time down the court, and we just couldn’t do anything to stop them. We were losing by some 30 points at half, and no one said anything in the locker room. Then our coach walked in, and we could tell that he didn’t know what to say. He spoke inaudibly, barely above a whisper. He wasn’t even angry, he was just morose. He kept rubbing his forehead, as if he was perplexed by what was happening on the court. And honestly, it was confusing. Albion is a fine team, but they’re certainly not 50 points better than us. I don’t think there’s a Division III team in the country that’s 50 points better than us.

At the time, we thought there were things we could learn from the game. We tried to fix our warmup and pregame routine, we tried to approach film and scouting with a greater focus and more keen attention to detail, we tried to work harder in practice. But in retrospect, we didn’t really learn anything. We didn’t improve. We’ve had several other notably bad games. It was just another dispiriting moment in a demoralizing season.

Summer ball in New Rochelle
Summer ball in New Rochelle, N.Y.

J.P.: You and two pals started up a sports and pop culture website. Why? How? And how come you haven’t added to it in more than a month?

R.O.: For some time, I’ve had the idea of starting a website with friends who have similar interests. Over Thanksgiving Break last semester, I decided to commit to it. I sat down and I created a five-page Word document outlining my vision for the website. The thought of running my own website and having the ability to create the type of content that interests me were my primary motivation, and I tried to convey this in the Word document, which I sent to about 20 people. Most of these 20 were kids my age who, as I understood, were interested in some sort of career in writing or media. I also sent the document to several kids who aren’t interested in writing or entering the field, thinking that they would be good additions. Right now, my friends and I are working on developing the site: designing the site, writing pieces for it, getting the domain.

We’re about ready to begin the site, which is called Badlands. I’m really excited to start, and we have a lot of really cool ideas that we’re developing. We’re going to write about a wide variety of topics across sports and pop culture. Some of it will be serious, and some of it will be more trivial and jocular. Of our first few pieces, one will be about sports psychology, as my co-editor Henry wrote about DeAndre Jordan, Markelle Fultz, and free throw shooting. Another piece will propose a hypothetical about me, my brother, and my two friends playing in and winning the Little League World Series. I’m also currently working on an episodic fictional series about a slow pitch softball league. My friend Hugo wrote about Ambrose Bierce, and my friend Joe is currently writing about his favorite guitar solos of all time. All of these pieces should be ready when we drop the site. This summer, we’re hoping to do a bracket to determine Westchester County’s best local pizza place, using fan votes and taste-testing.

J.P.: You wrote a very profound essay, “The Sadness,” about 9.11—and event you don’t remember. And I wonder, what is it to be from New York, to hear about 9.11, to know people directly impacted by 9.11 … but to have no recollection of it? Do you feel like you should feel more connected? Do you feel sorta lost on the day? Do you ever just feel nothing?

R.O.: It’s … difficult. It’s impossible to ever forget what happened. Like I wrote in that essay, some of my high school classmates lost parents, cousins, uncles or aunts. One of my best friends lost two uncles that day. But I was only three years old at the time, so I don’t remember it; I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing. Everything I know about that day is secondhand. But I still feel it: the emotion, the patriotism, the anguish. When I was in eighth grade, my youth soccer cried on the tenth anniversary of those attacks as he tried to express why this day was so difficult for him because two of his brothers-in-law passed away that day. I had never seen him cry before.

I really don’t feel any connection to 9/11 on other days, mostly because I can’t remember it. I feel guilty, in a sense, because I don’t have to think about it all the time. People who lost family members, and even those who just had to watch the wretched news coverage that day, don’t have that same luxury.

I wrote that essay during my sophomore year, my second consecutive year away from New York on that day. And for the second year, I was surprised to see that most people seemed unfazed by the anniversary. As a result, I felt detached from my hometown for the first time. So, I wanted to express what the day means when you’re from New York.

My mom, my biggest fan, shared that piece on her Facebook page, like she does with all of my writing. One woman, who lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks, wrote, “Next time you see that boy–give him a huge hug from my kids and I. Wow.” For as long as I live, that will be the most meaningful reception I will ever get on anything I write. It made me feel like I was back in New York.

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J.P.: You’re from Pelham, not far from where I was raised. What’s your basketball journey? Were you always one of the better kids? Were you a high school star? Did you think you’d wind up at Michigan or Duke? What was recruitment like?

R.O.: It’s funny that you mention Duke, because that’s actually where my basketball “journey” began. My dad went to graduate school at Duke. For those three years, my twin brother, Matt, and I grew up on Tobacco Road, worshipping the Duke players, Coach K, and the Cameron Crazies. We would play on our little driveway hoop during the day, and accompany our dad to Cameron Indoor Stadium at night.

When Matt and I were five, our family moved to Pelham, where my dad quickly found a weekly pickup game at a Boys and Girls Club every Sunday morning at 8 o’clock. Every Sunday morning at 7:45, Matt and I would pile into the car with him, wearing our basketball shoes and carrying our basketballs. The gym was usually freezing, and I’m sure the men didn’t appreciate the fact that there were two young kids running around the gym screaming and shooting on the hoops that they were supposed to be warming up on. But once the games began, Matt and I would just watch, soaking up every aspect of the game. We whispered to each other about things we saw, like the way one guy wouldn’t pass; we huddled in trepidation whenever the men would argue with one another about a foul call or the score; we laughed to each other whenever they would curse loudly.

And then, we began to play CYO ball before matriculating to the basketball program at Pelham Memorial High School. We both played JV as eighth graders, and then I was called up to the varsity team as a freshman. And from the beginning of sophomore year to our final game senior year, Matt and I started every single game in the backcourt. That was my favorite thing in the world, playing ball with Matt. We had a unique chemistry, which would manifest itself in several different ways–some of which helped us, some of which were more pernicious. We almost always knew where the other would be on the court, but we were also very comfortable yelling at one another if we were angry.

I was pretty good in high school, although I was never much of a scorer. My best skill was my ball-handling, so I was good at getting in the paint and kicking out to shooters. My senior year, I was named an All-Conference player (translation: good, not great player). Luckily, some college coaches found something about my playing style appealing. I received looks from some schools that I never wanted to attend, and didn’t get the attention that I wanted from some other schools. Ultimately, it came down to Kenyon or SUNY Geneseo. I took visits to both Kenyon and Geneseo, and decided that Kenyon would be a better fit for me.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel
Photo by Jonathan Daniel

J.P.: I’ve got more than 25 years on you, and sometimes it’s hard to read a different generation. So there, on the campus of Kenyon College, how is Donald Trump playing? What do people think? Your teammates? Etc?

R.O.: Generally, Kenyon students hate Donald Trump. According to the New York Times, Clinton won 90% of the vote in Gambier (the town in which Kenyon is located). Most students consider Trump to be abhorrent and grotesque, but there are certainly students who voted for him and continue to support him. One student who lives across from me has a Trump poster hanging up in his room, with the infamous campaign slogan, Make America Great Again, plastered across it.

The 2016 election was a disappointment for me, personally, because I was anticipating healthy political discourse during the campaign. Instead, Kenyon became a place where students were defined by their political affiliation, and those who were conservative were likely ostracized. Even today, there is very little room for political compromise on Kenyon’s campus, and most students scorn conservatives for their beliefs or support of Trump. While politics isn’t a topic that comes up often with the team, it is something that comes up often in academic settings. In fact, I had one professor last semester who began each day by debriefing the class about the troublesome things that Trump had done since we last met. It’s really an unavoidable topic, but the discussion around it must be rectified so that students aren’t totally ignored because of their political perspective.

J.P.: Along those lines—unorthodox question. Your coach, Dan Priest, is in his ninth year at Kenyon. Seems to have a good rep, nice way about him. What if he was a very vocal Trump supporter? What if he wore #MAGA hats to practices? Could you play for him? Would that matter? And do you think a coach’s political leanings should matter?

R.O.: This is a really good question. I’ve never spoken politics with Coach Priest, so I don’t know where he stands on the political spectrum. Truthfully, I really don’t know what I would do if he wore one of those red hats. I think I would be hurt, just because those hats symbolize so much more than political affiliation: they symbolize Trump’s disposition toward people who are purportedly inferior to him. They symbolize hatred and elitism, arrogance and mendacity.

I don’t know whether I could still play for him. I wish that I could confidently say that a coach’s political leanings don’t matter, but they honestly do. I see Coach Priest six days every week, for four straight months. If he were vocally hateful, then I don’t know if I would want to be around that attitude so often.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RYAN O’NEIL:

• Right now, Kenyon v. Duke. Final score?: 147 to 52, Duke wins; Zion records a quintuple-double.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): A$AP Rocky, Dixie Cups, Sharpies, the mid-1980s San Diego Padres uniforms, the Washington Monument, James Harden, “The Green Book,” candy corn, the smell of musty blankets, John Bolton: Dixie Cups, James Harden, A$AP Rocky, Washington Monument, the mid-1980s Padres uniforms, Sharpies, the smell of musty blankets, “The Green Book,” candy corn, John Bolton.

• What’s the greatest moment of your athletic career?: Hitting a three-pointer with 30 seconds left against Eastchester High School to clinch the game.

• What’s the lowest?: Losing to Byram Hills High School in my final high school basketball game. I’ve never cried so much in my entire life.

• The world needs to know—what’s it like playing alongside Kamal Aubakirov?: It’s no different than playing with any other teammate, but sometimes it just takes a little longer to talk things through with him, but his English is pretty good. He went to high school in the US.

• One question you would ask Lou Ferrigno were he here right now: How much protein is appropriate to consume in one sitting?

• In exactly 17 words, make an argument for Carmelo Anthony as the greatest Knick of all time: Melo jab-stepped into my heart with his 62-point game, his infectious smile, and his Easter Day game.

• What age do you consider to be the line when someone is old?: 40

• Three memories of your first date: We got ice cream, I was too embarrassed to tell my parents, and she drove.

• We add LeBron to your team and give you a mid-major DI schedule. How far do you guys go, and do you contend for a national title?: If LeBron’s history is any indication, we’ll miraculously make it through a depleted east regional and lose in the final four after our second best player goes down with an injury.

Categories
Athletes Blog News QUAZ

Mike Stahr

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Back when I was a teenager in Mahopac, N.Y., distance running was my thing, and I was pretty good. Not amazing, mind you—but legitimate enough to have the fastest 800 time in the county as a senior, and go on to spend a year running track and cross country in college.

There were many of us throughout Putnam. Jeff Cascone. Mike Barrett. Daiji Takamori. Tim Giambalvo. Good-to-excellent harriers who ran hard and knew how to navigate a winding three-mile trail.

Yet, ultimately, we all existed in the shadows of Mike Stahr.

Back in the early 1980s, Mike was arguably America’s best high school distance runner. The Carmel High standout captured four New York State Mile Championship titles, and won back-to-back Millrose mile crowns. Upon graduating, Mike went on to run at Arizona State, then Georgetown. He was, at both schools, among the elite of the elite—winning the NCAA indoor mile title, helping Georgetown’s distance medley relay set a world record, scoring multiple All-American nods.

In short, he was the best runner (and arguably the best athlete) Putnam ever produced.

Now retired, Mike teaches computer science at Miami (Ohio) University, and also coaches running and operates Running2Win, an online running organizer. One can follow him on Twitter here.

Mike Stahr—to hell with the Olympics. You’ve been Quazed …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Mike, I just spent a half hour at the gym watching YouTube clips of your high school and college races. They were dazzling, breathtaking, inspired, etc. And I wonder, now as a 54-year-old man with four kids, what it’s like for you seeing yourself at that point in life. Does it feel like watching another person? Another existence? Does it feel like yesterday? Do you enjoy the visuals? Sorta hate it?

MIKE STAHR: Thanks, Jeff.  Yes, sometimes it does feel like someone else out there running. The last time I was competitively running was in the mid 90’s so it’s been a while.  When I look back at videos I remember the races very well but it does seem like it’s been a lifetime ago.  Watching them is good and bad. Good in the fact that the adrenaline rushes but bad because I typically find myself way overworking my muscles on my next run or weightlifting session.

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J.P.: Long ago you coached track and field at John F. Kennedy High near where we grew up. And during my time covering sports, it’s always been said that the best players make the worst managers, because, well, how can Ted Williams relate with a guy hitting .210, or how can Jason Kidd understand a point guard who can’t go left. So what was coaching like for you? Could you empathize and help the 5:40 miler?

M.S.: Great question. I think there could be an argument there; however, I think it has more to do with the person’s love of coaching that means more.  I have had great results over the years I’ve been coaching. I attribute this, mostly, to the fact that coaching is a passion for me.  I truly enjoy helping young (or old) athletes achieve levels they never thought possible.  I don’t recall exactly how well the JFK teams I coached did but I do know we were successful.  I can, however, speak about later years I’ve coached. After moving to Cincinnati I coached at Purcell Marion HS for one year prior to going to Graduate School. The Cross Country team was made up of 1 runner, 4 basketball players, and 3 wrestlers (the basketball players and wrestlers were running XC by order of their coaches to get in shape for their sport).  I am most proud to say that the team came together so well – like a family – that they ended up qualifying for the regionals – something the school had not done in over 17 years. The kids did so well all but 1 wrestler quit their sport in order to continue running. To me, it’s all about what you love to do. A successful athlete has the same chance at developing young athletes just as much as a non-successful athlete and in many ways has a greater potential.  It’s all about dedication and passion.

J.P.: How did running happen for you? I mean, I know you’re from Carmel, know you went to Carmel High? But when did you first realize you had a gift? And when did you first realize you wanted to nurture it?

M.S.: You have now touched on one of the most important area in my life. I don’t mean that to be dramatic but this is a story of the love and dedication of a father and of a son. I will condense the story but the unabridged version is quite a bit more interesting:

I was born into a “disturbing” family. As the youngest of 5, I was seldom cared for during my first year of life – twice ending up with pneumonia.  It was my aunt (Lucille) who moved herself and her 3 children to the south side of Chicago in order to protect me.  Not something minor as a single mother of 3 and putting herself through college while working full time.  She had met a man (Don) where she worked and they completely fell for one another. He was 11 years younger and looked like a larger version of Grizzly Adams. He didn’t want anything to do with me – as he later said he thought he would break me – but due to chance, I was trusted into his arms one night while Lu and her daughter were making dinner.  It was, from everyone’s account, love at first sight. Don, who I call my father, became my hero. Lu, Don, and I moved to NY (Queens) until I was in 7th grade.  We then moved to Carmel, NY the summer before school started. My dad was a big smoker – I didn’t know it was bad for him, and in fact, I would help roll his cigarettes. We were as close as any two people could be and I didn’t realize until taking a biology class that his habit was a deadly one.  I began to panic that my dad (again, Don) would pass away because he was a smoker so I began to come up with challenges to bet him in exchange for him quitting.  I would bet him I could do 100 push-ups. If I won he would have to quit smoking…  He never agreed to any of them…

It was during gym class one afternoon that our gym teacher wanted the group to race about 1/2 mile around the soccer fields. There is more to the story but in the end I won, beating all the runners that were on the XC team and, by chance the gym teacher WAS the XC coach.  He told me I needed to join the team.  I did but never really did anything great – probably due to never running before. That being said, the times I would do well would be if there was a medal or my parents were able to make the meet.

I continued to improve over the next year – so much so that I broke the school record in the 800 during 8th grade.  This was a great springboard into my freshman year. My parents were able to change their schedule around so they could be at almost every meet and I reacted well to the more mature competition.  I ended up making the State meet in XC and running a 4:25 mile my freshman year.  The story behind these accomplishments is, however, the key.  The summer between 8th grade and freshman year set me on a path that I consider most influential to my career.  It was in the middle of the summer when my dad and I were watching Seb Coe, Steve Scott, and the other great runners of the time when I attempted to bet him I could run 300 miles before the start of school (note: I never even made the 50-mile club during middle school where you only had to accumulate 50 miles during the entire season).  My dad, as expected, said “no”…  but then he added “But, I’ll tell you what I will bet you…  If you can break 4 minutes in the mile I’ll quit smoking”.  It was set and I never turned back. I set my goals and continued to work past disappointments, injuries, and the odds against me.  So, in answer to your question – I realized I had a gift when I would not allow my coach to tell me that running a 4:25 mile my freshman year was impossible and then I went out and did it.

Feb. 12, 1983 New York Times
Feb. 12, 1983 New York Times

J.P.: You began your collegiate career at Arizona State—which sounds lovely. Then you transferred to Georgetown. Why? What happened? And did you ever regret it?

M.S.: I really enjoyed my time at ASU. I was being coached by Len Miller, Steve Scott and Tom Byres’s coach as well. Training was amazing and we had just set the American Collegiate 4x800m record (still standing today). Unfortunately, coach Miller and the A.D. at the time did not agree on issues and he ended up leaving ASU.  I stayed on for another year but was went through 5 completely different coaches. Running was going downhill and I wanted to just give up at times but I had not broken 4 for the mile and that was still one of my most important goals.  I was recruited to go to a number of schools, Georgetown being one of them, and after meeting the coach at GU (Frank Gagliano, aka, “Gags”) I knew that was home.

J.P.: So, this, from your bio (After retiring from track and field, Mike was offered the first developer position at a small computer software company in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho building a 3D CAD system which today is one of the leading architecture programs on the market) sounds absolutely fascinating—and I have no remote idea what it means. So, eh, Mike, what does it mean?

M.S.: After graduating from GU I moved back to Carmel to train under my father.  It was something I knew would be difficult but being with him on that level was important to me.  While there, I was teaching at JFK and, on the side, was helping a friend with his computers and software he was using.  The software was (is) called Chief Architect and it allows the common person to draw house plans – complete with automatic everything.  I caught on to the software and was able to teach other builders how to use it.  The company (of 2 people) asked me to attend a builders expo and help sell the product.  I did so well during the weekend I was offered a job as their QA and “tech” guy.  This lead to small coding projects and eventually they moved my family and me out to Coeur d’Alene to help run the company.  This lasted less then a year once I realized the president of the company was extremely unethical and left there to move to Cincinnati.

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J.P.: So this might sound offputting—but we’re both from Putnam. And over the past decade or so I’ve really struggled with Mahopac and the vast number of “Obama is a Kenyan Muslim” posts and #MAGA Facebook hashtags. I loved growing up there, but … well, I don’t know. I’ve been turned off. Hell, for all I know you believe Obama is a Kenyan Muslim and you love Trump. Which is all your right. But I wonder, looking back, how you feel about Putnam? About where we grew up?

M.S.: Wow, this is sad to hear. I’ll always think of Carmel as home even if there are those that believe such nonsense. When I get upset and can’t understand why so many people are wearing blinders I think of this story: In 1976, the last season of Gilligan’s Island was aired. The Navy was inundated with letters from actual Americans that were serious in there request that the Navy needed to rescue the stranded castaways … so, I think to myself, if people didn’t have the common sense to realize that Gilligan’s Island wasn’t real then I guess I can understand how people can be so misguided these days.

J.P.: You’ve taught theology at multiple places. I struggle mightily with God, and faith in general. I mean, I look around—poverty, viciousness, drought, famine, murder, etc. Climate change is destroying the earth. On and on. So, being serious, how do you maintain faith?

M.S.: It’s difficult for me, too. I can’t say I’ve come to grips with it all but that’s not a bad thing. Challenging your faith is normal and everyone goes through it.  Although I taught theology when I was a high school teacher, I have been teaching computer science now at Miami University for the past 22 years.

J.P.: In 1988 you qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 800 and 1500, but didn’t make the Olympics. How big of a disappointment was that for you, never being an Olympian? Could you still watch the Olympics in, say, 1988 and enjoy them? Did you have to look the other way?

M.S.: Another great question. Well, it was absolutely a big disappointment for me.  There was every indication I would make the team in the 1500 m; however, a poor decision was definitely a major factor not making it.  There is no question I should have been there in ’88 but what every athlete needs to realize is that making the Olympic team comes down to many things falling in place. Those that make it to the finals of the trials still need many things to go right.  It’s not always the favorites that make the team.  I think I was a bit in shock at the time the Games were aired so I was sad to watch but still excited for our team. In the back of my head I always assumed I would make the ’92 team so I was able to cope pretty well. In later years, the sting of not making the team still gets me but there is one thing that takes it all away – I think to myself, if I had made the team I would not have what I have today – an amazing family – and when I think of missing out on them everything gets put back in perspective.

Working with students at Brahms' Running Camp‏.
Working with students at Brahms’ Running Camp‏.

J.P.: What does it feel like to be leading a race with one lap to go, knowing you’re in charge? Like, what is that? The emotions? The thinking?

M.S.: In high school I often led the races. There were times in my younger years that I probably should not have but did it anyway.  By the time I was a Junior I would not allow anyone to lead a race for long or at all. All I can say is there is a feeling of control. A feeling that the race belongs to you and that you make the rules for it.

J.P.: You had this superpower—you were one of the fastest humans in the world. When did you start either A. Losing the superpower? Or B. Losing interest in the superpower? Is it a gradual aging thing? A gradual indifferent thing? And do you still run competitively at all? Can you still enjoy it?

M.S.: This is, surprisingly, a simple one for me to answer.  Growing up I was seldom injured. Other than the week of the 1983 Olympic Invite 1000m indoor race where few people know that I had bronchitis, a sprained ankle, and was recovering from having a fork thrown in my eye, I was pretty lucky in the health area.  Once injuries begin to set an athlete back it takes a lot to overcome them and “start over” getting ready for the next season.  In the beginning it is much easier to get back on the horse but the more one has to endure this type of struggle the harder it becomes.  In the end, for me, it came down to the fact that I was married and raising a child and trying to focus on training and recovering from one setback after another.  I took a long look at what was most important to me and the choice to retire became much easier.

It’s funny, I have met many athletes that competed on the national or World level and many of us say the same thing: that knowing how fast you once were it is difficult to get excited about running times we could have run in high school. So, when I run a race it is just for fun these days – not to see how fast I can run them. That being said, I rather coach than compete myself.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MIKE STAHR:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): The Mahopac Diner, Edwin Koech, James Van Der Beek, “Dances with Wolves,” DJ Jazzy Jeff, University of Arizona, rainy days, Newport Beach, napkins, LA Gear: The Mahopac Diner, Edwin Koech, rainy days, University of Arizona (did you mean Arizona State? If so then this comes before rainy days), “Dances with Wolves,” Newport Beach, DJ Jazzy Jeff, James Van Der Beek, napkins, LA Gear

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yep … while in Europe traveling with the US Track & Field team our plane all of a sudden started nose diving. All I focused on was my family. As it turned out, our head coach was sitting in the “deadhead” seat in the cockpit and told us that another plane came into sight heading straight for us – our pilot shot down and their pilot pulled up.

• Greatest single moment of your running career?: Hmm … I have so many amazing moments but one stands out among the rest: The day I broke 4:00 for the mile came with the joy of attaining my goal coupled with the realization that my father would be giving up smoking.

• Who wins, right now, in a one-mile race between you and Lamar Jackson?: Sorry Lamar, I’ll have to take that one.

• How did you meet your wife?: This is a long but amazing story filled with a series of events falling in place that sound like I made them up.  So, the short version is that we met while I attended graduate school at Miami University.

• What do your sneakers smell like after a long run?: Actually not too bad—my long runs are over pretty quick these days

• Favorite Bible passage?: 1 Corinthians 9:24 (Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize)

• Five colleges that recruited you to run that you never even remotely considered attending: Einstein University, University of Arizona, Baylor University, University of Texas, University of Florida

• One question you would ask Lou Piniella were he here right now: Who was your all-time favorite player you coached? And why?

Categories
Athletes Blog News QUAZ

Tai Babilonia

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Tai Babilonia is one of the greatest figure skaters in United States history.

Along with Randy Gardner, she won the 1979 World Figure Skating Championships, as well as five U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Along with Randy Gardner, she also qualified for both the 1976 and 1980 Winter Olympics.

But here’s the funky thing—when it comes to today’s magical 355th Quaz, I truly care about two things. First, that by being anointed Tai Babilonia, Tai Babilonia is owner of one of the coolest names in the history of modern society. Second, that she has been sober for nine years, and uses her battle with alcoholism to help others.

Skating, by comparison, hardly rates. Which isn’t to take away from Tai’s accomplishments. They’re impressive and wonderful, and have stood the test of athletic time. It’s just, well, athletes come and go. But perfectly-named, civic-minded heroes are as rare as gold dust on Lake Mahopac.

I digress.

In today’s Quaz, Tai digs deeply into her sobriety, as well as her lifetime kinship with Gardner. She talks skate smells, “Get Out,” giving back and why Jimmy Carter rates higher than Willie McGee.

One can follow Tai on Twitter here, Instagram here and visit her Wikipedia page here.

Tai Babilonia, to hell with the Olympics. You’re No. 355 …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Tai, I’m gonna start with a random one—you’re name is Tai Babilonia. Which is an all-time fantastic name. Memorable, funky, cool, unique. How has that changed your life? What I mean is, if you were Joan Smith, or Jennifer Daniels, is your life different? Would there have been an anonymity you would have liked? Disliked? Is that just dumb? 

TAI BABILONIA: Thank you, Jeff. It is definitely unique and many think it’s a made-up fake/stage name. The story goes that when I was born my parents couldn’t think of a name and were actually fighting about it in the hospital. So my godfather, who is Japanese (and the person who introduced me to skating when I was 6) simply told my parents, “We will name her Tai. End of story.” Regarding anonymity, nah—I love the attention, always have and always will. I appreciate it and take nothing for granted.

J.P.: A couple of weeks ago Sasha Cohen wrote an amazing New York Times editorial about life after the Olympics and competitive skating. How for so many it’s a hard dose of “Who am I?” and “What am I?” She said that so much of your identity is tied into sport, and now … where do you go? How real is that? How much did you feel? 

T.B.: I will always be identified as figure skater and I’m absolutely fine with that. Randy and I had an amazing professional career that we are still enjoying to this day. For me what got confusing was being identified as Tai and Randy. Friends would even joke that TaiAndRandy had become one name. It was fine when I was younger but when I got into my late 20s and early 30s, I truly didn’t know who Tai Babilonia was and didn’t know how to separate the pair team from me as Tai alone. It got very complicated because I wasn’t sure if I could even function on my own.

It scared the shit out of me but with lots of therapy I was able to figure it all out and understand that I was very capable of venturing out on my own. It’s funny because I’ll talk about Tai and Randy in the third person sometimes. They are two separate family members to me. I know it’s crazy but you gotta do what you gotta do to get through the day.

J.P.: There has been much talk this year about “I, Tonya.” Well, 27 years before its release the TV film, “On Thin Ice: The Tai Babilonia Story” aired. So, I’m fascinated: How did you feel about it? Was it accurate? Good? You were played by Rachael Crawford. Is it weird to have someone depict … you? Did she accomplish it?

T.B.: I haven’t seen “I, Tonya” and I have no desire to. “On Thin Ice” was an interesting and surreal movie of the week project that actually came about from a People magazine cover story. NBC approached my then-manager and me and a deal was put together. It was filmed in Toronto and I was on set for most of the scenes as a consultant. Some scenes were difficult for me to watch but I would just step off set and come back when that particular scene was finished.

Casting was tricky because of my multi racial (Filipino, black and Hopi Indian) heritage. I think the casting director did an amazing job but I know it wasn’t easy. The actors also had to learn how to skate (a little bit) They had to cast three Tais—an 8-year old, a 12-year old and an 18-year old. It was all just so bazaar. I thought the Canadian actor Rachel Crawford, who played older Tai, did a fantastic job of portraying me. We spent a few days together before filming started and she would study my every move and wanted know about my life away from the ice. She tapped into my quirkiness and sense of humor, too.

The actors who played the two younger Tais did an awesome job as well. I was so impressed. Both Randy and I were hired as the skating doubles for the older Tai and Randy. See how bazaar it was? Lol! The icing on the cake was that the beautiful actor Denise Nicholas, who played my mom Cleo, was the star of “Room 222″—one of my favorite TV shows in the 1970s. And to top it off the legendary actor William Daniels played our skating coach, Mr. Nicks, and knocked it outta the frickin’ ballpark. He nailed it!  My life packed into 95 minutes. Not bad, not bad at all.

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J.P.: I just watched a very moving news piece from three years ago about your battles with alcoholism. You’re now nine years sober, and I wonder: Why alcohol? Like, what brought it on? What led you to drinking? And was there a moment when you knew you had a problem?

T.B.: Yes, I’m nine years sober and I’m so proud of myself for that. It has been a long time coming and it is one of the best and smartest decisions I’ve ever made. I really had no choice, it was time to stop the madness.

My drinking started back in 1981—my first year with the No. 1 touring show in America, “The Ice Capades.” Tai and Randy (see, I just did that third-person thing) were the headliners. It was a three-year contract and we performed nine months out of the year with one day off a week. It’s showtime, baby!

I remember turning 21 on a bus ride to Pittsburgh. It was a rock and roll lifestyle and I was just doing what all the other pros skaters were doing, never knowing that I had an addictive personality and that I would one day end up falling through the cracks … falling hard. There is so much more to this chapter in my life but I think i I’ll save it for when I write my memoirs. Maybe I’ll call that chapter “Lived ToTell.”

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J.P.: You qualified for the 1976 and 1980 Winter Olympics. And I wonder—in hindsight—is the payoff worth the cost? What I mean is, hours upon hours upon hours devoted to the singular task of ice skating. Other kids were hanging with friends, trying new things, movies and bowling and sleepovers and dates. And you were, largely skating. Was it worth it?

T.B.: It was all absolutely worth it and I wouldn’t change a thing. (Well, maybe one thing). I knew at an early age that I wanted to make the commitment to this sport and it wasn’t to win but to work hard and be the best that I could be and Randy and I just happened to usually win. Most of my friends were skaters from the ice rink and it was great because we all had the same thing in common—we loved to skate. We had sleepovers, movies, a little puppy love dating in our teenage years. This was the norm for me. I was obsessed with skating as a child, I loved being at the ice rink to the point where I was the one dragging my parents out of bed at 4 am to get me to the ice rink on time so I could practice. The ice rink was—and still to this day is—my safe place. But once I’m outside the ice rink, it’s fair game.

J.P.: What is it like when you’re skating at the highest level, and everything is clicking? Like, you’re at your best, doing something better than everyone else?

T.B.: It’s a complete out-of-body experience. It happened to us in 1979 when we became world champions. Like you said, it all clicked. We had trained our asses off and we were in peak condition. Are off-ice training was sometimes just as intense as our on-ice training. We trained at an ice rink in Santa Monica (Sidebar: where they filmed the famous Rocky skating scene—I was there and got to watch) just a few blocks from the beach, so after our practices on ice Randy and I would go to the beach and run/sprint in the sand with weights around our ankles. Burn, baby, burn. It was truly a group effort from our dance teachers, off-ice trainers, our skating coach Mr. Nicks and, of course, the incredible support and sacrificing from our families. Everyone won that night. It takes a village.

Randy and Tai in 2013
Randy and Tai in 2013

J.P.: When you came along, figure skating was a very white sport. Then here’s Tai—part African-American, part Filipino, part Native American. Do you feel like that sorta rubbed any of the establishment wrongly? Was there any hostility? Any, “Stay in your lane” sorta thinking/expression from others?

T.B.: I never ever felt any hostility at all when I competed. I did once in a while see people look at my family (especially when we are all together) with a very confused looks on their faces. We definitely stood out among the skating crowd that was predominantly white at that time. Remember, this was in the early 1970s when you didn’t see many multi-ethnic families, especially in the skating world. People will put me in whatever ethnic box they want but I knew at an early age I had to go out on the ice and get the job done. As I got older I understood the impact I had on up-and-coming skaters of color. I’m very proud of that.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

T.B.: For the greatest, I have a few. First, fulfilling my dream of becoming an Olympian (twice), being crowned World Pair Champions in 1979 and being by the side of the legend/barrier breaker (and the woman who is responsible for creating the pair team of Tai and Randy back in 1968) Mabel Fairbanks as she made history by being the first (and so far only) black skating coach inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in 1997. This was a huge for Mabel and I was so honored to walk her onto the ice so she could receive her award. The crowd went crazy and she had finally gotten the respect she deserved.

Lowest? Back in 1988 I was lying in an ambulance on my way to Cedars Sinai while getting my stomach pumped and puking my guts out. This part of my life is well documented in print and in the TV movie. I’ll leave it at that.

Back in 2012 with Measia Aaron at the Downtown On Ice outdoor skating rink at Pershing Square.
Back in 2012 with Measia Aaron at the Downtown On Ice outdoor skating rink at Pershing Square.

J.P.: Does it matter how one feels about his/her partner? Obviously you were known as a tandem with Randy Gardner. Did it matter if you liked each other? Do you have to be friends? Can you be enemies?

T.B.: Yes, you absolutely must be friends, and—more then anything—trust and respect each other. Having the same goals also helps, too. We made the commitment from the day we were told to hold hands at 8- and 10-years old and here we are today, 50 years later, still holding hands. Okay, I just got weepy. Happy Tears! #TaiAndRandy

J.P.: Can you actually skate for fun? What I mean is, can you show up at a rink, rent some skates for $10 and have a good time? Can you goof around? Hold hands and listen to Drake blaring over the speakers? Or was that taken from you? I get asked this question quite a bit. Do you ever just skate for fun?

T.B.: Yes, I do if I’m taking a friend to skate for the first time. That’s really fun. But to go out and skate now on my own for fun? At my age, no. It’s my job. I will always love skating, it’s in my blood. The less I do it the more I appreciate it. Words from the wise …

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH TAI BABILONIA:

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Nope

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Camila Cabello, Peggy Fleming, Willie McGee, pumpkin scones, Lake Placid, “Get Out,” Kobe Bryant, Coupe des Alpes, Jimmy Carter, Rocky IV, the Museum of Natural History: Peggy Fleming, Jimmy Carter, The Museum Of Natural History, Lake Placid, Kobe Bryant, Get Out, Willie McGee, Rocky IV, Camila Cabello, Coupe des Alpes, Pumpkin Scones.

• Four all-time favorite books: A Snowy Day, To Kill A Mockingbird, Walking With The Wind: A Memoir Of The Movement by John Lewis and The Four Agreements.

• I just bought $15 sneakers at Costco. On a scale of 1 to 100, how big of a mistake was this?: You can never make a mistake at Costco! Never!

• One question you would ask Lil Yachty were he here right now: Does he want to learn how to ice skate? I’m serious! #LilYachtyOnIce

• Three memories from your appearance on an episode of “Hart to Hart.”: (1) Watching Stephanie Powers and Robert Wagner pretty much do every scene in one or two takes. (I watched and I learned); (2) Driving a fancy brand new red Corvette in one of my scenes; (3) Oh, a scene where we’re being shot at by the bad guy and hiding behind the Zamboni with Stephanie Powers and Robert Wagner.

• The world needs to know: What did Randy Gardner’s skates smell like?: A two-time Olympian and world champion type of smell 🙂

• Worst ice fall you ever experienced?: Being dropped on a lift by Randy in 1975. Ouch!

• Five things that make you insanely happy?: (1) My sobriety (2) My family (3) Watching my son Scout mature and become a young man (4) My longtime partnership with Randy Gardner and (5) giving back to my community, I feed the homeless once a week in Hollywood and also motivational speaking to students at local junior high schools in the Los Angeles area.

• I can’t stand Donald Trump, and now my blood pressure is super high. What should I do?: Go ice skating and just know that ‘it’ (I don’t even want to type his filthy name) will be gone soon. #Resist #Breathe

Categories
Athletes Blog News QUAZ

Vinny Marino

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Wanna have some fun? Ask Vinny Marino—offensive coordinator of the Bryant University football team—to name every place he’s worked as a coach. In order.

Seriously, it’s a wondrously dizzying endeavor, not unlike asking a Baskin Robbins clerk to list the week’s 31 flavors. Since graduating from the University of Connecticut in 1992, Marino has been employed a ton of schools, from Boston College and Davidson to Georgetown and, beginning in 2017, Bryant.

What inspires him … what drives him—is love. Love for the players, love for his fellow coaches. Love for the smell of the field, the sound of pads hitting pads, the sight of a perfect spiral soaring through the air. Where will Vinny be in five years? Who the hell knows. The NFL? Alabama? Bryant? Such is the life of the assistant college coach—a wayward-yet-cherished gig that Vinny wouldn’t trade for gold.

Anyhow, I actually bumped into Vinny via Twitter, and a short-lived DM argument turned into a lovely dialogue. He’s a good guy, and someone genuinely worth rooting (and playing) for. You can learn more about him here, and follow him on Twitter here.

Vinny Marino—welcome to the Super Bowl of Q&As. You’ve been Quazed …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Vinny, so you’re the offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at Bryant College—as well as the former Boston College recruiting coordinator. And I wanna start with this: What is recruiting in the age of social media? I mean, you and I grew up with a coach calling, then visiting. How has it changed? And is it better? Worse?

VINNY MARINO: Social media has certainly influenced recruiting in a big way, some positive and some not so positive. Calling is still a very big part of recruiting. Talking to a prospect is still so important and valuable for a coach to get to know a prospect and vice versa. Getting recruits on campus now earlier in the process is a bigger deal than years ago. It’s a great way to show recruits and families the campus and program earlier in the process. The whole recruiting process has been sped up with technology—i.e. emailing and video systems. Social media has allowed coaches to contact players via twitter mostly and move the process along faster. Recruits usually will have a HUDL highlight video on their Twitter page so it is much easier to see them on video.

All of this has helped the process move along faster and easier for sure. Schools have “recruiting” departments dealing with just social media so that will tell you how big of a part social media has become. It lets schools customize their graphics to appeal to the recruits, which kids today think is really cool. It’s hip. Social media has made in impact because most recruits will share their plans, when before it was kind of kept quiet. Most recruits want to get on Twitter and share their recruiting. It promotes a ME culture—which can make it harder for sure. Recruits put out on social media when they get offered a scholarship, offered a visit (official/unofficial) or were on a certain campus. Most kids want the limelight and people to know what is going on in the recruiting process. They want views. That certainly can make the recruiting process more challenging for sure.

 J.P.: So you’ve coached at a loooong list of schools. Bryant, BC, Columbia, Georgetown, Davidson, UCnonn, Rhode Island, Richmond, Holy Cross, Western Carolina and Bowdoin. I think I’ve got them all. And I’ve gotta say—it seems like a hard life, in regards to settling down, feeling comfortable, feeling at home. So … is it? And what keeps you going?

V.M.: It is certainly a hard life. It can make having a relationship tougher for sure. A coach’s wife/girlfriend certainly has to understand it’s your passion and they have to be bought in. You definitely have to have support. There are certainly a lot of highs and lows in coaching and it helps to be able to share them with someone. I love coaching and it would be really hard for me to do something else. I have a passion for it and that is what keeps me going. I have always had the philosophy that you better love getting up in the morning and doing what you do. If not, you will not be happy. You have to be happy first before you can make someone else happy.

 J.P.: Besides your time at BC and UConn, all your schools have either been I-AA (as I still call it) or lower. And I wonder—is the difference in talent obvious? Like, if you’re standing on the sideline of a BC practice vs., say, a Bryant practice, what are the noted disparities? Speed? Size? Is it visible to the average eye?

V.M.: There is definitely a difference between FBS and FCS (1-AA). There are a lot of great FCS players who probably could play on an FBS team for sure. Recruiting is not an exact science so players will “slip” through the cracks. It happens all the time. Also, some FCS players develop later and have very high ceilings, therefore,they have great FCS careers. I really believe a big difference between an FBS and FCS program is the numbers (in most cases). There tend to be more players who can play and provide more depth in the FBS programs than in FCS programs. FBS teams have a better chance of having their second team being closer to their first team. It really is about depth. You have 85 full scholarships for FBS vs. 63 scholarships (they can be broken up).

That being said, the talent difference in certainly noticeable. The players usually are bigger, stronger and faster. But not in all cases. More players in the NFL will come from FBS programs than FCS programs. I think the combination of size, speed and strength is noticeable. A lot of FCS players have one or two of those qualities as opposed to all three.

With Doug Flutie at BC back in 2014
With Doug Flutie at BC back in 2014

 J.P.: I know you graduated from UConn with a degree in economics, then got your master’s in physical education from Western Carolina. But—how did this happen for you? When did you develop your love for football? When did you know this would be your path?

V.M.: I have always loved football ever since I was a little boy watching my uncle coach our high school team for so long. I loved his passion and how he demanded excellence from his players. It stood out to me at a young age. I then went to UConn and was a backup quarterback and holder. I had great coaches who treated me so well and made my experience a great one. This was another major factor in me getting into coaching. I went to UConn thinking I was going to be a lawyer and after my first semester, I wanted to be a college football coach. The rest is history, as they say.

 J.P.: I don’t want my son playing tackle football. I just think, knowing what we know, the physical risks aren’t worth it. Tell me why I’m wrong.

V.M.: I certainly can understand parents hesitancy or flat out resistance to letting their sons play football. I really believe football is the greatest sport and greatest team sport to be played. The characteristics that are brought out playing such a team sport and such a demanding sport are off the charts. Sports in general teach great life lessons for sure, but football takes in to the next level as far as pushing through adversity, sacrifice and teamwork. The sheer number of how many players there are make it different. Players in most cases have to beat out a bunch of guys to win a job. The camaraderie of a football team is really amazing. I say that a football team is the biggest fraternity on campus. You are brothers and usually have each others back in most cases. Players in most cases overlook a lot of things for their brothers. I love that part of it.

On the concussion side of the issue, the game is still a contact sport but it has been made safer and will continue to be made safer. Teaching to make the game safer has gotten so much better. That, to me, is such an important piece. How you teach tackling and hitting is so important and that has gotten so much better. I really believe the positives outweigh the negatives. The negatives are big, no doubt. But the joy of playing the game and with who you play it with is such a great experience.

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 J.P.: You and I DMed briefly about Delaware and Tubby Raymond. When I was there, the offense was the Wing T—and it was effective and beautiful. Yet now almost no one uses it on the college level. You’re an offensive coordinator. Why?

V.M.: That is a great question. I am not an expert by any stretch of this subject. I don’t have a Wing T background. It certainly can be a very effective offense, as has been proven on the high school and college levels. My guess is there is a “sexy” factor to it. There is not a big dropback pass component to it, with a lot of big plays down the field. That is “sexy.” People like to watch football games and see points being scored and big, exciting plays taking place. That is my opinion. It’s a very good question.

 J.P.: When you were at Columbia you coached Craig Hormann, the quarterback who signed with the Browns. So what made Craig an NFL prospect? Like, what were the things that separated him from your average Ivy QB? And did you think he was NFL material?

V.M.: Craig Hormann had an NFL arm and he had NFL size. He was also a very intelligent young man who had a really good feel and understanding of the game. Those are qualities that NFL teams like in QBs. It was really a shame when he hurt his knee in the winter of his junior year. He was progressing nicely and had a very high ceiling. He just missed too much practice time and training because of the injury, and that hurt his development to a degree. His arm strength was tremendous. He could make all of the throws. In the Ivy League that is impressive. That’s not easy to do.

 J.P.: What does it feel like to be on the staff of a really awful team? Like, what was your worst season, W and L-wise, and how did you endure? What do the weeks feel like? Is it hard staying up?

V.M.: Being on a really bad team stinks. That being said, I have been on some teams with bad records but we weren’t that bad. We lost some heartbreaking games or we played really well against teams who were just flat-out better than us. As long as the kids worked hard and prepared hard for each game, it was easy to stay up because the players actually weren’t giving up. It’s when the kids stop practicing hard and preparing that gets you down and frustrates you. I have been on a 1-9 team a 2-8 team. The 1-9 team was my last year at Columbia in 2011. I actually thought the kids kept hanging in there and playing hard. We beat Brown the last game of the season in overtime. I was frustrated because we were crushed with injuries but not bad attitudes. We kept fighting. One of the 2-8 teams was a team that was tough to be around. They stopped playing and preparing. It stunk. So not fun. We had taken over a mess and years two and three are usually where the warts show and it did. Tough time.

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 J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

V.M.: The greatest moment was winning the Motor City Bowl vs Toledo when I was at UConn in 2004. First bowl game and bowl win for UConn.  What a great night, although I was sick as a dog.

The lowest was probably in 2003 when I was at UConn and we went 9-3 and weren’t selected for a bowl game. I was so disappointed. We were such a good team. I felt so bad for the seniors.

 J.P.: You’re approaching your 50s, and I wonder—does it get harder to relate with athletes? Do you have to try and stay up to do with things? I dunno—Meek Mill and Fifth Harmony and the new iPhone? Or is it just … football?

V.M.: I’m pretty hip and cool. LOL. It is a little different but I am a people person so I think I relate pretty well with them. Ultimately, players want to know you are making them better and if you are that stuff takes care of itself. I do enough stuff and say enough things for them to know I am not too old. LOL It definitely is important, though, to relate to players outside of football. Players better know you care about them. That’s for sure.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH VINNY MARINO:

• Delaware has a running back named Thomas Jefferson. What are the coolest athlete names you’ve ever been around?: My good friend and teammate at UConn (and we coached together at UConn as well) is named Lyndon Johnson. Pretty cool. That is probably the best one.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Stephon Marbury, Coppin State University, Crayola Crayons, waffle fries, Sheena Easton, Frita Batidos, Desmond Howard, strawberry milk, Halle Berry, “Shakespeare in Love.”: Waffle fries, strawberry milk, Halle Berry, Sheena Easton, Desmond Howard, Stephon Marbury, Crayola Crayons, Coppin St, Frita Batidos, “Shakespeare in Love.”

• Which is better—the Michigan helmet or the Ohio State helmet?: Michigan

• The world needs to know—what was it like coaching Muneer Monroe?: Coaching Muneer Moore was awesome. Such a hard worker, attentive, easy to coach. Wanted to get better every day. He had zero ego. He just wanted to learn and play. One of my all-time favorites I have ever coached. He is such a great person.

• Five reasons one should make Smithfield, R.I. his/her next vacation destination: 1. Bryant University; 2. Nice summer weather; 3. Blackie’s tavern; 4. J’s Deli; 5. Bryant University has a great campus with great people

• Biggest accomplishment as a football player at UConn?: As the holder I had a really good hold off a bad snap on the game winning field goal vs Villanova in 1990.

• Can I borrow $22.18?: No you can’t. I hate change.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I was actually taking a flight out of New York to Tampa recruiting for Columbia when we had smoke on the plane and had to make an emergency landing in Newark. Thought we were going down and I was going to die. Really scary. Still a little jumpy on flights.

• Who wins in a cherry pit spitting contest between you and Cher?: Me. I am not a Cher fan so somehow I will not let her beat me.

• In exactly 21 words, can you make an argument for Chad Pennington: Greatest Quarterback to Have Ever Walked the Earth?: There is NO way possible I could do that even if you said I have 121 words to use. And I liked him. Thought he was a really good quarterback.

Categories
Athletes Blog News QUAZ

Lee Ford-Faherty

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Lee Ford-Faherty is a Paralympian.

She’s not a Special Olympian.

She’s not a Para Olympian.

She’s a Paralympian, which means she’s one of the world’s great archers, as well as a woman who was paralyzed in her left leg as a result of a herniated disc. Did this stop her from belly dancing? No. Performing with fire? No. Shooting arrows? Hell no.

Her story is one of remarkable courage and perseverance. Her take-no-shit attitude resonates. Wanna question her credentials? Duck. Wanna mock her accomplishments? Duck twice.

Lee can be followed on Twitter here, and Facebook here.

Lee Ford-Faherty, you are a champion. And a Quaz.

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Lee, you’re gonna hate this question, which makes it a good Quaz starter: When I was younger we used to play the game, “Which sport could you compete in to make the Olympics?” And even though I was a good runner, I always picked archery. It just seemed like, with a year of nonstop practice, it could be mastered. You sit, you shoot—bingo. So … how dumb was I?

LEE FORD: Fairly dumb! A lot of compound archers try to make it to the Olympics by switching over a couple of months before trials and it’s just not enough time, even for high level pro shooters. It takes 10,000 hours to master something and that doesn’t just happen in one year. A female compound archer switched over last winter for the 2020 Games and I think she has a real shot. She’s being real about the amount of time you have to put in to make it to the top. And she was No. 11 in the US before switching, so that took a lot of courage. The fact that I made the Paralympic Team within three years of deciding to make it to the Games is just unheard of in terms of Olympic archery. And I didn’t know this at the time, but you needed to earn a slot for your country the year before, so it was a battle in 2011, two years after starting archery as a serious athlete, that I won the gold medal at the Para Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. That meant the USA had a slot. We went home for Thanksgiving, and a couple of weeks later I had the first of my now three spine fusions. Four months to the day after that, I got on a plane to go to trials and win that slot for myself. Which I did.

J.P.: On April 11, 2005, a herniated disc left you paralyzed in your left leg. It was the result of an old speed-skating injury. So … I’m riveted. What happened? When did the paralysis hit you? What were your emotions? Fears?

L.F.: Speed skating is not the right sport if you have EDS (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome). It’s a joint hypermobility disorder that meant I dislocated very easily. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve dislocated or sprained or severely subluxated my shoulders, my right elbow, my knees, my ankles. I remember doing these horrible exercises for speed skating off the track called “plyometrics” and I remember doing jumping jacks in the speed skating body position. It was horrible and my back went POP! all of a sudden. It resolved itself a few weeks  later when I had a bad fall on the track (I skated inline roller speed skating at the time) and when I got up off the floor, I could finally stand up straight again. So I think that injury followed me until the incident in April, 2005.

I was a very active and popular belly dancer in restaurants and parties in Atlanta, avidly practiced Wing Tzun Kung Fu in the EBMAS system, was a fire performer and was very trim and in shape but I had sciatica! What person in their 30s has sciatica?! Apparently a person with EDS who had a ticking time bomb in their spine just waiting for the perfect storm. Which turned out to be picking up my purse off my futon while a sneeze hit me. I thought I had been shot! But it was the disc rupturing, causing Cauda Equina Syndrome. The only recourse with that is surgery, it was agonizingly painful, but most people recover. I unfortunately develop tons of scar tissue internally from the EDS so I didn’t have the recovery that one would hope for. I was extremely scared for my life and independence with my daughter. I was a single mom then, her dad constantly looked for any excuse to claim I was “unfit” (he has yet to apologize for calling a Paralympian an unfit mother) so I was super afraid I would lose her. At the time, I didn’t know that I only had a 50/50 chance of walking again. The surgeon told my sister this but she kept that information from me for a few years. Which was smart, because my dumb, happy self never thought that I wouldn’t walk. I just assumed I would have to work really, really hard. Which I did. (Are you sensing a theme?)

J.P.: Um, just read an article that included this: “This is a woman who to this day includes performing with fire among her favorite activities” and that you love “belly dancing.” Um … please explain.

L.F.: So before I got hurt, I was very active. I still am, but I have a lot of limitations to work around now. I can only do so much activity before I’m in the wheelchair for the rest of the day. but belly dancing is what saved me. I was in great shape, my core was super strong, so that really helped my recovery. I still dabble in belly dancing but I can still do a lot of my fire performing since that’s mostly upper body stuff. I’ll breathe fire for you one of these days. I’m a Sagittarius in my moon and sun so archery and fire, it can’t be helped! 😉

J.P.: So save for some bow shooting as a kid, you were never into archery into 2008, when you went to an archery club. Why? What got you there? Why archery?

L.F.: My friend Stephanie really disliked the guy I was dating at the time she started taking me to her archery club. We had all done a fire performing routine earlier in the winter and she was not his biggest fan as to how he treated me. I wasn’t either, but I didn’t know what to do about it at the time. She said she wanted to get me out of the house, I had stopped almost all performances and just went to work and came home. I was in pain a lot of the time and even doing bit parts was really hard. So I went to archery, and I had shot a compound bow, instinctive or barebow, and they hand me an Olympic Recurve set-up bow which is very different. I asked them “what do I do with this?” and they said, “Point it that way and shoot.” I fell in love!

There is such grace and beauty with a well-executed Olympic shot, it’s just a marriage of strength and timing and form and mental game! I love it still and I love that I’ll be shooting until the day I die. I teach several archers in their 70s and Miss Jean, who I coached, shot a national record at the Senior Olympics before being afflicted by a stroke. She kept shooting! She passed a while ago but competed and won a gold from her wheelchair the summer before she passed! When I grow up, I’m going to be as tough as Miss Jean! And now I’m teaching Miss Helen, who at 77 is just taking up archery for the first time. She loves it and it’s amazing to see her passion and determination. So I have hope that my body will let me shoot until I leave this world. That’s how I want to go.

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J.P.: I know you’re from Georgia, I know you once competed in roller speed skating. I know you were first moved by the 1976 Olympics. But … how did this happen for you? Soup to nuts? Were you super athletic as a kid? Did you have an ah-ha sports moment? Were your folks jocks?

L.F.: I was always a dancer as a child! Formal ballet schooling, tap, jazz … I ate it up with a spoon. It gifted me with a ton of body awareness, or it at least really sharpened a natural skill. But I was not a sports person! Even with skating, I started lessons with my whole family as a dance skater. I got into speed skating as a bit of a rebellious thing, different from my brother or sister. But I learned so much from being on the speed team that it helped me when it came time to be on an archery team. You really can make it or break it depending on who your teammates are! I’ve had good ones and bad ones but you stick up for them cause they’re your teammates. My parents were not sports people, they were fabulous dancers. Especially my mother. She would dance with her friend Mary, she and her husband Bill were friends with my parents, and man … could those ladies cut a rug! Dance is very athletic, but it’s not jock-ish. The funny thing about my childhood is that I was the opposite of a jock: I was super sickly every winter, I would stop being able to eat. They would bribe me to drink water. It was the Crohn’s Disease but we didn’t know it at the time. There are pictures of me from a Christmas when was about 10. I was literally nothing but skin and bones. You see that picture and wonder how the hell I was even standing up. I saw that picture as an adult and apologized to my mom for putting her through all that worry. But when she passed away, she knew I was happy and healthy, so that helped me a lot during the grieving process.

Oh, and I was a city girl growing up. I grew up in Philadelphia. My dad would just take us to the woods all the time, we love nature. But work was in the city so it was always that struggle to find time to get out of town and breathe country air.

J.P.: I love questions like this, so I’ll ask—you’re ready to fire. What, specifically, is going through your mind? I mean this very literally. Your eyes are looking ahead. What’s the brain doing?

L.F.: My brain is literally doing nothing. I don’t aim, unless I have to aim off in the wind. The only thought in my head, so that I only have that one thought and nothing else, is “Back tension, LAN 2. back tension, LAN 2.” LAN 2 is a term we use to describe the middle of the back of your arm that is holding the string. It continues an angular movement that starts with the draw. But I don’t think about it, or anything else if I can help it. I can’t have a conversation while I’m shooting unless it’s between shots. And do you have any idea how hard it is to empty your mind? It’s really hard, but focusing on just one thought is what really helps me. Back tension, LAN 2.

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J.P.: Greatest moment of your sports career? Lowest?

L.F.: Greatest was winning the gold in Guadalajara! It actually was a shock. I was really in the zone but thought I was shooting like hell. I thought the scoreboard was wrong! I finished an end and put my bow down and told the coach that they needed to fix the board, it had me in first place before we started that last end. She said “Smile and wave, Lee, you just won!” I now know what it means to be flabbergasted.

Lowest moment was in Toronto at the 2015 Para Pan Am Games. I was ready to compete, felt like I could defend my title, when the mix up on my classification form meant that they wanted to reclassify me. It was horrible! I go through classification and the guy who was in charge tells me I should be on the Olympic team, not the Paralympic team. You’re disabled but not disabled enough. What the ever living f___? To be sent home, not being able to support my teammates, to not being able to compete, was a really shitty deal. I get that there are countries who game the classification system, but I don’t. My disability is real and it interferes with my ability to do archery and be competitive with able-bodied athletes. Shooting sitting down may be safer and better for my spine but it’s a lot harder to shoot when it comes to archery! But somehow sitting down levels the playing field and I have to compete able bodied? It makes no sense and World Archery and the IPC need to be a little bit more real when it comes to Para athletes. They’ve destroyed a lot of careers, including mine.

J.P.: Your bio says you love going to Burning Man. I’ve been toying with the idea—but I’m 45 and cruddy. Sell me. Why should I go? What do you love about it?

L.F.: Burning Man or even one of the regional events, I can’t say enough how amazing it is! Figuring out the logistics (no pay to play camp for me!), from getting there, getting all your stuff there, what to pack, what to wear! It’s dizzying in scope, especially when you go as a group with friends, or just meet people there. I camp with The Philadelphia Experiment, I found them the first year I went and they took me in as a displaced Philly girl and we made art and magic and music! Burning Man is held in one of the harshest environments on the planet and 60,000 of your closest friends just don’t survive the playa, they don’t just thrive on the playa, they party! There are amazing classes to take, art to see, music for dance and hooping and fire and chilling. I recommend two things for every human: Go to the Olympics/Paralympics and go to Burning Man. People bring their families, they have the Kids Village, if a child goes missing the entire Black Rock City shuts down and every person on the playa looks for that child. Burners aren’t just friends, they’re family. Go!

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J.P.: I hate to sound like a dick, but I don’t think most Americans view the Paralympics with the same heft of the Olympics. And I wonder—do you? Should we? Do you think people fully understand the Paralympics? What are folks missing?

L.F.: No, you don’t sound like a dick, it’s true. Americans for the most part don’t know what the Paralympics is until they meet a Paralympian. And becoming a Paralympian isn’t easy. It’s just as hard as the Olympics, and we’re starting from having to overcome a disability first, then we work on training and competing. I think Americans really need treat Paralympians with the same respect and honor, and officially we get that, but the average Joe on the street doesn’t know about us or confuses us with the Special Olympics. That gets annoying. No, I don’t get a medal for just showing up, I have to work my butt off and compete at the highest international level. When people introduce me as an Olympian or a Para Olympian, I say no, I’m a Paralympian, we’re better. The tattoos on my arm are about educating everyone who sees it about the Paralympics. They know the rings, but what are those swoosh things? Those are the Agitos (Ah-gee-tos) which symbolize the Paralympic Games. They are Latin shorthand for “I move” so the three Agitos say, “I move, I move, I move” and the Paralympics are “Spirit in Motion”! And then people get it about the Paralympics.

The problem is that we don’t get the TV coverage that the Olympians get. You want stories of guts and perseverance, just pull the first Paralympian you see and ask them what they overcome to be able to compete. Olympians haave nothing on us in terms of inspirational back stories. But I think networks think people will be uncomfortable watching physically disabled people compete. They’re dead wrong. Para sport can show how capable we really are! Channel 4 in Britain had the Paralympics on 24/7 just like the Olympics and it totally changed the way that the English view disabled people. Johnny Peacock is a huge star there now! (track and field) If we could get the same out of NBC then I think you would see some real interest and the viewing audience would love it. Watching wheelchair rugby, aka Murderball, is a blast! I didn’t miss a match by USA in London, because most of their games were when I wasn’t competing. It’s non-stop action and those guys are all quads in some way! They’re insane! It’s tons of fun to watch and wheelchair rugby is the only team that travels with its own welder to fix chairs and wheels. Fact!

So it’s not really America’s fault that they’re missing out, it’s the TV coverage we get. NBC dropped the ball on us over and over again. There’s an Olympic Channel but I don’t even get basic cable so I haven’t seen it. Can’t speak as to how the coverage is. I know some World Archery World Cup events have been on there, though.

J.P.: On December 14, 2011, you had your spine fused because of herniation and scar tissue around the nerve root as it exited the spinal cord. Throughout my life I’ve heard, “You never want your spine fused” at least 10,000 times. What did spinal fusion feel like? What was the impact?

L.F.: December 14, 2011 was just my first fusion. December 17, 2013 was the second fusion, also low back and December 23, 2015 was my neck from C4-C6.

Yeah, I’ve heard that saying and the caveat is that you don’t want your spine fused until you want it fused. I have a lot more stability now and I know that I’m not going to damage those areas of my spinal cord anymore. After the first one, until all the scar tissue grew back, it was great. I hurt like hell and my nerve damage was just insane at first, but after the healing process really had some time, I felt better. Then the scar tissue grew back. Turns out I’m internally keloid. After the second fusion I started having these weird spasms that would make my legs stop working and I would go down. Just straight to the floor. Someone can brush up against me, trigger a spasm, and I fall. It’s not as bad anymore but still happens on a regular basis. The neck fusion was the worst! I had to stop archery for the longest time after that one, I just couldn’t pick up my bow! Plus I can’t turn my head anymore, hard tissue fusion will do that, so it changed my whole sight picture when I shoot, when I aim my sight. But, hey, I shoot able bodied now! (sarcasm) I needed the surgeries, my spinal cord was compromised so they had to be done. I look at it this way, if it extends the number of steps I’ll be able to take before I have to use my wheelchair full time, then I’m all for it. I have EDS so someday I may need a chair full time but I’ll fight it tooth and nail. (FYI: no one is “wheelchair bound” – we’re not tied into it in some weird bondage thing. We are also not “confined” to a wheelchair. Being a wheelchair user isn’t confining, actually using my chair helps me go to places and do things that I normally wouldn’t be able to do. So we’re wheelchair users, doesn’t matter if full time or part time.)

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LEE FORD-FAHERTY:

• Ford is such a simple, lovely last name. Then, when you married, you got Faherty. Which seems like Flaherty. Did this screw your world up in many ways?: Not really until it became time to change my passport and my entry name was changed with World Archery and the rest of the world. It was actually the first compromise of my marriage that I would be Ford-Faherty, I wanted to change to Faherty and John insisted that I stay Ford, said it was my athlete name, like a stage name and I should keep it. Its Ford on my uniform shirts, and Ford-Faherty everywhere else. I go by Lee cause no one can pronounce my Irish first name down South so I go and get an even moreIrish name like Faherty! We’ve both had our DNA done and Galway, Ireland is our genetic community so I am proud of Ford, and want to visit Faherty’s Pub in Galway.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Ray Charles, boba, Jennifer Hudson, Brent Barry, Samsung TVs, Jeff Fabry, Firefox, “Return of the Jedi,” Dwight Howard, electric eels: Well I have to say that people always come first before things so Ray Charles, Jeff Fabry, Boba, Dwight Howard (ATL!), Jennifer Hudson, Brent Barry (looks like an ex, only shorter) Jedi, Samsung, electric eels. Eels freak me out, I tend to not take off my silver bracelet when I’m scuba diving so I get paranoid one is going to get me!

• Tell me three things about your daughter:1: Shelby is named after Steel Magnolias, since the movie reminds me of my diabetic mom, but she would return from the grave and haunt me if I named her granddaughter “Doris”. 2: She is great with animals and loves cows. Like actual cows. She’s debating to either be a food animal vet or a meat scientist. I’m still not sure what that is. 3: She’s the smartest person I know. She was able to re-teach me trigonometry in a way that I actually understood and could do.

• Who wins in a thumb fight between you and Barbra Streisand?: Me. I have burly hands from archery and I’m freakishly flexible. I could take on The Rock.

• How did your husband propose?: Over the phone. We were living long distance but he wanted to take care of me and Shelby. With the whole custody thing …

• Five reasons one should make Perry, Georgia his/her next vacation destination: 1: We have the Ag Center, as we call it, or as everyone knows it the Georgia National Fairgrounds. I describe it as the big thing on the side of Interstate 75 when you’re driving from Atlanta to Florida. Rodeos, SCA events, 2: The Georgia National Fair (seriously, even school is closed that week), 3: our downtown is historic with cute shopping. 4: We’re central to the state so there’s a lot to do in any general direction 5: we have an archery club with ridiculously low instruction fees and bow rental and you get to shoot archery with a Paralympian 😉

• You’re a public speaker. I will pay you $5 to work “Mr. T,” “eat the moth” and “fuck the world, I’m blingin’” into your next talk. You game?: I’m totally down. You haven’t heard my adult version of my motivational speech where I quote Betty White and tell them to “V up!”

• What do your husband’s shoes smell like?: My husband has absolutely no smell at all. It’s weird.

• Your dog Leo is adorable. What’s the worst thing he’s done?: He’s a service dog who is retired, he went deaf. The worst thing he’s done is poop on the carpet in the hallway cause he had to stay home along too long.

• Celine Dion calls. She’ll pay you $200 million to spend the next 300 days as her private archery teacher. The only conditions are you have to shave your hair, officially change your name to “Celine Dion Ford II” and cover yourself in honey and dead crickets every morning on the job. You in?: I don’t have a good head to shave my hair off. I’d likely shoot her five days in and I don’t think I could claim it was an accident. At my level in the sport of archery, if I shot you, it’s on purpose.

Categories
Athletes Blog News QUAZ

Michal Kapral

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Photo by Christine Spingola/Canada Running Series

A few weeks ago I was feeling down about the Quaz.

I’ve been doing this thing for nearly seven years, and the week-after-week-after-week grind had taken its toll. I actually spoke with the wife about retiring the series, and took that idea to Twitter and Facebook. People were supportive (Maybe just some time off?), but I was torn. On the one hand, I really wanna hit 1,000. On the other hand, it can be a burden.

Then—Michal Kapral.

He was suggested by a friend, and after I asked, “Michal who?” he sent me material that had me both entertained and dazzled. I mean, here’s a guy who has devoted much of his life to running marathons … while juggling. That is so friggin’ Quaz, I couldn’t possibly let it pass.

Anyhow, here I am. Renewed and re-energized and back on the march toward 1,000. And here, by no mere coincidence, is Michal Kapral, aka “The Joggler.” His story is insane. His exploits are insane. And behind it all is a genuinely good dude who, as a boy, picked up a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records and said, “I want that.”

One can follow Michal on Twitter here, and read his fascinating blog here.

Michal Kapral, take a break. You’re the 342nd Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Michal, you’re “The Joggler”—meaning you run marathons while juggling. Which is quirky/funky/awesome/weird. So, basic first question, how did this happen?

MICHAL KAPRAL: You know how sometimes in life, a series of small decisions and events lead to strange and unexpected consequences? That’s how I became “The Joggler.” Growing up, I was mostly healthy and normal, but also felt different from my friends because I was allergic to almost every food. I also had severe eczema, and asthma that sent me to the hospital several times. I think this feeling of being different pushed me try offbeat feats. I already felt like a bit of an oddball, so why not embrace it?

My sister Moira and I used to flip through the Guinness Book of World Records to find records we could break. When I was about 12, I had just taught myself how to juggle three tennis balls, and found a record for the “joggling” marathon. Running while juggling for 26.2 miles—I was captivated! I couldn’t believe that someone did this, and went to the park the next day to try out this hilarious-sounding sport. To my amazement, the juggling actually fit perfectly with the running stride. Flash forward 20 years, and I was then a semi-competitive marathon runner. I had won the Toronto Marathon in a PR of 2:30:40 and had dreams of representing Canada in the Olympics. But my marathon times remained stuck in that 2:30 range and my life got too busy to train like an elite marathoner. I was working two jobs and shuttling our first daughter Annika to and from daycare in a Baby Jogger. At some point when I was doing a long run pushing Annika in the running stroller, I thought about running my next marathon pushing her, and wondered if there was a Guinness World Record for running a marathon pushing a stroller. Turned out there was. It was 3:05. So in 2004, I set my first Guinness World Record with Annika: fastest marathon pushing a stroller, in 2:49.

I was raising money for SickKids, the hospital that took care of me when I had those asthma attacks as a kid, and when the people from the charity asked me what I would do the next year, I blurted out: “I’m going to run the marathon while juggling!” I hadn’t tried joggling in 20 years, and had just committed to running an entire marathon. But my childhood dream was alight and I was excited to chase it. I ordered a set of juggling balls and started training every morning at sunrise so no one would see me struggling. I dropped the balls left, right and center. I swore into the morning air. But I kept at it, and got a little better every day. After a few months, I could go a mile without a drop. My arms got strong. In 2005 at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, I set the record for fastest marathon joggling three objects, in 3:07. I saw kids point and cheer along the course who were the same age as me when I first read about this record, and felt there was something more to this than silliness. The juggling pattern mesmerized me. My arms, legs and brain were all working in perfect harmony. Making it across that finish line after more than three hours of running while juggling every step was one the hardest things I’ve ever done. Everything hurt, even my brain. But I had become “The Joggler.”

J.P.: You are in the Guinness Book of World Records for running a 2:50 marathon while juggling three objects. My PR is a 3:11—sans any objects. So what I wonder, as a running geek, is how you run so fast while not using your arms in a collaborative effort? Is arm usage somehow overrated in running?

M.K.: The cool thing about joggling is that the arm motion of running actually syncs up perfectly with the tosses in the three-ball cascade juggling pattern. After many years of practice, I can run while juggling at almost the same speed as I would just running. My marathon PR is 20 minutes faster than my joggling record, but I was probably in 2:35 or 2:40 marathon shape when I joggled the 2:50 record. The secret to efficient joggling is maintaining the same arm swing as when you’re running. This means you need to catch the ball, carry it in your hand as your arm swings back and then toss it as your arm swings forward. When it’s smooth, joggling is poetry in motion.

J.P.: Back in October you ran the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon and tried to set a new world record for fastest marathon while juggling five objects. You came up short, but still blogged about the experience as a victorious one. Why?

M.K.: I had been thinking about trying a five-ball joggling marathon for 10 years. It’s such a daunting prospect because the difficulty level is off the charts. Also, most people don’t even realize how hard it is. When I was joggling the five-ball marathon, a woman saw me and said: “You should just juggle three balls. No one will know the difference.” She had a good point. A lot of people can’t distinguish the three-ball pattern from four or five. I raised money for SickKids again, but the five-ball marathon attempt was much more of a personal challenge than the three-ball records. It turned out to be even more challenging than I expected, and I had to bail on the juggling after a little over 10 miles. But I considered it a success because it was such an amazing experience. I got to reconnect with my joggling rival and friend Zach Warren, who acted as my spotter during the race, people donated nearly $2,000 to SickKids, I made it to 17km while juggling five balls, which is the furthest five-ball joggling distance officially documented, and Zach convinced me to finish the rest of the marathon without the juggling, which we did with a negative split (running the second half faster than the first) of nearly two hours. I also got to experience what it’s like to be in dead last place in a marathon. Humbling! The five-ball joggling pattern is a beautiful thing, but trying to do it in a busy marathon was a lofty goal. I don’t think I’ll try it again (although I’ve said that before about other records!).

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Photo by Canada Running Series

J.P.: I’m pretty sure people are born fast and others are born less fast, and while the less fast can become fast, they might never run a 2:20 marathon. My question is—are people born jugglers? Like, could a non-juggler like myself devote years to the craft and become a star? Or does it take a special something?

M.K.: I never really thought about that. I think there is some natural talent involved in becoming an advanced juggler. Since I took up joggling, I’ve watched videos of a bunch of the world’s best jugglers and the things they can do will blow your mind. Much like running, a huge amount of juggling skill can be acquired through hours and hours of practice, but like elite runners, I bet the top-level jugglers have some natural ability baked in there. But I do think that with patience and practice, anyone can become a really good juggler. I practiced for many hours for about six months to learn the five-ball pattern. It certainly didn’t come naturally. Once you get comfortable with the three-ball cascade, practice becomes a lot more fun because you can learn tricks, and then move up to four balls, five balls, and other props like rings and clubs. The possibilities for tricks and routines are virtually infinite, which is really cool. It’s not just clowning around. Juggling is a sport, an art, a science, a skill and brain-builder. It’s definitely worth the effort that you put into it. It’s really a shame that juggling is associated with being geeky and clownish in our current society, because it has so many benefits.

J.P.: Off-putting question, but how much of this is about attention? We all have egos. We all like to be noticed. So does that need feed you at all? Do you thrive off the news appearances, cheering fans, etc?

M.K.: I think of my joggling as similar to being a professional athlete (but without most of the money). I don’t do it for the attention, but it’s fun to put your best out there for the world to see, and to entertain people in the process. I used to do 99 percent of my joggling training alone through Toronto’s park system, and I do it for the same reasons runners run. I enjoy it. Nowadays, my joggling commute from work in downtown Toronto to our home in east end is sort of performance art in its own right, since I run past so many people. How many other sports are there where you get random people cheering you on while you train? So I get a real kick out my training now, seeing kids point me out to their moms and dads, and hearing all kinds of hilarious comments from people on the street. When I’m racing, it’s a huge thrill to hear the cheers and see the look of shock on some people’s faces, and the media interviews are fun and exciting, but it’s also a ton of hard work for no money.

I’m just trying to be best at my sport, which happens to be quirky enough to garner a lot of attention. If a running brand sponsored me, they would get millions and millions of dollars’ worth of PR value every year. My least favorite comment is when people yell “Show-off!” near the end of a joggling marathon, when every fiber of my being is screaming in agony from the effort. That’s when I get envious of Olympic athletes or of NBA players or tennis stars. No one yells “Show-off!” at LeBron James when he sinks a three-pointer. The greatest thing is just doing your absolute best, whatever it is you do. I’m very lucky joggling is a fun challenge for me and also entertaining for other people. I was in the 2009 documentary, “Breaking and Entering,” that follows the lives of several world-record breakers. The movie has the great tagline: “Fame. Fortune. Usually neither.” The record-breakers in the film had all kinds of different motivations for doing what they do. Fame and fortune were not typically high on the list, which is good because if they were the driving factors, there would be a lot of very disappointed record-breakers out there.

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Photo by Dianne Kapral

J.P.: Here’s the one that gets me—in 2012 you juggled the entire Trapline Marathon in Labrador—and won it with a 2:59. That’s beyond weird, because I imagine, for the other competitors, it must have been somewhat discouraging. What do you remember from the experience?

M.K.: Thinking of the Trapline Marathon in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Labrador brings back so many great memories. It’s a beautiful point-to-point course along one rolling road in the wilderness of the Canadian north. It’s such a small race that the other runners didn’t care that a guy won it while juggling. I ran next to one guy for a few miles and then took off on my own for the rest. It was quite a surreal experience (one of many surreal joggling experiences) to be joggling all alone in such a remote area and winning a marathon. Serial marathoner Michael Wardian was supposed to run it that year but was injured. He cheered me on from a bike for part of the race. There was a moose on the course, and they served moose stew at race finish. I remember wondering if it was the same moose.

J.P.: In 2015 you were banned from running the New York City Marathon when your beanbags were prohibited for security reasons. What, exactly, happened? And how furious were you?

M.K.: I always ask for permission from the race director before joggling. It’s never been a problem before. I had signed up for the New York City Marathon assuming joggling would be allowed since it had a long tradition of permitting jogglers. Race founder Fred Lebow was a fan of joggling back in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the race instituted new security rules after the Boston Marathon bombings, which prohibited the use of “props” or “sporting equipment.” I sent the race a detailed email with my joggling resume and the specs on my 100-gram, millet-filled juggling beanbags, and they said sorry, the beanbags are not allowed because of security concerns. I tried to plead my case, but to no avail. I wasn’t angry, just super disappointed. With so many spectators, NYC is the perfect venue for joggling. Such a shame.

At least one other person joggled the race anyway, so they don’t even enforce it. The funny thing was the story ended up on the front page of the New York Times sports section on the day of the marathon with the awesome headline: “With Juggling Ban, Only Things Being Aired Are Grievances.” The article included some hilarious passages, like, “Reactions from the tightknit joggling community were swift and furious, with members expressing concern from as far as Afghanistan and the Central African Republic.” Incredibly, when I ran the race as a normal non-juggling runner, a ton of people still recognized me from the NYT piece, and because I was in a TV commercial for Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott. I’ve never had so much attention for not joggling.

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Photo by Christine Spingola/Canada Running Series

J.P.: I’m gonna throw a random one at you, based solely on your running experience. My son is 11, and his middle school has a running club that trains sixth, seventh and eighth graders for a marathon. A full marathon. I find this unwise and crazy, and we’re only letting Emmett train for a half. What says you?

M.K.: I’ve heard of kids that age running marathons and I don’t think it’s a good idea. That’s a lot of stress on growing bones. I’d stick to the half or 10K. My younger daughter Lauryn, who is 13, loves to run and goes five or six miles with me sometimes. I definitely wouldn’t want her to run a marathon at that age. What I think your son’s school really needs is a joggling club.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your sports career? Lowest?

M.K.: The greatest moment in my sports career was reclaiming the world record for the three-ball joggling marathon in 2007, finishing in 2:50:12 at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, and seeing my family at the finish line. I was so happy I literally jumped for joy at the finish line.

The lowest was probably the part of the five-ball joggling marathon attempt where the race video crew showed up after I had fallen apart and was trying to joggle with a torn muscle in my hand. At one point I was so done I lay down on my back – all captured on the live stream worldwide!

J.P.: It seems like there’s a fight for people to take joggling seriously. Like, you and your rivals clearly do. It’s not a joke, it’s a talent. And yet, from what I read there’s also a lot of snickering. Soooo … do you care? Do you get pissed when folks giggle, laugh, etc? Do you think folks misunderstand what you do?

M.K.: I don’t mind when people laugh or snicker. It’s a funny sport. As long as it makes people smile and laugh, that’s a good thing. But sure, lots of people don’t understand just how hard it is, and that we’re not just screwing around. It would be great if people recognized that it’s both difficult and funny. It’s a lot like stand-up comedy. It’ll never be serious, but it takes a lot of work to do it well.

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Photo by Trapline Marathon

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MICHAL KAPRAL

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Spice Girls, Amy Grant, Vancouver, “Trading Places,” chocolate covered almonds, Nebraska, Howie Long, New Year’s Eve parties, rifles, little puppies, Tim Horton’s: “Trading Places,” Vancouver, chocolate covered almonds, New Year’s Eve parties, little puppies, Howie Long, Tim Horton’s, Nebraska, Spice Girls, rifles, Amy Grant

• You’re Canadian. From afar, what do you think of Donald Trump thus far?: What do you say? Trump’s election is greatest threat to democracy I’ve seen in my lifetime. I’m sad and scared for my American neighbors, but still hopeful justice will be served to everyone who’s complicit in this mess. I happened to read Bill Browder’s “Red Notice” just before the U.S. election – a terrifying account of how deep the corruption runs in Putin’s regime. Every American should read it to get a sense of what you’re dealing with.

• Three things we need to know about your wife: 1. Apart from being smart, beautiful and great mom, Dianne is always up for adventure. We went backpacking in Ecuador for our honeymoon; 2. Dianne is a great runner, and ran her marathon PR of 3:24:17 in Chicago in 2014 at age 41; 3. Dianne hates, HATES being called “The Joggler’s wife,” even though she’s really the one who’s responsible for making me known as “The Joggler” by writing all the press releases and pitching my record attempts to media when I first started.

• I just read that Janet Jackson is back together with Jermaine Dupri. How you taking the news?: Tito, get me some tissue.

• Four all-time favorite jazz musicians?: Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, but I prefer heavy metal.

• What are the three keys to successful juggling?: Get used to failure, stay calm, think of the whole pattern not the individual toss, learn in increments

 Best memory from your senior prom?: I went to an American school in Rome for my senior year, so senior prom at a Roman villa was all one big amazing memory.

• Ever thought you were about to die? If so, what do you recall?: Several times from anaphylaxis after accidentally eating peanuts or other food allergens. Every time, my first thought was just “Not now!” I almost died from a rare virus a few years ago, but that time I was totally unaware of my near-death. I passed out, crumpling to the bathroom floor, smashing my head and tearing open my arm on the way down. I woke up what felt like one second later to find my wife and two daughters screaming and crying in front of me. It turned out I was unconscious for more than a minute, with my eyes open. Turned out to be a virus that used to have a 75% fatality rate before anti-viral medications came along. Thanks to some great doctors and Canadian health care, I was back marathon training a couple of weeks later.

• In exactly 16 words, make an argument for cornbread: Cornbread has the perfect texture and flavor to complement butter and chili. I want some now!

• What do your feet smell like after a race?: Surprisingly not too bad. I don’t sweat much and wear very thin, breathable socks. My wife might have another opinion about this.

Categories
Athletes Blog News QUAZ

Paul Shirley

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I have a new favorite memoir.

Until now, you have never heard of it.

Until now, your friends have never heard of it.

But—and this is stated sans exaggeration—I found myself reading Paul Shirley’s “Stories I Tell On Dates” and laughing. And crying. And turning toward my wife in bed and saying, “Wait! You have to hear this one …”

Wait.

One of the things I love about books is that you never quite know what (or who) will do it for you. I mean, on the surface Paul is an unlikely “favorite memoir” candidate. He’s a former basketball journeyman (18 total NBA games) who never wrote for the Iowa State student newspaper or majored in anything related to writing. Hell, he discovered the pen only while keeping a 2005 diary blog for NBA.com. But, man, he’s really good.

Anyhow, I could go on and on about the greatness of “Stories I Tell On Dates,” but instead I’ll inform you that Paul’s website is here, he Tweets here, and that you can order his new book here. He loves the Kansas City Royals, loathes Larry Eustachy and hasn’t picked up a basketball in years.

Paul Shirley, you are the magical 331 …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Paul, your new book isn’t a basketball book—but I want to start with a basketball question. Namely, what motivates professional athletes? Is it money? Is it fame? Is it winning? Is it, “What else am I supposed to do with my life?” You’ve been there. You’ve lived it. Where does the drive come from?

PAUL SHIRLEY: I can probably only speak to my experience, which is a far different experience than that had by, say, an O’Neal: Shaquille or Jermaine.

I loved using my body to do things other people couldn’t do. When I was at the peak of my powers—between age 27 and 31—I could walk into a gym unable to do something, and walk out able to do that thing. That probably sounds kind of trivial, but it was intoxicating to feel that progress. There were other aspects that were attractive, as well: competition and the sense that when I was on the court, I was able to behave at my most base level (and was encouraged to do so). But when I really drill down to what mattered: it was that feeling that I had a superpower and that I got to use it over and over.

Jordan. Pippen. Shirley. All Bulls.
Jordan. Pippen. Shirley. All Bulls.

J.P.: So your new book, “Stories I Tell On Dates,” is one of my all-time favorite memoirs. I recently wrote a memoir proposal, and it included a scene of me, as a youngster, jerking off to an image of Tanya Tucker. My agent read the proposal and said, “Eh, I don’t think people need to picture that.” In your book you also write about jerking off. Which, if you think about it, is a really personal, awkward sorta thing. So, being serious, did you need to really think hard about what to include and what not to include? Are there things so embarrassing you cut them out, or never even considered them? Is there a line not to cross?

P.S.: I had a capital-G Great editor for this book: Katie Savage, who’s uniquely capable in her own writing of connecting in a tasteful way to her most embarrassing moments. And I think that word—“tasteful”—is key. When I wrote the first drafts of these stories, I tried to put it all in there: the worst of the worst. Then, as I drafted/edited, I had to pick and choose. Was this embarrassing detail one that served the story or helped humanize me? Or was I just showing off how low I could go? I’m sure there were some misfired, but I think generally that I was able to find the line.

J.P.: One thing I loved about “Stories I Tell On Dates” is that it really delves into the mental gymnastics that accompany the dating scene. You’re telling the same stories over and over again. You’re using lines, feeling shit out, expecting reactions that you’ll almost certainly receive. I just found the whole thing really insightful. And I wonder—where does that come from? Because most people I know just see dates as dates.

P.S.: One of my brothers is convinced that, deep down, I’m a shy, introverted person, possibly because I was that way when I was young. He contends that this new version of me—the one that is able to walk up to a strange person and get to know them or can speak in front of hundreds of people—is something I’ve had to work toward.

I think he’s right, but it wasn’t necessarily because I wanted to become that person. Thanks to the lonely adult life I was leading, I had to get good at talking to new people in strange places if I was going to have any friends. And what’s great about figuring out how to talk to a strange girl in, like, Budapest, is that it makes it real easy to talk to a strange girl in Boise.

J.P.: I pretty much wind up hating everything I’ve ever written. Especially if I finished it a while ago. Your first book, “Can I Keep My Jersey?” detailed your life as an 11-team basketball vagabond. It sold well, I got good reviews—but do you like it? How do you view it now, nine years removed?

P.S.: Viewed in the vacuum of reading it now, I hate it—I think the writing is sloppy and the format is cheap. However, when I approach it with a bit of loving kindness, like the sort that would make Tara Brach (a meditation guru) proud, I remember that I was 24, 25, and 26 when I wrote most of it. I had an engineering degree, not an English degree. I was in the midst of playing professional basketball.

And, viewed in that context, it’s pretty good!

J.P.: I wrote a proposal for a memoir—but I’ve never written a memoir. So, Paul, how did you do it? I mean, you’re almost 40—so that’s four decades of living. How did you decide what to use, what not to use? How honest do you have to be with situations? Names, dates? Can you merge events? Can you slightly exaggerate? Do you view memoir differently than autobiography?

P.S.: This book has the following format: each chapter starts on a date. I explain how I came to be on that date. I explain why I might tell a certain story. I tell a story—maybe from childhood, maybe from college, maybe from my life as s pro. Then I go back and explain what happened on the date.

None of the dates have names, which was important because I didn’t want to betray their confidence. It was also important, though, because there were times when I needed to combine two people, or fudge the timing of that date in my life, or attribute to them more (or less) wisdom than they actually dispensed.

You’re right that memoir is different from autobiography. There’s a character in this book named Justin Bridges—he’s sort of my childhood tormentor. I was visualizing one person (not actually named Justin or Bridges) when I wrote about him, but I had to attribute several acts to that same character because he exists (for the stories) as a proxy for any number of several shitheads. It doesn’t change the truth of the stories to have Justin Bridges be one person when he’s actually a few. However, it would take away from the stories if I had to keep introducing a new bully every other chapter.

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J.P.: You appeared in 18 NBA games and you averaged 1.8 points. And I wonder—what’s the difference between Paul Shirley and, oh, Dale Davis? Or Corliss Williamson? Or Lonnie Baxter? I’m not talking superstars, but guys who carved out fairly lengthy runs in the league? Is it talent? Devotion? Both? Neither?

P.S.: When I was a young pro, I would get mad about guys I would see in the NBA who I didn’t think were any better than I was, but who’d been given the benefit of the doubt because of some thing or another that I considered worthless. One day, I was bitching about this when my dad says, “You probably ought to remember that there are a lot of guys saying that about you.”

So, on one hand, I struggled to make it in the NBA because I:

A) Was from a tiny place in Kansas

B) Was not a McDonald’s All-American

C) Was not drafted

D) Was white (I was told, to my face, on several occasions, by coaches, that this worked against me)

But on the other, I had a lot of advantages because I:

A) had played on a really good college team

B) was 6’9

C) had been taught how to work hard, show up on time, etc

D) had a stable home life

In the end, the difference between Austin Croshere and me was almost none. But the difference between me and some guy who played at Nebraska-Omaha and never got to make money playing basketball: also none.

J.P.: You write about a lot of people from your life; especially women. I know you give them fake names, but do you worry—at all—about them calling you, pissed? Or hurt? Or humiliated? Have you told any about the book?

P.S.: I think about that, of course. But I also think I portrayed everyone in a rather loving way. And in truth, there are only two people who know, for sure, who they are: that person and me.

As a young hoops fan.
As a young hoops fan.

J.P.: Your publisher is “Fourth Bar Books.” You are “Fourth Bar Books”—meaning you self-published. Which I admire 1,000 different ways. So … how? Why? How hard is it? Do you hire editors? How do you get it in stores? How many copies do you print up?

P.S.: Well, I’m kind of Fourth Bar Books. In this day and age, what does “having a publishing house” mean? I hired an editor, a copy editor, a proofreader, and a graphic designer. I’ve got someone helping me handle promotion and scheduling. I’ve got a zillion contacts thanks to my first book. I also run a writing workshop that’s fairly popular and might, someday, help writers get their books published.

So I tend to shy away from “self-publishing” even as a term. I think of it like some of the bands I love who’ve started their own labels to help get their records out, but also to get friends’ bands’ records out.

To answer your question, though: Print-On-Demand is a wondrous invention. My book will be distributed through Amazon’s Createspace platform but also through Ingram’s publishing wholesaling, which allows it to go out to Barnes & Noble, for example. So, as of now, there is no giant stack of books in my bedroom.

J.P.: You teach writing at West Los Angeles College. You also head up Writers Blok, a Santa Monica-based writing group. So what are the biggest mistakes you see young writers making? What are the traps they fall into? And are there things you, Paul, can learn from inexperienced scribes?

P.S.: I see a lot of writers fall too much in love with their first project. In my experience, it is unlikely that someone’s first book or screenplay or poetry collection will be worth a damn. It is, though, a necessary exercise. So I wish I could tell those people to finish that project, and then get ready to have 10 people read it or to throw it in the trash, right before they dive into their next (and next and next and next) project.

J.P.: You told me you haven’t played a game of basketball in three years. Considering hoops was, at one point, your life, that seems sorta strange. So … why?

P.S.: I think it seems perfectly reasonable! I finished my career having five surgeries in four years. So, for one, there is no reason to tempt fate.

And for two, I can’t do what I used to love about basketball—that daily improvement thing—because I’m not training all the time, and because I’m getting old.

So I’d rather do almost anything else in the world, rather than play basketball.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PAUL SHIRLEY:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Curtis Granderson, elephants, M Street Kitchen, Ari Fleischer, Dan Quisenberry, Souplantation, Jamal Tinsley, business cards, Michael Richards, Franco Harris, the number 8: Dan QuisenberryM Street KitchenElephantsMichael Richards, business cards, Jamaal Tinsley, 8. I have no opinion on Curtis Granderson, Ari Fleischer, Franco Harris, or Souplantion.

• The world needs to know—what was it like playing with Glenn Robinson?: He didn’t say much when I was around, so I guess, unlike most dogs, the Big Dog is all BITE and no BARK.

• Five all-time favorite books?: Catch-22, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Road, The Corrections, The Wump World by Bill Peet

• What does Theo Ratliff’s right ankle smell like?: I figure he’s like a zombie at this point, and I think zombies have no smell. At least, according to World War Z, which I’m reading right now.

• Five greatest basketball players you’ve ever played against: I’ll go with the ones I’ve ever had to guard—Paul Pierce, Vladimir Radmanovic, Marcus Fizer, Amare Stoudemire, Nick Collison

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I remember feeling like I’d be OK with it.

• On a scale of one to 100, how concerned are you with your own mortality?: Having almost died once thanks to having my kidney and spleen ruptured, and having thought, at the time, that dying would have been a nice alternative right about then, I’m less concerned than most. 10

• If someone points to the photo of you crying on the Iowa State bench and says, “Why you sobbing like a bitch?”—are you more likely to laugh or punch the guy?: Now, laugh. Ten years ago: punch.

• Twelve adjectives for Larry Eustachy?: Insecure, complicated, intelligent, unfeeling, sadistic, distant and not worth giving six more adjectives.

Categories
Athletes Blog News QUAZ

Wayne Franklin

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One of the things that always fascinates me about pro sports is how 99 percent of the participants play, play, play, play—then vanish.

Think about it. Sure, guys like Mike Piazza and Emmitt Smith and Patrick Ewing will always have famous names and faces that carry them through lifetimes of autograph shows and free meals. But the vast majority enjoy their time in the sun before disappearing into the world at large. They exist among us, as teachers and mechanics and dentists and college coaches.

There.

But not really there.

Today’s Quaz, former Major League pitcher Wayne Franklin, was there. From 2000-06, he performed for five Major League teams, winning a career-high 10 games with the 2003 Milwaukee Brewers. Neither Pedro Martinez nor John Van Benschoten, he was a workmanlike starter/reliever whose left arm offered a certain level of protected longevity.

In today’s 326th Quaz, Wayne explains his respect for Barry Bonds, his dismissiveness toward Alex Rodriguez and his love for the state of Delaware. One can follow him on Twitter here and read his blog here.

Wayne Franklin, you’re the new Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Wayne, whenever I’ve covered jerkish Major League players, I always think, “Why are you so surly? So mean? Such an ass? Because this will be the greatest time in your life—and one day you’ll look back and realize you spent the time being a tool.” Wayne, am I right about this? Do you look at your life and think, “It’ll never be better than my time in the Majors?” Or, does life actually get better post-retirement? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

WAYNE FRANKLIN: Do I miss it? Yes, of course. Do I dwell on it? No. I don’t ever try to be “better than my time in the Majors.” There’s nothing to which I can compare this; so, I just focus on my family (which also has no comparables), because this is where everything began, and it is where everything ends. To me, life is about people. So I now teach baseball—the correct way—to all eager minds I can, which is very rewarding to me.

J.P.: You played two years at Cecil Community College, two at UMBC, then you were selected in the 36th round of the 1996 amateur draft by the Dodgers, and signed four days later. I read somewhere that you were thrilled (Your quote: “All I dreamt about when I was a kid playing baseball was that some day I’d like to be playing for the Dodgers”)—even though 36th round doesn’t seem so thrilling. So why the euphoria? And how did you find out you were drafted? Where were you?

W.F.: First, that is a misquote. From the day I began watching baseball I was a Yankees’ fan(atic). I still am, although I watch baseball in an entirely different way, now. Second, where I was drafted did not concern me, which I can honestly say I’ve proven. Plus, it was something over which I had no control. Here’s a lesson about baseball: There is much to be said about “knowing thy self.” The only thing I was wondering, come draft day, was who would draft me (Mariners or Dodgers), and at what position. In college I was a pitcher and first baseman, and at the time I was a much better hitter than I was a pitcher. The day I was drafted I was in my parents’ back yard, working on some hitting drills. Ironically.

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J.P.: Don’t take offense to this—but why weren’t you great? I mean, you’re great compared to 99.9 percent of us. But you’re not going down as Dwight Gooden, as Pedro Martinez, as Sandy Koufax or Jim Palmer or Bob Gibson. And my question is, specifically, what’s the difference between those guys and the rest of the guys? What do they have that you didn’t?

W.F.: This is a great question. Philosophically, you can only define greatness by comparing things, which your question actually does. Statistically, I was not one of the “greats” of Major League history. However, there are many variables, and this would take a while to discuss. I’ll just simplify by saying that it all comes down to execution of pitches.

J.P.: I know you were born in 1974 in Delaware, I know you were drafted by the Dodgers. But what was your path from the womb to baseball? Like, how did it happen for you? Where did the passion and love come from? And do you still have it?

W.F.: My passion for baseball began (and this is no bullshit) the very day I learned how to play catch. My passion was real, and it felt very innate. Maybe this innateness is where all passion dwells. If so, I recommend that everyone look for anything innate; very blissful. Growing up in Maryland, the winters were long and tough, probably because of my impatient anticipation of baseball season. What fueled me more than anything else were cynics. Anyone who has ever played at the highest level of any sport can probably empathize with me wholeheartedly.

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J.P.: Getting old sucks. I hate it. But I was never an top-level athlete, performing at the top of the top professional rank. What is aging like for you? Is it frustrating, no longer able to do the things your once did?

W.F.: Old? Man, 43 is the new 25. I’ve never stopped staying in pretty good shape. I don’t kick my own ass as much as I used to, though. Like I said, I’m still around the game all the time. And, trust me, I can still pitch. Also, my wife is a really good athlete (she used to kick my ass in golf all the time). So she’s my partner, and she keeps me accountable so that I don’t become some potbellied old man.

J.P.: You were teammates with Barry Bonds in San Francisco in 2004. I wrote a book on Bonds, found him to be a pretty remarkably not nice guy. What do you recall of playing with Barry? What was he like for you as a teammate?

W.F.: I came to know Barry as a teammate first. From that perspective, he was great. I thought he had a great capacity for empathizing with teammates. He just never had much patience or pleasure in dealing with the media. To me, Barry’s greatness came from his ability to leave irrationality (or, emotion) at home, and he never took it onto a ball field.

J.P.: You bounced to some interesting spots toward the end of your playing career—the York Revolution, the Uni-President Lions in Taiwan, the Chico Outlaws. When you’re with those teams, is the goal to keep playing because you love playing, or to keep playing because you want another Major League taste? And when did you know—like, know know—it was over?

W.F.: At the end of my career, I played in York because it was a chance to let my baseball come full circle, because my family could easily travel from Maryland, whenever they wanted, to watch me play. I went to Taiwan because it was another chance to experience baseball within an entirely different culture. I knew it was time to walk away from the game when teams weren’t calling—early and often. I knew that if I had to begin making contact with them. it was a bad sign.

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J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

W.F.: Greatest Moment: August 18, 2003 (this is a long story—and one I’ve written about; if you’re ever intrigued enough, let me know, and I can send it to you)

Lowest Moment: The day I rode off into the sunset.

J.P.: In 2005 you appeared in 13 games for the New York Yankees. That team featured guys like Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Cano, ARod, Jeter, Matsui, Bernie, Giambi, Sheffield—a Who’s Who of modern-era Yankee legends. You’d been around a bit at that point—is it still at all awe inspiring playing for that team, with those guys? Is it merely another paycheck? And what do you remember from New York?

W.F.: Playing with the Yankees was literally my dream come true. I loved all of those guy—truly—except for A-Rod, whose personality really did not resemble any other on that squad. It almost seemed as if he was intimidated by the pinstripes and playing on that stage. I didn’t care for him, because I felt he was more about his image, and he had nothing that was old-school about him.

J.P.: How important are catchers? Being serious—you threw to some greats, some forgettables. How meaningful are they for a pitcher’s success? Is it at all overrated? And who’s the best you played with, as far as helping a pitcher along?

W.F.: Having a great catcher is very underrated. For example: When a catcher is very good at calling a game, he and the pitcher get into a great game-flow, which is difficult for other teams to slow down. Once a catcher develops this reputation, pitchers trust him, and in turn, trust their own pitches even more (conviction is one of those great intangibles a pitcher needs).

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH WAYNE FRANKLIN:

• Five reasons one should make Wilmington, Delaware his/her next vacation destination: Wilmington Blue Rocks; the River Walk; tax-free shopping; Italian food; quick train ride to New York City (which is then easy to come back to a big hotel room in Wilmington, and not have to pay sales tax on it)

• The world needs to know—what was it like playing with Glendon Rusch?: Glendon “Tits” Rusch is the funniest guy who ever played Major League Baseball

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Jeffrey Hammonds, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cleveland, Kid ‘n Play, Facebook, Starbucks, Izod, Max Luckhurst, Tubby Raymond, Hershey Park, World of Coke, Woodstock: Tubby, World of Coke, Jeffrey Hammonds, Izod, Cleveland, Hershey Park, Starbucks, Buffy, Kid ‘n Play, Facebook, Woodstock

• We have you start one game, right now, for a Division III baseball team. What’s your line?: You could bet the farm on me. I’m putting up a lot—if not all—zeroes.

• You’re both from Delaware—how good was Delino DeShields? And did you ever talk Delaware with him?: I do know that he and Marquis Grissom were the first teammates (Montreal) to ever finish first and second in stolen bases.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash?: Can’t say that I have.

• Climate change—myth or real?: Myth (at this point). I believe that weather is cyclical.

• Five hitters who gave you the hardest time?: Sean Casey, Jeff Bagwell, Todd Helton, Manny Ramirez, Adrian Beltre

• Three memories from your first date?: Movie (Three O’clock High); miniature golf (at Vince’s Batting Cages, Chestnut Hill); goodnight kiss.

• Celine Dion calls. She offers you $25 million to move to Las Vegas and teach her to pitch. You work one year, every day, but have to change your name to Jack Dawson and also live on a diet of cabbage and M&Ms. You in?: Without hesitation—yes. I’m a silver-lining type of guy. I use the cabbage to make sauerkraut, which is great for digestion. The M&M’s are there for me to keep my sanity about the cabbage. Celine better be ready to get her ass on that mound and work, too.

Categories
Athletes Blog News QUAZ

Maggie Steffens

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So a few weeks ago an issue of SI for Kids arrived in the mail, and my daughter Casey squealed audibly when the magazine included a trading card of someone named Maggie Steffens.

“I follow her on Instagram!” she said. “She’s amazing!”

That was enough for me. I reached out to Maggie via Twitter, fired off a quick DM—and here we are, taking water polo and nutrition and hearing the national anthem play on foreign soil. But here’s the cool part: When I told Maggie that my daughter was about to begin tryouts for her high school team, she volunteered to reach out and offer a kind word. A day later, Casey texted me from school.

Her: “Did you have Maggie Steffens text me?”

Me: “I did.”

Her: Whoa.

It was a life highlight. It also spoke to the goodness of a young woman who believes in her sport, and also believes water polo participants need to stick together.

In today’s Quaz, Maggie and I talk post-Olympic letdown, tubs o’ ice cream, Tom Petty and sisterhood. One can follow her on Twitter here, Facebook here and Instagram here.

Maggie Steffens, two golds are impressive. But the 324th Quaz? Legendary.

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Maggie—I open with this. You won gold in the 2012 Olympics. You won gold again in the 2016 Olympics. And I wonder, after you win gold, and you receive the medal, and after you return home … what does that feel like? Does the glow remain? Does it vanish? Do you ever have moments of, “Is this as good as it gets?” or is it a perpetual, “Yes! We did it! Yes!”

MAGGIE STEFFENS: Honestly, it only gets better once you get home, at least for a short while.

We are not Olympians and/or Olympic champions because we woke up one day, all on our own, and did it. It takes an entire team and years of preparation—physically, mentally and emotionally. Many members of our own personal ‘teams’ are those from our home towns, our schools, our colleges, our friends and our family. I even think back to my first soccer coach and how much he believed in me—just at age 9! I think about my high school teachers who supported me and were so understanding when I had to split my time between school and full-time training for 2012. I think about my friends who I grew up with, the ones who challenged me and the ones who smiled with me. I think about my water polo coach, Maureen O’Toole, and holding her Olympic silver medal… dreaming one day maybe I could have one of my own. I think about striving to be amongst the best and grateful for the Stanford dream.

But mainly, I think about my family: my older siblings and my parents. Wow. When I got to let my family hold the gold medal, they had won that medal too. It gives me the chills to think about. My family, even my crazy Schnugg cousins (yes, Gramma Schnugg had 13 kids and each of those kids had lots of kids, so I have about 40 cousins who all are stellar athletes and live in the Bay Area), shaped me into the girl I was then and then woman I am now.

So because of that, the glow remains. Sharing the gold with the people who may not be wearing a zipper suit and water polo cap by your side, but the people who have been there with you from the start. They deserve a piece of the gold as well because none of us could do it without them. So in that way, that happiness and pride never fades.

But the excitement definitely does. A few weeks after the Olympics, it’s on to the next thing and life goes on. It’s pretty weird how one month after all your dreams coming true and being the happiest you’ve ever been, you may be in a dorm room studying for your first college midterm and just trying to figure out the partial differential equation … um, what?!

In all seriousness, I did struggle a bit after my first Olympics. I knew London wasn’t “as good as it gets,” but I was a little lost for sure. It took me some time, but I always came back to my dad’s words—“Strive to be amongst the best” and “Always remember your last name.” With these in mind, I knew there was still so much more. I focused on the values of what the “Steffens” name means to me and thought about my goal of always striving to be amongst the best. I was fortunate to have that at Stanford and with Team USA. My dream was still to be an Olympian and an Olympic champion—I had just done it once before. The dream remains today, it just follows a different path and a different journey, which makes each new quad so special.

There are so many paths in life, which helps keep me motivated and excited for the life to come. I don’t just want to be an Olympic champion, I want to take my Stanford degree somewhere, I want to possibly have my own business one day, I want to make a difference in the world, I want to have fun. My family always makes fun of me for always wanting to do everything, but helps keep me dreaming.

Anyway, now that I have ranted for 20 minutes, I’m not even sure if I answered the question … but I will tell you that sometimes, out of nowhere, I will just smile because I know our team accomplished our dream together. That is what it is all about. Sharing this with your team—the team you play with and the team behind the scenes. I have that moment of “Yes! We did it!” all the time. I smile and then I continue to get back to the life at hand.

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J.P.: So we moved to SoCal three years ago, and my daughter immediately gravitated toward water polo—a sports we barely knew back in New York. So I wonder—why did we barely know it back in New York? What I mean is—the game is fast, exciting, thrilling, athletic, dynamic. Yet it seems like, across America, it’s pretty limited in knowledge and appeal. Am I wrong? Am I right? And is there a reason?

M.S.: I’m so happy she gravitated toward water polo. It is the best, so I hope she loves it. But Jeff, I ask myself this question every day. I still don’t get it. How is water polo not a sport every kid is doing and loving? Water polo is truly a mix of so many sports, which allows for great opportunity. Just like basketball, there is a center and a center defender, there are outside shooters and people who drive to the hoop, there is counter attack and counter defense, there is ball movement/passing lanes/picks/anticipation … just add another player, a goalie, and a net!

Just like soccer, there is an offsides component, corner kicks, angles lanes and penalty shots. Just like hockey, there are man-ups and man-downs, quick play and movement. And it’s really physical—just under the water :).

So, add the endurance and sprint swimming component as well as the mental and physical toughness it takes to play the game, and there you have it! It even used to be called “water rugby,” so I’m sure that can help paint a better picture. But to me, if the game were more simple to understand from a regular audience perspective, the sport would be more popular. That’s why exposure to the sport at a young age would be super beneficial in its overall growth. I think this is why it is more popular on the west coast. There are outdoor pools everywhere, a little bit warmer, and people are pretty comfortable with the beach.

In the Bay Area, I was very fortunate to have Maureen O’Toole and Jim Purcell start Diablo Water Polo Club and have the exposure to the game at a young age. Anyone who plays other sports and can swim will love water polo. I guarantee it. So at a young age when people are trying out soccer, basketball, swimming, etc… water polo ties them all together.

Something I would love to help with is exposure and opportunity. Take basketball and soccer. If you walk around a city or even a suburb, at almost every other block there is a public basketball court or grassy field. All you need is the ball and you can play around. It becomes a pastime that reminds you of your childhood when sport was simply fun. With water polo, you can’t just hop in a random pool by yourself and somehow find a water polo cage and float it by yourself (too expensive, too much liability, no cages or balls, and not enough pool space/time!). I was lucky because I had a backyard pool and three older siblings and a water polo cage to play around with… “3, 2, 1… she shoots … she scores! aaaaahh”

We were able to play almost every day just like some kids can walk across their street to play basketball, soccer or football. If every kid had this opportunity, I think the sport could really grow. I went to Croatia this summer and there were water polo cages at every beach! People just jump in and play. I would love to channel that opportunity here in the states … the water is just a little bit colder.

I also just want to add that water polo is a great sport for kids simply because any body type can play. It’s almost like the water is an equalizer. You can be short, you can be tall, you can be built, you can be skinny, you can be lanky, you can be bigger, you can be smaller.

J.P.: Your dad Carlos was a fantastic water polo player—three Pan Am Games, three-time All-American at Cal, 1979 Pac-10 Player of the Year. And, as a sportswriter, I’ve found that people with such backgrounds can go one of two ways as parents. They either 1. Push, push, push their kids; or they 2. Sorta hang back, let the love develop organically, or not at all. What was your dad like in this regard?

M.S.: My dad is the most passionate person I know and water polo is one of his biggest passions. So his love for the sport exudes out of his every being. When he watches our games, he is up in the corner of the stands, wearing a colorful shirt and his white Panama hat. He pretends he’s playing.

It’s a mental game and he loves putting himself back in those competitive situations, but he keeps it to himself—he simply wants to enjoy. Which is his biggest passion—enjoying life and enjoying it with his family. For this reason, he definitely let us discover the sport and find the love for it on our own. He would “push” us by having water polo balls around the house as kids and playing keep away with us in the backyard pool. We learned to love this yellow ball and what it represented (a fun game with family). We even would throw around coconuts in the Caribbean, pretending to play water polo in the waves! He always “pushed” us to give everything—our first, second, third, fourth effort, and to “represent our last name” in all that we do. In this, we learned so many values of sport and competition, which have been so valuable to me not just as an athlete, but as a person. He definitely has been my best coach, though, with tricks of the trade and little talks after games. I learned so much and am still learning. Not to mention, he also made us very mentally tough, which you need to be a water polo player.

J.P.: You recently signed to play for UVSE, the best team in the Hungarian professional league. I’m curious how that came to be. I’m also curious how you feel about that. Are you like, “Yes, Hungary!” Are you like, “Um, Hungary?”

I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to play abroad next year because I am finishing up my Master’s at Stanford as well as trying out some business ventures. The opportunity to be a guest player for a team presented itself and allowed me to fulfill my other passions and pursue my professional career abroad. To be honest, I NEVER thought I would play in Hungary and at first didn’t even consider them as an option. I always imagined I would be in some tropical place where I can salsa dance and play in the ocean… Hungary is not quite that. What sold me on Hungary was the opportunity there as well as the energy of Budapest. I feed off passion and energy – and it was flowing through me while we were in Hungary for 5 weeks this summer. It truly is a beautiful country, with so much history and incredible people (and good food… a necessity for me!). What I loved most about it though and what really opened my eyes to this opportunity was the love for water polo. Budapest was like the heart beat of water polo, the mecca to the sport I love. I wanted the opportunity to play in a place like that, where my sport is loved and celebrated. Not only that, legends were born here and the current players (men & women) can teach me a lot – I’m excited to simply ask them questions and learn/play with them.

I am inspired by the culture of the country and the culture of the sport in Hungary and am eager to be a part of it. I feel like I can really develop there as a person and as a player WHILE being in a place where people know, love, and respect water polo… HOW COOL IS THAT?! There is nothing like that in America for water polo and even many places around Europe. I look forward to playing in other countries later on in my career, but why not go to the mecca of our sport – learn, grow, develop – and LOVE It all at the same time?!

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J.P.: I recently had a long discussion with my 10-year-old son about athlete psyche-up music. Namely, does it actually do anything? I’m being very micro here—do you think there’s a direct relationship between pre-game music and performance? Or can we play Jay-Z or Barbra Streisand and it makes no difference? And do you have a psych-up tune?

M.S.: I think music does a lot. But, everyone is very different. This is why I think “psyche-up” music is more of a mental thing. It allows you to get in the mindset you believe you perform at best in that given moment. Everyone has their different vibe they are trying to channel before battle. For example, I like to play focused and intense, but loose and fun. I like to play as if I’m back in my backyard pool playing keep away with my dad and siblings or in the 12-under Junior Olympic Championship with my club team—but with the knowledge, experience, and toughness I’ve built up through training/games over the years. So I tend to listen to happy songs and lots of Spanish/Latin music—I mean the rhythm cannot be beat! And it reminds me of family.

This may be a little superstitious, but I also tend to listen to music with lyrics that represent the way I want to play. In 2012, alongside my many Spanish/Latin songs, one of my main pump-up songs was Maroon 5’s “Lucky Strike” (hoping I would have some lucky goals) and in 2016, two of my main songs were Andy Grammer’s “Good to be Alive” (to remind myself how amazing it is I get to play this game at the Olympics) and Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” simply because of these lyrics: This is the moment. Tonight is the night, we’ll fight til it’s over… like the ceiling can’t hold us. So, I am totally weird! But I like to listen to music and then not have my headphones in so I can be with the team, dancing (lots of dancing) and laughing and connecting so we are mentally and physically ready to accomplish our goal.

J.P.: In 2011 you skipped your high school graduation to join Team USA at the World Championships. That strikes me as a pretty hard decision to make. Was it? And how was the decision made?

M.S.: It wasn’t a tough decision, but it was a tough journey. I actually only went to about half of my last semester of my high school senior year. Full-time training in Southern California started in January, 2011, which was at the beginning of my last semester. I was fortunate enough, and still am, to have Adam Krikorian as my coach and someone who believed in me early on. He had mentioned full-time training to me before my senior year had started and I knew I wanted that opportunity. I had been dreaming of being an Olympian since I was young enough to start sport. But I also had the dream of going to Stanford and balancing my athletics with academics. So at the beginning of my senior year, I printed out a calendar for each of my teachers and one for myself. I sat down with them each individually and told them my dreams and aspirations and asked them how we could make it work. We ended up coming up with a schedule where I would come to school for a couple weeks then fly to SoCal to train for a week … then fly to school for a week then fly back to SoCal to train for two weeks.

I was very lucky to have teachers who also believed in me and allowed me to try to accomplish both of these dreams. I still remember taking an AP calculus test and crying in the middle of it, because I had no idea what was going on and was so stressed from all the travel/etc. That had never happened before and I was simply overwhelmed. This would happen during training, too. We were doing a swim set and I got lapped! I kept my head down and swam as hard as I could, but my body just couldn’t keep up. My eyes were teary during the swim, but I didn’t want to show that to anyone. I didn’t want to let anyone down.

After these moments, I wrote that swim set, that test, and different quotes on a bunch of sticky notes and put them all over my bathroom mirror. They were a reminder of how I didn’t want to feel and how important preparation was and who I wanted to be moving forward. Missing graduation, the social events and all the leadership activities was tough, but they were simple sacrifices in order to be the best I could be for Team USA. The hardest part was trying to be my best self for Team USA, for Stanford, for my friends and for my family while traveling back and forth at 16- and 17-years old. My friends made a fun video for me for my birthday which I received in Russia right before our USA team held a graduation ceremony for me in China (hotel robes, a Diploma signed by my coaches, & some local Chinese Pizza Hut). This was so special for me because it didn’t matter where I was in the world, I was surround by family and was very fortunate to have such great people to inspire me.

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J.P.: The other day I was talking with a colleague at ESPN who covered Michael Phelps for many years. And he was sort of bemoaning the way we often turn athletes into symbols of patriotism come Olympics; how we’ll paint a Michael Phelps or a Maggie Steffens as the “all-American story” when, first and foremost, you guys are top-level athletes there to compete. So I wonder—when you’re in the Olympics, do you feel more American (for lack of better phrasing) then usual? Do you feel like representing the U.S. makes it extra important? Does patriotism come into play?

M.S.: I wouldn’t say I feel more American at the Olympics. It is more that your American pride is heightened. I remember my first time representing Team USA. It was in Khanty-Mansisk, Siberia for junior worlds. We heard our national anthem before the first game and I had immediate chills. I was only maybe 15-years old and representing the Junior team, but we were still representing the United States. There was this pride that overtook my body and a respect I knew I had to play with. Once I caught this feeling, I knew this was what I wanted to do.

Preparing for the Olympics, you aren’t just thinking of yourself, but also your teammates. You are thinking about how can I make sure their dreams are fulfilled. You are thinking of your family and friends and how much they have helped all of us get here. And you are thinking of your country. You are thinking how you have the most special name on my cap, the name of the United States of America, and it is your job to represent it the best you can because that is what that name deserves. Truly, it is an honor to wear the red, white and blue and a constant reminder of how fortunate we are to be women, playing the sport we love, on the biggest stage possible.

My favorite moment of the Olympics, well there are many. One that is always extra special is standing on the podium, alongside these incredible and badass women you love and respect, and watching the American flag rise up with our hands on our hearts. I only sing the anthem in this moment, and I sing it loud and proud. I literally just laughed and smiled to myself thinking of this moment—it is breathtaking. Every breath and every thought has been about this moment, and now we get to cherish it. Our every dream has officially come true. It is a representation of what our country is about and we always want to represent the competitive and dream-oriented values of our great country. In 2016, I got to send out a video to the Armed Forces Network and felt so lucky to say “thank you.” Because they are representing our country and making sure that we, as athletes, get to simply play and compete for our country and represent in a completely different way. If it weren’t for them or their predecessors, we wouldn’t be up on that podium. It was a surreal moment. I love being American every day. The Olympics just make us even more proud of the opportunities we are given.

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J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

M.S.: The greatest moment of my career was standing on the podium and looking down at my oldest sister, Jessica Steffens. In 2008, Jess was playing for gold and our family was up in the stands. It felt like I played that game although I was just a young kid supporting my biggest inspiration. They came up short and won the silver, and I could feel the emotion and pain from the girls in the water. My dad looked at me and kind of gave me a look and said, “Now it’s your turn.” In that moment, I knew exactly what he meant. He believed that I would be in that water next time. Winning in 2012 was amazing and all the cliches you can think of apply, but winning alongside the women I had watched in 2008 and helping to change their destiny was the most incredible feeling one could ask for. I was playing for all those girls, but the main one was my own blood, Jess. Locking eyes and knowing that we just achieved our dreams together, as sisters, is truly the greatest moment of my life. She always was the one I looked up to and who I never wanted to let down, and now we were looking at each other knowing we had just fought to our last breath to make sure we would be standing in that moment together representing Steffens and Team USA. We got to look up and find our family in the stands and the looks on their faces were priceless. That moment of finding your family after the gold is truly the photographic moment everyone thinks about. In that moment is when you realize, wow, we did it.

My lowest moment was in 2013. I would say it was less of a moment and more of a way of life. I struggled in this year although I was extremely happy to have an Olympic gold medal and be a freshman at Stanford. A lot of great things happened and I was still very fortunate, but I wasn’t the “Maggie” I wanted to be. We lost in the 2013 NCAA Championship and ended up getting fifth at World Championships that summer. These losses definitely contribute to this being the lowest moment of my career, but it was more so the loss of the values that make me who I am. It wasn’t like I went and did something crazy or something awful like that, but my passion and my drive was not where it needed to be. I struggled with trying to keep the happy face that I always do, but missing a lot of the values that make me happy.

It really made me reflect on how I want to be and who I want to be. My dad always told us, “Remember your last name,” and I didn’t think I had done that that summer. I wanted to be my best self in all that I did, and I fell short. This year really helped me prepare for 2017 knowing that the year following the Olympics is definitely tough and I’m not shy to say it. You never know what life will throw at you!

J.P.: The wife and I were just looking over your Instagram feed—and you’re clearly in insanely good shape. So I wonder—what’s the key? How important is diet? Sleep? Fitness? Will you have an ice cream cone, drink a Coke? Will you ever skip a workout? Or is it all about regimentation?

M.S.: Oh, will I have an ice cream cone? I most likely will buy an entire Ben & Jerry’s pint for the week and eat it in one sitting. I love dessert, so you’ll definitely find me looking for the nearest Cold Stone wherever I live. But I do this because of my fitness and overall nutrition. I think that is what is most important, at least for me. I am aware of supplementing my body with what it needs in order to perform at the highest level and I am also very in-tune with my body. I listen to it.

Whether it’s a tart cherry shot or lots and lots of veggies, I want to make sure my body is ready to perform. With that, our sport requires you to be in great shape and it’s not easy. I truly believe you need to be in the best shape for water polo—although one’s shape is different for everyone. Not touching the water or a polo ball for a couple days makes you feel like you’ve never played the sport! It’s super important to keep your body ready to play the game at all times, which I believe you can do even with cross-training during down time. I also think sleep is extremely beneficial. Kaleigh Gilchrist was my teammate and roommate in 2016, and she used to make fun of me because I always wanted to be asleep early enough so I could get my eight hours in. It became a running joke, but you better know I made sure it happened. If I didn’t, I was already planning a nap. Sufficient rest and recovery simply becomes part of our routine during full-time and I believe is a major asset to fitness and training.

Lastly one of my favorite quotes is from the Marines—“The more you sweat in battle, the less you bleed in war.” I think of this in terms of training. If I can train/practice at the physical and mental level it takes to play in the highest pressured game, then I will be prepared physically and mentally.

J.P.: Can you still swim for fun? I mean, allllllll this time in the pool. If friends are going swimming, and they ask you to join, are you like, “Yes!” Or, “I’d rather eat rat poison”?

M.S.: Um, yes! Especially if it is in the ocean! Chlorine and water are simply part of my DNA at this point … not going to turn down an activity with friends. But I would suggest playing some water basketball instead.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MAGGIE STEFFENS:

• Five coolest places water polo has taken you?: Rio, New Zealand, Budapest, Barcelona and Siberia (Not because of the place, but because, well, who else can say they’ve been to Siberia twice?)

• Grossest thing you’ve ever seen in a pool?: Throw up floating on the surface.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Tom Petty, Luke Walton, The Simpsons, UCLA, Amanda Longan, roller skating, Tom Hanks, “Orange is the New Black,” Dak Prescott, the number 18, Chipotle, Joe Biden, Barcelona, onion rings: Chipotle, Amanda Longan, Barcelona, Onion RingsTom Hanks, Luke Walton, Tom Petty, roller skating, Joe Biden, Dak Prescott, UCLA, The Simpsons, the number 18, “Orange is the New Black”

• One question you would ask Leon Spinks were he here right now?: Do you regret the rematch?

• Best advice you’ve ever received?: Both from my dad—“Always remember your last name” and “Strive to be amongst the best.”

• First thing you do when you wake up in the morning?: An aggressive and odd full body stretch/twitch while making a high-pitch dinosaur sound.

• Are farts more funny or embarrassing?: Funny.

• Best joke you know?: I have two: What do you call a Fish with no eyes? A FSHHHHHH! and What do you call a deer with no eyes? No Eye Deer (Saying these aloud are way more fun).

• Five reasons to make Danville, Cal. one’s next vacation destination?: 1. Great wildlife such as cows, wild turkeys, dee, and coyotes; 2. A bowling alley ready for any type of party; 3. Great hikes at every turn, where you will see lots of … dogs. 4. Fro-yo everywhere!; 5. The people! (OK, not all of those may be the best reasons, but they remind me of good ol’ Danville!)

• Most embarrassing moment of your life?: I’m not exactly sure of mine, but my nickname at my first swim club (from ages 2 to 5) was “Maggie Baggy Underpants.” Soooooo that’s something I hope I’m not called too often anymore.