I started this series about some of the key components I believe make a champion. If you have not read the first two installments please take time to read those. The first was just What Makes a Champion, where I mostly talk about making sacrifices and how a champion will do what other are not willing to do. Part 2 was called What Makes a Champion Part 2 – Desire, where I talked about the deep burning desire to win and even after victory, how champions are always looking to improve. In keeping with my brilliant naming scheme I am calling my final installment, at least for now, What Makes a Champion Part 3 – Hard Work.
I talked a little about this topic in part 1 of this series and hard work may sound like a no-brainer, but its just like common sense, I have found common sense to be not nearly as common as you would think. I don’t think it comes from being lazy, I believe it all comes down to what you have been exposed to and your perception. I always thought of myself as a good athlete and I always worked hard in practice. I must have, my gi was always really wet after practice, so I must have been working hard right? Again it all came down to what I had been exposed to and my perception. As I went up in rank the techniques of judo became easier and the more sparring and fighting I did, the better I got and the easier it came to me, so while I was still doing the same things in practice, it was getting easier as I got better, so I wasn’t having to work as hard to achieve greater success. I still fought hard in competition because I already had the desire to win and hated to lose. I often joke with my students that I would rather be hit by car than lose, and I have been hit by a car three times on my bike so I know what it feels like. I have always had that desire to win, and I was working hard for my level, but I had a rude awakening in February of 1993.
I met Larry Lee in October of 1992 when he came to my judo club in Lafayette, LA to give a clinic because he was recruiting new visually impaired players after the 1992 Paralympic games and found out through my high school wrestling coach that I was a brown belt in judo. The clinic was great but he was there looking for new VI athletes so he invited me to a training camp with the team in Denver, that February. You cannot believe how excited and nervous I was. When we talked after the clinic, of course I told him I trained really hard and was excited to have a chance to go to camp and train with the Paralympic team. I know it sounds silly but I had been a wrestler and I trained and competed against sighted judoka so I though, how tough could it be to work with other blind guys? I had never been exposed to elite judo other than attending the occasional local clinic run by some high level player but we were still training with guys at our own level. Well, these guys were elite players! One of the guys on the team was Dr. Jim Mastro or as I like to think of him “freak of nature.” Jim had been an alternate on the 1972 Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team and is totally blind. These guys were the real deal.
I had never been so uncomfortable in my life. We stayed on rented cots in Larry’s basement right around the corner from his dojo. The guys were really cool and made me feel like one of the guys off the mat, but on the mat, they beat me like I had never been beaten before. Larry was yelling at them about coming to camp out of shape, even though it was the first camp after the Paralympic games, and I was in the corner dying. I asked Jim Mastro if camp was always like this and he said, “oh no. This is much easier than normal!” I almost started crying right then and there. I went home after 4 of the toughest days I had ever experienced, bruised and hurting. Oh, and I had broken the cartilage between two of my ribs when I was thrown in a the tournament we had the day before the training session we had with 30 or so of the guys from the Olympic Training Center. I went home that Monday morning and limped into practice that afternoon and everyone was so excited to see how I had done. When my Sensei, Connie Lavergne, came over and asked how it went, I looked at her and said, “I’ve gotta pick it up! Those guys are insane!” So I took a few days to recover and that is what I did. I had come home with some tips from Larry and talked on the phone with him periodically (email wasn’t so big yet), and I started hitting the gym with more purpose and spending more time on the track. I still got beat down at my next camp but it wasn’t nearly as bad.
I’m telling you this story because up until that February, I truly believe I was training hard, so it was tough to find out that not only was I not pushing as hard as I would need to if I was going to make a World or Paralympic team, I was not nearly as good as I thought I was – not even close. I fought in my first World Championships in 1995 in Colorado Springs. It was a big deal but not nearly as well attended as some of the Worlds I would go to later in my career. I fought 86kg (189.2 lbs) and I won a bronze medal. I was so excited when I came from behind and threw the Spanish player for ippon to take the bronze (goes back to that never giving up thing I talked about). I bowed, shook his hand and ran over and hugged Larry and he said “Great Job, you will never see that weight class again!” I asked what he was talking about and he told me I was going down. I said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“172? I can do that.Ã¢â‚¬Â He shook his head and I said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“there is no way I can make 156!Ã¢â‚¬Â He convinced me that with proper training and diet I could make it.
This is when I really found out what I was capable of, in terms of how hard I could work. Larry convinced me that I was too short to fight at the elite level at 86 kg (before the weight classes were changed) and I had enough body fat make the cut. This was in January of 1995, so I worked really hard and got down to 172 (78 kg) but seemed to stall at that weight. We had a Paralympic team camp at my dojo at the beginning of the summer and Larry and I talked about how I could tweak my diet and my training schedule. We felt that once I made it the first time, it would be much easier to maintain but I had to make it the first time then get some tournament experience at the new weight. I won’t go into my diet but I will tell you that when I took a sports nutrition class a year later and the teacher asked if anyone had done any extreme dieting and I told her what I did, she was disgusted wanted to get me into some nutritional counseling. One of Larry’s dieting tips was “if it tastes good, spit it out!”
Just to give you and idea of what I was doing, I’ll give you a typical day for me for the summer of 1995.
Eat a banana some other fruit
Go to the PE complex and workout with a weight lifting class my Sensei was teaching
Get on the bike for some cardio
Go back to main campus for a light lunch
I would usually take a short nap either in the dojo or the locker room in the back under a bench
Two step aerobics classes that my Sensei taught with full sweats
I had 10 minutes to get to judo for a 2 hours practice
Then I would depending on the day go help teach a kids class and workout for 1.5 hours with a continuing ed class or go home and eat dinner and rest
Then because it was so hot in the summer I would run at the out door track near my apartment for a minimum of 3 miles up to 5 after running stadiums
Then I would go home, shower and pass out
I made the weight for the first time that September at a tournament at Texas A&M. As I said earlier, once I made the weight it was never easy but it was much easier than it was the first time. I know I haven’t talked as much about hard work as the title led you to think I would, but I have been trying make a point about how I thought I was working so hard until I met Larry and the Paralympic team. They put it all into perspective for me. I could have gone on doing what I was doing. Back at my dojo, everyone thought I was tough and trained so hard and fought so hard to win, but once I saw what was possible and was given the dream of going to the Paralympics and World Championships, there was no way I was not going to do whatever it took to make those new dreams come true.
I have never believed I was the most talented athlete on the mat or that I had the best technique. What I had, along with great coaching and teammates, was an extreme desire to win, the ability to make tough sacrifices and scary decisions, and the willingness to push my myself beyond what I thought was possible. I do not want you to think it was easy and I just decided to work hard and that was it. There were many times I questioned Larry, telling I could not go any further or push any harder. He would always help me see that I could push harder. He would tell me that the body is stronger than the mind and that the body would not allow you work so hard you would hurt yourself. He would say your body would protect you and you would pass out before you did any real damage. I never knew if he was serious or not but he was always able to help (force) me to work harder than I thought possible.
I also said I didn’t win because I was always the best, I won because I refused to lose. I always had the ability to dig deep and push harder and find a way to win. Of course I did not always win, but I often beat superior judo players because I had more heart. I use to run with a good friend and teammate in college and he was a much better runner than I was, but when we ran 4 or 5 miles I almost always won, even though “we weren’t racing”. I would push the pace early and even if it meant I was going to hurt, I knew I could dig deep and find just enough in the tank so when we got to the final mile I would pull it out and beat him. It always hurt so much but I felt if I could not dig deep in training I would not be able to find that reserve when a match got tough. He would always say my inability to lose to him was on a cellular level and I had no control over it. We both knew he was a better runner and a great athlete.
One last thing on me and my work ethic. After my teammate, Kevin Szott, and I won gold medals at the Paralympic Games in Sydney in 2000, we did a sponsorship event in Colorado Springs for US Paralympics, which was new at the time. We were spending the day with a group potential sponsors from all over the country. Larry was not able to make it so they showed a video he did, talking about Kevin and I and our program. I had never seen this video but he said that when he met me, I was the rawest judo player he had ever met. I took that to mean the worst. But he said that what I didn’t have in technical ability, I made up for with enthusiasm and an incredible work ethic. He said he knew he could teach me the judo but he could not teach tenacity, or desire. He could teach me to train hard and show me what it took to make it at the elite level but I had to be willing to do the work, he could not do it for me. He said I had all the things he could not give me and he could teach me the rest. I have lost many matches in the 19 years I competed in judo, but I never lost, at least not since I met Larry, because I was out of shape or I did not give it my all!
I by no means believe that anyone can become a champion by possessing the three attributes from this series alone. I chose these three attributes because they are three of the many things that contributed to my success as an athlete. There are, of course many other factors that have contributed to my success but these three things had to come from me. You can find good coaches, you can move, like I did, to a place where you have better training opportunities and higher level training partners, but the desire to win had to come from me. I could not go out and find that, no matter how far I traveled. I may find great coaching, and great training partners but I had to do the work if I was going to be successful. Sacrifices may sound easy but knowing what I have to do and actually having the guts to go for it and risk failure is not an easy thing to do. I struggled for several months with my decision to move to Colorado to train with Larry and to train at the Olympic Training Center. I had to find the desire to win and the absolute unwillingness to give up. My first 4 months in Colorado were terrible. I had a job I hated with a boss who hated me, I was getting my butt kicked 2-3 times a week at the OTC and the only people I knew in Colorado were through judo. I thought about moving back to Louisiana many times. The thing that kept me here was there was no way I was going to go home knowing I had not given ever effort to realize my dream of winning a Paralympic Gold medal. If I gave it my all and failed I would at least be able to hold my head up knowing I had done everything humanly possible to succeed.
I’ll end with this. My sports physiology professor in college gave us a cartoon of a frog being eaten by a crane. From inside the bird’s mouth the frog had its hands around thecrane’s neck trying to choke it and the caption said “Never Give Up!” That is how I see competition. If you want to be a champion, always give your all and above all – Never Give Up!
Thanks so much for reading my series. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and have taken something useful from these articles. If you have please share the series with others and feel free to leave a comment.
Talk to you soon…