Icy prickles of anxiety flooded through me with such intensity that I was sure I had just swallowed Alaska. My health teacher, who was with me for moral support, had assured me that the man I was about to meet was very nice, but at that point, I knew him only by reputation.
Our head high school football coach had more wins in his career than any other coach in our school district, and most Texans tend to treat high school football with the reverence of a religion, so when I entered his office in my wheelchair that day I felt a little like Dorothy right before she met the wizard. My palms were sweaty, and for a few minutes there, I would have bolted if only I had the ability.
Then he entered the room. “Hello,” he said, with a warm smile. His voice was gentle, soothing my nerves like hot tea on a sore throat, but I hadn’t quite gotten over my fear. “How can I help you?” he asked as his eyes tried to meet mine. I looked at the floor.
“Hey Coach Cripps,” I whispered as my voice shook uncontrollably. I don’t know if you know me, (why would he?) I’m Lorraine. I just joined a sports team for people with cerebral palsy, and I want to do really well, but I am not sure how to work out effectively. I was wondering if you would consider writing out a list of exercises that I could follow sometime in the next few weeks, so I have a template as I start to work out.” All my words came out in a rush, like exhaling after holding my breath under water, and my anxiety started to swell again. He was the HEAD football coach. He had to be incredibly busy. Maybe asking for his help was an exceptionally bad idea. What had I been thinking?
“I would be happy to help, Lorraine,” he said without the slightest hesitation. “Let me see what I can do…I’ll get back to you soon, okay?”
“Thanks, Coach Cripps,” My voice was a tad bit stronger now. “I would appreciate any suggestions you have for me.”
The next day, after Coach Cripps presented me with a complete workout plan, he asked: “Lorraine, do mind if I go through your workout with you as you are doing it?”
I was stunned. “Coach Cripps, that would be amazing. Thank you.” I didn’t know it then, but he would work with me as I trained at least once a day for the remainder of my high school career.
We started in the weight room. Because I wasn’t very strong when we started, my efforts, in the beginning, didn’t produce stellar results. As he figured out the best weight for me to start with and assisted with the machines I couldn’t reach, he would motivate me as well, offering gentle persistent encouragement.
“C’mon Lorraine, three more reps. I know you can do this.”
I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I kept going. Over the next few months, my strength, coordination, and flexibility all improved. As a result, my confidence blossomed. After a while, Coach Cripps made sure that I worked out with the football team. That meant my social life improved as well.
Eventually, we hit the track, my passion was the 400-meter dash. There was something comforting for me in the completeness of circling the track in its entirety. Just like with weights, though, I didn’t start well. Having only used my wheelchair for function up until then, it was Coach Cripps who taught me how to position my arms so that I could get the most power out of every push, and where to put my hand on the rims so that I could reach back quickly for the next rotation. Over time, all of that effort translated into my challenging the world record in the 400-meter dash. When I was selected to represent the United States on the Paralympic team in the beginning of my senior year, my plan was to break that record and take it home.
One day I was out on the track and I was struggling. The sports team I was on had raised enough money for several of the athletes to get new track wheelchairs, designed specifically for speed. I had mine for just a few weeks and it was totally different from the wheelchair I used in everyday life. As I practiced that afternoon, my times in the 400 meter were worse than they had ever been. My frustration hit its limit, and I completely broke down.
Coach Cripps was on the practice field next to the track with the football team, but he had an eye on me the whole time. When he came over to me and helped me out of my track chair and into my “everyday” one, he said: “Thank God it’s today”
It was a phrase I had heard him say often, a reminder to appreciate every minute you have and make the most of it. But I was confused about how it could possibly apply to my current situation. My not being able to push my wheelchair around the track was nothing short of a disaster. It meant that I wouldn’t ever break that record. Couldn’t he see that?
“If you didn’t have days these types of days,” he explained, “you wouldn’t appreciate the good ones, like when you shave a second or two off your best 400-meter time, nearly as much. Days like today tell you exactly what the challenges are so that you can find exactly the right solutions to fix them. Pay attention. Be grateful. As far as getting used to your new track chair goes, you just need to adjust. It always comes with getting new equipment. Just give it some time.”
He was right.
In the next few weeks, I continued to practice and make adjustments. The result was that my track chair started to work for me and not against me. I was closing in on that world record, but it was not to be.
A little more than a month before we were supposed to leave for competition, the games were canceled due to terrorism. Getting that news was an enormous disappointment; everything I had worked so hard to accomplish for several years disappeared in an instant.
The weeks that followed were spent trying to find my footing and figure out what else I wanted to do with my life. The words of Coach Cripps often echoed in my ears. After a while, I came to the conclusion that if the games had not been canceled, I would not have spent so much time thinking about what held my interests besides sports. I went to college a few months later and focused on developing my writing ability. I currently write a blog that I love and am also working on my first book.
Thank you, Coach Cripps. And Thank God it’s today.