What Happened In Vegas
I suppose I should start with an apology to those who witnessed my shameless name-dropping over the last few days. But, really, wouldn’t you too if you were spending the weekend with living history!?
Few people today would probably recognize even the names of the champions of my second sport who converged on Las Vegas for the Olympic and Paralympic Grand Reunion: mostly men who represented the United States in cycling in the 1960s and 1970s, and a couple of women who starred in the 1980s when the women’s road race was added to the Olympic programme.
They more or less adopted me for the weekend and I loved every minute. Listening to them talk was akin to my grandfather telling stories about working in the gypsum mine, going to war, and meeting my grandmother.
I learned the “family history” as they passed around pictures and pointed at things in their biographical books. One of them handed out a reprint of a magazine article in which he told about coming face-to-face with one of the terrorists who had broken into the athlete’s village in Munich, 1972. The women laughed riotously as they recalled an ill-advised foray outside their guarded, walled compound in an unstable, militarized nation.
Last weekend was not just about remembering old times, but forging new relationships with new-found friends.
One afternoon I sat on a curb watching 70-year-olds get ready to roll out on a group ride. They checked out and tested each others rigs – comparing notes on carbon frames, internal routing (think: no brake or shift cables visible), electronic shifting, GPS computers and more. They may have been seventy by the calendar maybe, but by their soul, forever just kids playing bikes.
Someone nearby said, “I love watching real cyclists get on their bikes.” Indeed, their movements were smooth and fluid, pure grace.
Many hours later, at the end of the evening, I found myself standing next to a person with whom I had swapped life stories with earlier in the day. We surveyed the scene – an older, but spirited prom? – and my new friend looked at me and asked, “When did you decide to live?”
If you know me you know: I always have something to say. But in that moment, I didn’t know what to say. Is that what I had decided? To live?
A quick scroll through my head said, yes, sure, that made sense. But when? A long time ago, when I stopped caring that I had a funny-looking arm? Merely months ago, when I took a job that would let me have weekends off? And a dozen times – or more? – in between?
To fill the silence, I started telling the part of my story that I frequently cite as the “worst hard time” and said that deciding to live was the only way to survive.
Since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this question.
What does it mean to “decide to live,” anyway? Does happiness equal living, or can you decide to live even while you are profoundly scared or sad? Is “living” a macro thing (i.e. you just decide once, over big things and it’s done) or is it a micro thing (i.e. a habit, something you have to decide every morning when you wake up)? Is it a thing you can only decide if you triumph over adversity or survive tragedy or emerge from depression? Is it reckless and spontaneous (#YOLO!), or is it practical and measured self-care?
Maybe “deciding to live” changes with the circumstances of our lives. Maybe every time you feel the excitement of connecting with a new friend, that’s living. Maybe every time your heart swells with love when you talk to an old one, that’s living. Maybe every time you cry because you miss your beloved cat, or your grandparent, or your wife, it’s living. Maybe “living” just means having the ability to let go of anything that holds you back: the shouldas, the couldas, the if-onlys, the what-ifs, the negative-nelly-peanut-gallery comments.
I don’t know if that answers the question.
I spent a weekend with famous faces and unsung heroes in Vegas, and I came home feeling tremendous gratitude for my Paralympic experience. Not because I got to recall a frozen moment in time (although, to be sure, there was plenty of that), but because of the chance to share this life with kindred spirits.
Thanks to my new and familiar friends for a heart-full kind of weekend. Let’s do it again.