How To Live Beyond Your Life
One of my more memorable whitewater slalom competitions didn’t take place at an Olympic Games or in a far away, culturally unique world capital.
Instead, it is one particular race: our 1996 U.S. National Championships — a big deal for all Americans in our sport — that was contested in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee U.S.A. The actual *river* was hidden in the middle of a worn-out amusement park, now long plowed under. In its heyday the park, Opryland, was hanging on with the occasional second-tier country music act and, of all things, its whitewater rafting ride where an organizer decided it would be a swell place for a slalom race for post-games Olympians and a hundred other competitive boaters.
The whitewater venue was one of the first water splashing circular cement channels in which customers would ride in huge multi-person rafts. At one time it was popular with families who had Deliverance as their idea of outdoor adventure while still making it home in time for dinner.
It was there that I found myself in an expansive and quite empty asphalt parking lot unpacking my slalom competition canoe from the top of my 200,000 mileage road weary Ford Escort.
This U.S. National Championships was the first big domestic race after the 1996 Olympic Games. For those who don’t recall, the 1996 Games had been staged on a beautiful river in a National Forest in rural Tennessee. As I stood in the parking lot in Nashville, I realized that our sport had traded the trees and trails of the Cherokee National Forest for the smell of stale cotton candy and piped-in sound effects.
We go with whatever flow we face.
As our boat was being held at the start gate, 1996 U.S. Olympian Rich Weiss, who sits in the bow (front seat) of the doubles racing canoe looked over this shoulder to me and said, “Let’s go fast. The U-Haul is running.”
On this cloudy September afternoon, with his primary race category, the men’s single kayak, already completed for the day, Rich and I opted for one more race run down the course. Just for fun. We didn’t realize that this would be the final time that we would race together in the two-man canoe. Or… race together ever again.
All of Rich’s possessions were packed into the U-Haul in the parking lot where his wife Rosi patiently waited, ready to transport the two of them to the next phase of their life beyond Olympic canoe racing. They were headed to the Pacific Northwest.
Our run was good, not great. The experience? Great, not good. We talked through a few of the moves on the race course — what went well and what could have gone better.
Shortly thereafter, Rich and Rosi drove out of the parking lot with the tail-lights of the U-Haul signaling a new phase of their joint-future. Rich and Rosi, the proverbial doubles-partners on their way — and on their way with a new little life that would come into the world months down that road… to the joy of all.
How do we live beyond our lives?
Any athlete who competed with Rich in the 1980s and 1990s will tell you they never competed against an athlete with more raw strength and power and wisdom. I watched my friend closely for years. He competently navigated complex whitewater with ease and confidence. He paddled UPSTREAM against the flow of a challenging rapid and smoothly transitioned to paddle DOWNSTREAM with that same flow.
Deeply embedded in this strength, power, and grit was a resilient learner — deliberate in thought and action.
The quality of Rich’s action, day by day, year by year, is what sticks with me today — he was a true scholar who had calm intentionality.
I knew he would be a wonderful father.
I tend to see a dad as being an action… an action-verb who guides.
Can the verb outlive the noun? Yes, when you build a life full of good actions.
Live beyond your life.
Twenty years ago this week, Rich lost his life in a kayaking accident. His wife waited for him a few miles downstream at the take-out of a world class natural whitewater river. She was three months away from delivering their first child.
I was awaken by an early morning phone call about Rich. Forty-eight hours after the accident, I had made my way from our Tennessee rural home to the spectacular waterfall in Washington State where Rich left us.
A few weeks ago, I met Rich’s son, River, who will turn 20 in September. He had come to Oklahoma City to compete in the Rafting National Championships.
River is polite and thoughtful. When I introduced myself to him, this person who is the son of one of my dearest friends in the sport, looked back at me with patience and deliberation. The exact same qualities I admired in his father.
I knew this look. I countered this look the same way I had done 21 years earlier with his father — I made jokes until he cracked a smile. Still works.
River’s raft team needed a fourth *guy* because one of their members had canceled at the last moment. They were a tightly trained four man rafting unit who found itself one-man-down.
Serendipity raised its hand, in the form of our 16 year-old daughter.
Today, Father’s Day, I have a new best memorable whitewater competition. I was not in a boat. I was on a groomed sidewalk that hugs the river bank of the world class cement whitewater sport channel in Oklahoma City.
It’s the sight of my daughter paddling directly behind Rich’s son. In the same boat. At a U.S. National Championships. Just for fun.
A father is not a noun. A father is a verb.
Likewise, a parent is not a noun. A parent is a verb.
You did well, Rosi Weiss.
I, then, transfer my Olympic Gold Medal performance strategies that streamline decision making and actions when engaged in complicated life currents with an aim towards the freedom of playing your own game.