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superheros

Musing and observations from Kevin Hall…

With gratitude to Jack Bolton for his initiative and courage to reach out to me about sharing some thoughts and experiences:

Before I won the Singlehanded Youth Worlds, and before I started going away every weekend to race, I watched cartoons on TV on Sunday morning. My favorites (this was the mid 70’s!) were Speed Racer and The Justice League. Wonder Woman, Superman and other superheroes had clear missions that I understood. What I didn’t understand is that I should have learned about Diana Prince and Clark Kent too. I should have wondered more about Speed Racer’s family and friends, not just Racer X.

When I got to college I really loved my schoolwork, and I really loved the sailing team and the weekend racing. I built something like a cape in my mind, and I already had the tights because what is a wetsuit if not superhero tights? My imaginary cape said this to my mind: “Kevin, you are the person who does all his school work and trains hard too, and if you keep doing that, (because that is what you are supposed to do), you won’t ever have any problems.”

I thought if I kept winning everything would be fine. I did. And it wasn’t.

My cape lied to me, and my junior year of college I got flattened by a rogue thunderstorm and knocked for quite a loop. I’ve learned some things since then, which I’d like to try to share with you. 

Have you ever tried to win the pin, and with maybe twenty seconds to go a little tiny voice way in the back of your head, or maybe in your gut really, says very quietly, “you’re not laying that pin, you’re not going to make it!”? The rest of you, the part that wants to win the race and the regatta and post your results so your friends can see – that sailor sheets in and hits the pin. Then maybe for some of you, a third voice comes in while you’re doing your 360 and says something like, “Well that sucked. That was so stupid! Now you’ll never win this regatta….” 

I wish we were together in the same room, because I could see your faces as I told this little story about an imaginary start, and I could ask you to raise your hand if it sounds at all familiar. I bet it does.

It’s a way of thinking that works for competition and for real life.  Maybe you’ve had a leg, or a race, or a day, or a regatta when you couldn’t do anything wrong at all. (Show us those hands up! And if it hasn’t happened for you yet, it is a thing. It’s magical. It’s the kind of thing that makes people who hate golf play for another ten years after they get a hole in one.)

Here are some questions for you: precisely who hit the pin, or who won the race? What came before those moments? What might come after?

I like to think of stuff in my head as my “train of thought”. In the past, sometimes my train of thought has gotten really very confused about what class of boat my body was supposed to be, and what kind of training I was supposed to be doing, and who my actual coaches were and who were the coaches pretending to be my coach but I thought maybe they were actually somebody else’s coach who wanted them to win instead of me. Like I said, confused.

It’s taken me a long time but I maybe see the wisdom in having Wonder Woman also be Diana Prince, and Superman also be Clark Kent, and Spiderman also be Peter Parker, and Captain Marvel also be from today’s timeline, not just a person in the future. 

I am going to strive to be a bit of a superhero version of myself. But I know that Kryptonite is real. I know that even Wonder Woman occasionally forgets to fuel her invisible jet. And every once in a while, the cat is going to run right out and trip me.  And that’s ok. Because I’m not only super-opti-kid, I’m not only an amazing [student/dancer/musician/coder/best friend], I’m not only Wonderman and Superwoman. I’m also [you’re name here]. As myself, as me, I’m allowed to say to my family, or to my friends, that I’m tired. Or that I’m scared. Or that my cape feels ripped and my tights have a hole in them in a really bad spot.

There are so many people who hear the little voice the first time, when it starts to try to say “I know the story everyone wants is that I got this, but…um…I don’t got this right now.” That little voice may try to speak a few months or weeks or days or hours before things like panic attacks, or pain-making choices, or worse. That little voice is wise. I have one. You have one. 

I believe that it’s a dated, old crusty story, an old way of being in the world, to pretend we don’t hear that voice. And, it’s not ok to say to a friend or loved one the first time they try to share its message to just “get tougher, try harder, push it down, tell it who is boss.”

I believe we have a responsibility to each other as teammates, as friends and family and coaches and athletes and beyond, to keep the distinction between our competitive or student or job selves, and our safe, wise, true, mostly invisible selves…to keep that distinction real and clear, and to honor it. 

Diana Prince would have done her homework and known that the current was taking Wonder Woman toward the pin that day. Peter Parker is starting to get that he’s in a multiverse now and he’s found mentors and guides. 

There are races to win. 

So: Yes! train hard, hard, very hard. Push yourself toward excellence in every direction that you choose. Become faster, higher, stronger in all your different capes.

And: If a quiet voice inside you asks for you to listen, that is the time to untie your cape and pause the show, so you can truly hear.

What we all have in common with fictional superheroes is that we cannot do it all alone. The stories we share with our teammates and coaches and friends and parents are the ones that make us who we are, and who we will become.

Kevin A. Hall
Auckland, New Zealand