“Damien, call me. Your grandma passed away.” Those were the unexpected words I received from my father in a text message when I was en route from Tampa to Memphis to coach a dozen of my students in the 2010 Junior Olympics.
I froze in my seat. It seemed like the world had stopped. My grandma was everything to me, and it was so out of the blue. There I was, faced with a great dilemma: “Do I turn back around and head to Maryland to be with my family, or do I stay in Memphis and see my students through to the end?” I checked into the hotel room, needing to decompress and come to terms with the finality of her passing.
I ran into my college coach, Bill Shipman in the venue. In his well-known southern drawl, he approached me and said
“Damien, you look like you’ve been hit by an 18-wheel vehicle.”
“Well coach, my grandma passed away on my way here. Wasn’t expecting it.” I replied.
He paused for a second and took a deep breath.
“Well, I know of a great fried chicken place here. And fried chicken is a great cure for the deceased elderly” he said.
I laughed. To this day, I don’t know if he meant to make a joke or not, but I found it funny nonetheless.
He picked me up at my hotel, and we drove to the chicken place. I explained to him my “should I stay or should I go” dilemma.
“Stay.” He said. “You were always so serious in college. So intense in everything you did. Too much so. Shit, you’ve got a ton of grey hairs on your head, you’re losing your hair, and you’re one year out of college. Maybe you need to take coaching here to learn that at the end of the day, this is just a game. A sport. So long as your family and friends are healthy and safe, that’s the only thing that matters at the end of the day.”
At that moment, I had one of my most important epiphanies in life. Talk to any of my students, and they’ll tell you that I ran them dogged, yelled at them, and demanded the closest thing to perfection that existed. I wanted the best for them, but I was doing it all wrong. I was more concerned with the results than I was about their development as human beings. So I stayed. I listened to Coach Shipman, and I realized that Junior Olympics were nothing more than a test for me and my students. It wasn’t life. Competing there was merely a way of enriching these students who were already supported by wonderful parents, mentors, and the head coach of our salle, Boyko Krastevitch.
The next day was the big event. I called the kids over for a huddle. Most were unaware of my personal tragedy.
“The last few days have been some of the toughest of my life,” I began.
“My grandma passed away when I was on my flight over here. I debated leaving you all or seeing this through to the end. I’m here because this is what my Grandma would have wanted. I want you to know one thing. Nobody in this room worked harder than you all, nobody wants to be here more than you, and for that reason, I’m proud of you all just for being here. I was tough on you all. But I love you, and if you lost every bout today, I would still be your biggest supporter. So go out today and have fun. There’s more to life than fencing, and so long as you’ve become stronger people through your hard work and love of this sport, then you have exceeded my sky high expectations of you.”
There were some tears, no doubt— both from me and my students; but, I felt empowered in saying those honest words to them. Some of them went on that day to have some of their best results. I wouldn’t have cared if they didn’t.
Sometimes in life, we take the trivial things too seriously. We care about our jobs, our sports teams, and some of us care who Kim Kardashian is fornicating with. But I learned that none of these things matter. As coach said, it’s the well-being of those close to you that matters the most. It’s an important lesson I continue to impart on my students, and something I hope to continue doing.