During a recently-televised Ironman Triathlon competition, I was amazed by the physical and psychological strength the athletes displayed in swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles – all within 17 hours.
It is what happened at the finish line, however, that actually caught my attention. When the top male broke the tape, an announcer shouted his name and declared: “You are an Ironman!” The top woman received the same welcome, as did the top wheelchair competitor. But every participant crossing the line ahead of the deadline was identically proclaimed: “You are an Ironman!”
I contemplated what the Ironman distinction must mean to each of those who heard themselves referred to as such. They now belong to an elite group – seventeen hours and nearly 150 miles of unbelievable exertion is certainly not doable for most of us.
It dawned on me, however, that many people have Ironman aspirations that have nothing to do with swimming or biking or running, but everything to do with personal challenge.
Such goals often arise in the area of education. We kids were blessed to have parents who supported us with realistic expectations and home conditions conducive to learning; high school diplomas were a foregone conclusion in our family. Our parents encouraged us to continue our studies as we saw fit, with whatever financial support they could eke from their limited budget. The result: six high school sheepskins and six degrees – as well as a sense of accomplishment with each achievement.
My teaching career taught me such is not always the case, that a high school diploma – which I took for granted – could very well be an Ironman achievement, when fraught with struggles and roadblocks to be overcome by the tender age of 18.
Occasionally at Graham’s commencement exercises, a war veteran or two received long-overdue diplomas. I like to think that official presentation of academic recognition provided an Ironman moment for those who delayed school to protect and defend us.
Vocational choices also represent dreams and challenges every bit as difficult but motivational as a triathlon finish line. Anyone who has envisioned him-or-herself as a surgeon or a firefighter or a dairy farmer or on any other career path also understands the Ironman drive – and the resulting satisfaction of a lifelong goal achieved.
We may also feel the thrill of a dream brought at last to fruition only to re-experience even greater fulfillment later in life. Consider a newbie actor in a first role, delighting in that I-have-arrived emotion, who years later receives critical acclaim for the portrayal of a lifetime. Who is to say that just one Ironman experience is allotted per person? I know a certain teacher whose joy at standing before her very first class was more than matched – many times over – by the time she met with her very last class some forty years later.
Sometimes satisfaction arrives slowly, in progressive stages. I read with interest the UDC article last week about the lady named Queen of Roses at the county fair. I sensed that while she is humbly appreciative of the designation, she has derived her real pleasure all along the way, as each discovery led to the next gratifying moment – right there in her own garden.
We often pass through several phases of self-discovery in some pursuit especially close to our hearts. The guy who makes continuous improvements on a car headed to the racetrack or the baker who yearly tweaks a cake recipe for the county fair may experience multiple Ironmanish feelings on the way to a trophy or best-of-show ribbon. Even then, the coveted award may turn out to be less important than the realization of everything one has gained from years of effort.
Last week, a man whose storied life seemed filled with Ironman-worthy experiences passed from Earth. John McCain, who grew up in a military family where he learned that duty, honor, and country were the “lodestar for daily behavior,” served America in uniform, including significant time as a POW: “In prison, I fell in love with my country…it wasn’t until I had lost America for a time that I realized how much I loved her.”
Senator McCain also served his country in public office as a staunch Republican able to put principle over party for the good of the nation: “…we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement.”
During his run for the highest office in the land, he corrected one of his own supporters about his opponent: “No, ma’am, he’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with.”
And in defeat: “I urge all Americans…to join me…in offering our new President our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together.”
Finally: “…now as I prepare for the end of my life…like most people, I have regrets…but I would not trade a day of my life, in good or bad times, for the best of anyone else’s.”
In my book, John McCain more than earned several “You are an Ironman” proclamations. But that is true for many of us. Ironman status is a very personal designation, born and nurtured in the heart and measured only by the person who dreams it. In the end, the real worth of being an Ironman is not so much the attainment but the pursuit.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.