Ask Yourself, Did You Really Try Hard Enough?
The lesson I learned from abruptly ending a promising hockey career and channeling all my energy into rock climbing.
I will always remember the day, walking into Steele Hall. I had a sinking feeling. My teammates wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I guessed why but had to check for myself. On the list posted outside the new coach’s office, I couldn’t find my name. They cut me from the hockey team.
It was the second rejection in fourteen months. The first cut had come shortly after high school graduation. I had moved from New York to Ontario, Canada, to play junior hockey with the St. Catherine Falcons. I intended to attract interest from university recruiters by showing my skill playing against the toughest players I could find. The goal was a four-year scholarship to an out-of-state school. But in August, just as my school pals were settling into their freshman dorms around the country, I found myself sleeping in my old bed back home. The coach had let three stateside players go to afford a talented pick from Sweden. I felt hurt and confused.
I gratefully grabbed a lifeline thrown by my sister: she suggested that I immediately apply to Fredonia, where she was a junior. It would be a second chance at hockey and an opportunity to pursue graphic design. My application arrived on Thursday; by Tuesday, I had started classes. While Fredonia’s design program inspired me, its hockey team depressed me. That year we went 0–24. In the spring the coach was fired. His replacement brought in favorite recruits and that fall I was cut. My hockey career was over.
For a long time, I felt like I suffered an injustice. I had been a talented hockey player. Short-sighted coaches had kept me from achieving my athletic best. It wasn’t until I started finding success as a young designer in New York City that I started to question my feelings of victimization. Doubt nagged. Maybe I was somehow responsible for the premature end to my hockey career? Perhaps I could have tried harder?
Where I grew up in upstate New York, I was considered a natural athlete. Hockey, in particular, came easy to me. I played on a state championship team and earned two MVP trophies in high school. When I look back, however, I realize that I tended to show frustration when my teammates played poorly. Instead of compensating for their weaknesses by putting in additional effort, I expected them to carry their weight. I had been skating on natural talent, and I started to wonder if my unwillingness to work harder might have influenced the coaches’ decisions. The uncertainty troubled me and did nothing to alleviate the sadness I felt when I thought of my aborted hockey career.
At 24 years old, four years after hanging up my skates, I discovered a new sport, rock climbing. From the first moment I touched a plastic hold bolted to the wall of the indoor climbing gym, I experienced the same surge of excitement that used to fill me on the ice. I wanted to be a rock climber — a great rock climber! There was only one problem: I wasn’t a “natural.”
I felt like the worst climber whoever started the sport. Awkward, inflexible, my body refused to bend and reach the way the climbing required. But climbing exhilarated me, filling a void. Unwarranted but irrepressible, my old hockey bravado came back. I made outrageous statements, “I would climb 5.13!” A level of expertise attained by only the most elite climbers. I would climb alongside other world-class athletes. My new climbing friends laughed and shrugged me off. They didn’t realize — nor did I — the power that my perceived failure at hockey held over me.
I vowed to do everything in my power to take my climbing abilities as far as they could go. That included moving to Boulder, Colorado, where some of the world’s best climbers trained. I progressed slowly. After three years, I attained basic competence in several types of technical climbing, including the gymnastic style known as sport climbing. The excellence demanded by my peers kept me motivated, and with five years’ experience behind me, I climbed my first 5.12 sport climb — a significant level of accomplishment for any climber. I wondered if this was as far as I could take my climbing career. What if I pushed harder?
I started visiting a climbing area in Rifle, Colorado renowned for extremely difficult climbs. There, I met strong, dedicated climbers from
all over the world. They inspired me to keep trying and reach for the next level. The following spring, I focused my attention on a climbing route graded 5.13. The route’s name struck me as particularly ironic: “Never Believe.”
The objective in sport climbing is to negotiate a rock face from the ground to the top without falling — a distance of approximately 80 feet. My first attempts on Never Believe were pitiful. I fell on the rope constantly, unable to find the strength and agility required. But I stuck with it, and after four consecutive months of frustration, I started to see some improvement. I was beginning to feel in control.
The next Rifle climbing season I made it to the top of Never Believe with only one fall. I kept falling at the crux of the climb, the single hardest move. I had the sequence above and below the crux down pat. If I could master this section — by placing my left hand in a small slot and pulling my body upwards — I knew I could finish the route.
Then, on a cold November, it happened. I shoved my left hand in the slot and pulled with all my might. I was going to do it! Two moves higher, my foot slipped. I exploded off the wall and hurtled downward. My climbing partner took in as much slack in the rope as he could. I tucked up my feet as I skimmed the dirt looking right into his gaping eyes. We decided to go home.
The next weekend it snowed and winter cold set in. I stewed all season thinking about Never Believe. I had been so close to completion — I had failed when the hardest part was behind me. Would I ever reach my goal? Did I fear success? Was I trying hard enough?
In the spring, I went back to Rifle but struggled with self-doubt and fear. I felt stronger than ever, but the memory of the previous fall stuck with me, and I kept falling.
I’ll always remember the day, it was crisp and the limestone cool to the touch. After warming up on a few easier climbs, I roped up for Never Believe. The start of the route felt smooth, and I was floating. I placed my left hand in the slot, took a deep breath then pulled myself up. I made it past the crux! Now all I had to do was climb the remaining 15 feet. The floating sensation evaporated, replaced by the leaden feeling of fatigue. Below, my friends on the ground screamed at me to keep moving. “GO! GO! GO!”
My arms burned. I climbed one more move, then another. I attempted to rest on a large hand-hold but felt myself slipping. One last move to go! If I can hang on, then I’m there, at the top. With the last gasp, I heaved my body upward and reached the anchors — the climb’s zenith. I’ve done it. I sag back on the rope, my head spinning.
Have I really climbed 5.13? My partner starts to lower me to the ground but halfway down I ask him to stop. I want to savor the moment. Looking out over the tops of the aspens, I feel overwhelmed. My mind flashes through all the climbs I’ve done to get to this point. Zooming through the past, I’m back in Steele Hall. I don’t see my name on the list of players selected for the team. For the first time, I feel like I’m watching myself from a great distance. I have perspective: I feel sad for the boy who got cut from the team, but I don’t feel pain.
After climbing Never Believe, I realized that reaching the top wasn’t as important as I had thought. The greater triumph was what I proved to myself: through hard work and courage; I could take charge of my destiny.