Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Back with the Niles West Gymnastics Team: Day One

I'm back in Chicago and will be spending the week working with my old high school gymnastics team as an assistant coach. My coach, Steve, is still there and his assistant coaches are all old teammates of mine. And Steve's two sons are both on the team this year - one a senior, the other a freshman.

I hadn't caught up with Steve in probably seven or eight years. I feel terrible for not staying in contact with him for all that time. He was a huge influence on me. He helped me tap into this incredible reservoir of potential and nascent leadership that I never knew was there. I've always said I never would have gotten into Princeton if it hadn't been for gymnastics, and it's true. I had the brains but it took gymnastics and Steve's guidance for me to develop character. An enormous part of who I am today, ten years later, was forged in those days.

Coach told me that he speaks of me often to the team and that, in his words, he's made me into a legend in the gym. Now I wasn't the best gymnast the school had ever seen (that honor is reserved for Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner), but I could legitimately be in the running for being one of the best leaders. Our team had some incredible bonds, wonderful friendships, and excellent work ethic. I can't take credit for all of that, but it was most definitely my team, my creation. Previous squads had their own dynamics and their own styles of leadership, but my squad was something special. And I think we all knew it.

Anyway, with all the familiar faces still around, this being the one year both of Steve's sons would be on the team, and with coach building my legend and legacy I felt it was time for a visit.

Also I had a free flight on Southwest and I contrived a plan to do this without taking any vacation days, so really there was no reason not to.

They gave me an incredibly warm welcome. Coach introduced me to the team and told them "he's the finest gymnast - and person - I've ever coached." It seems terribly immodest of me to write this, but those were his words. My former teammate, Adrian, added his own testimonial and it nearly made me cry to hear him speak with such admiration about my gymnastics and with such warmth about our cameraderie and friendship.

The introductions were, in a way, like hearing my own eulogy. If nothing else, this trip was well worth that ego boost and recalling those fond memories.

  Even got a free shirt!
However, this trip is really about working with the team. And the team is quite good this year. We'll see how they perform at tomorrow's meet, but I saw a lot of talent. At a glance I'd say they could easily defeat the squads of my junior and senior years. The coaches all say, and my brief observations agree, that they're also a great bunch of kids. No jerks, no slackers, no one with attitude problems. We'll see tomorrow how they do in the other aspects - team mentality, leadership, cameraderie, toughness, maturity.

  The back side
I worked mostly with the freshman and sophomores - they're the easiest ones to help. Say five words to them and their scores can jump by 20%. Later in the afternoon I started working with this spectacular senior tumbler. His technique in certain areas is absolute rot but he's got so much talent and potential. And he listens. He may not pull off whatever move you ask, but you can tell that he's trying.

Anyway it was a good start and it felt great to be back in the gym. I'm anxious to see what these guys have really got and to see what they might be missing. I'm only here a week, but I'm determined to leave my mark.


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