Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Problems or Opportunities?

From the age of about 8 through 18, my summer always kicked off the same way. My swim teammates and I piled into our parents' station wagons and left for two weeks of swim camp at Mercersburg Academy. The next 14 days were spent mostly in the pool, or thinking about the next swim practice that day, or attending dry-land strength training sessions, or hearing coaches critique our technique from daily video tape sessions, or staying up as late as we could keep our eyes open talking about the cute boys in our lane, or eating (and eating and eating and eating some more).

In retrospect, the schedule seems grueling. I couldn't even guess how much yardage we logged in a week, but in reality, most of us couldn't get enough. The camp was founded and directed by John Trembley, the head swim coach at the University of Tennessee and one of the most generous, kind, positive (he named his dog Happy, for crying out loud), amazing coaches I've ever encountered. No matter what a camper's ability level--and trust me when I say I was never swimming in the fastest lane--JT seemed to give everybody the same time and attention, and evoke a plethora of laughter in the process.

It was rare that JT ever got angry, but that's not to say that we didn't fully realize that he meant business. After all, he has coached many Olympians, some of whom would randomly meander onto the pool deck in the middle of practice or drop by the dining hall for lunch.

There weren't many rules at camp besides the obvious, like boys and girls stay in their respective dorms, etc. However, of those rules that were strictly enforced were the following:

1. Every morning, when loudly and obnoxiously awoken by a coach pounding on your door at some ridiculously early hour, everybody began the day by saying (or muttering, which is usually all we could muster): "It's a beautiful day and it's great to be alive!"

2. Abide by the philosophy that there are no problems, only opportunities. As soon as camp began, nobody was allowed to utter the word "problem" without buying a lot of very public grief from JT and some extra sets at practice for yourself and your lane mates.

At the time, we didn't appreciate it. When a weird bug flew in my ear on the way to an afternoon practice and was buzzing around in there, I couldn't help but think, "This is a problem." So I went to one of the coaches and started by saying, "I have a prob...." before I was abruptly cut off. At that point it felt like a bat was flying around in my head and I was convinced that my circumstance couldn't possibly have an upside. But I did my best to rally.

"There is a bug flying around in my ear," I said flatly, careful not to revert to the "p" word.

Off I went to the infirmary, escorted there by the cutest coach in the bunch. And so at the awkward age of 14, I began a lifetime of finding opportunities in life's challenges.

It's not terribly easy to find those opportunities. Lord knows that there are plenty of things to be worried about these days. This struck me recently, because a lot of my friends are dealing with legitimate life issues right now: unemployment, seriously ill children, personal health matters. Lately it seems like so many e-mails or phone calls come with bad news. What is the opportunity in having a helpless child face the possibility of a heart transplant? That, I don't know, but it is because of JT that I spend a lot of time trying to figure it out myself.

So, as the holiday season is in full swing and a new year is about to begin, I pass on the gift that JT gave to me so many years ago. Even the most cynical among us can benefit, if you give it your best shot--believe me, I know. Do yourself a favor and honestly find the opportunities in your problems--see what happens when you eliminate the word entirely from your vocabulary. And don't forget that each morning that you open your eyes, it's a beautiful day and it's great to be alive.


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