Sunday, June 22, 2008

Karen Smyers: Those Who Could Really Boast Don’t Want To

The master doesn't try to be powerful;
thus she is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.

- Tao te Ching, Stephen Mitchell, Trans.
My longest ride of the season today, out west beyond Lincoln and Concord, on the Western side of Walden Pond. Long, luscious stretches of ultra-smooth road surrounded by National Wildlife Refuge land that was so overwhelmingly pretty I found it hard to keep my eyes on the road where they belonged. I was so inspired I didn’t know whether to put the hammer down or slow down and soak in the beauty. I did a little of both, I guess.

About five miles outside of Concord the air became oppressive, the sky turned black, the wind picked up and got cold, and the leaves all turned upside-down. Uh-huh, you got it: Time for a classic summer thunderstorm. I got in the drops and went into time-trial mode, trying to reach some civilization and shelter before the clouds burst.

I made good time – thank goodness. When the rain came, it was biblical, catastrophic, like someone had taken the Atlantic ocean and dumped it upside-down on Concord, MA. The winds were ridiculous. I pulled up to the very edge of town just as things became torrential.

I had planned a stop at a cozy general store for my mid-ride sandwich break, but I made a very quick decision that huddled against the front of the generic convenience store right in front of me, with some shelter over my head, would be a fine place to dig into my mid-ride sandwiches.

As opaque sheets of rain dumped on the parking lot, another rider flew up to the edge of the porch and shouted over the sound of the storm, “That looks like a good idea!” I invited her and her bright red Trek to huddle against the wall next to me. She borrowed my cell phone to call her husband to tell him she was OK. We got to talking, in the convivial way of cyclists, and I asked what event she was training for. “Oh, various triathlons.” When pressed, she simply said, “Well, I’m a professional.” Hm, that’s certainly intriguing. I asked her name. “Karen Smyers.”

Uh... as in, the only person to win both the Triathlon World Championships and the Hawaii Ironman in the same year (1995)? Yup. That Karen Smyers. Just happens to live around here. When I looked her up at home later on, turns out the friendly, down-to-earth woman who just happened upon my six square feet of pseudo-shelter in a storm had a list of athletic accomplishments as long as my arm. She was a four-time Olympic Committee triathlete of the year. A Pan American Games gold medalist. On and on and on.

Oh, yeah. She survived cancer, various broken bones and too many maddening freak accidents to name. She’s also a mother.

Thing is, Karen couldn’t have been less pretentious, nor more pleasant -- even after I told her that I was simply training for my first-ever century. This woman has done more rides of at least 100 miles than I have done bike rides, period. Yet there we were, comparing injury stories and physical therapy tips. (Word to the wise: When in the company of great athletes, talk about your injuries and your recovery secrets. It’s something active people at every level have in common.)

When I think about it, I’ve only ever been cold-shouldered by local, mid-level athletes. My crude level of achievement scares them, because they haven’t put enough distance between me and where they are today. So, they speak only to their fellow, almost-accomplished buddies. They go about carefully boosting each other’s egos.

Karen, on the other hand, has nothing to prove. She’s been through it and back again – and then through it all over. When her husband pulled up to drive her the final ten miles home, she said they would be glad to give me a lift. It was quite far out of their way, yet she offered that ride no less than three times.

Karen, you are seriously cool, but I’ve got to finish this ride. Unlike you, I still have way too much to prove.


suitcaseofcourage said...

Another excellent, well-written post. And a great reminder that there are some True Greats out there! Thanks for linking to this older post from your current one so we could find it!

Velosopher said...

SoC, I take that as high praise, coming from you! Thank you very much. I really, really enjoyed writing that post. And doing that ride.