Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Patricia And Caroline make History

How tough are you? Are you tough enough to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run 26.2 miles all in under seventeen hours? Patricia Walsh is! Walsh was one of six blind and or visually impaired triathletes who competed this past weekend as part of Team CDF at the Ironman Triathlon Lake Placid. She lost her eyesight many years ago, but was tough enough to overcome the obstacles which came with that experience to make a success of herself. On Sunday, she was tough enough to battle through 140.6 miles to cross the finish line and hear the words, "Patricia Walsh, you are an Ironman!" Triathlon is an individual sport. You versus yourself. It may be argued, it is you versus the elements. For Patricia, it is her and her sighted guide versus themselves and the elements. In order for her to make it through, she has someone along side every step of the way swimming, biking, and running with her the entire distance. It is Patricia Walsh whose name goes down in the record books, but there is someone there next to her who trained just as hard, dedicated herself to be ready for the Ironman, and who must conquer the course while ensuring Patricia's safety and well being with each stroke, pedal, and step. In this instance, it was Caroline Gaynor who was by Patricia's side. Yes, the same Caroline Gaynor about whom you may have read in the past at this site. The same Caroline who was recognized in February of this year as the Triathlete Of The Month for her accomplishments in the sport and tireless philanthropic work with various charities and good causes around the country including being a sighted guide for many athletes through the C Different Foundation. She does not need my high praise as certification of her greatness in athletics and life, but I do it happily because I am often in awe of her accomplishments. I have spoken to many who guide athletes in races and they say they are simply being the athletes' eyes and communicating what needs to be communicated, but to do it successfully takes some talent. To do it while performing at an elite level takes a special person. The week before the lake Placid race, Walsh and Gaynor coasted to a first place finish at the NYC Triathlon winning their division with ease by well over twenty minutes. Then followed it up by making history by becoming the first female duo (female athlete and female guide) to ever complete an Ironman Triathlon! That makes Caroline the first woman to ever lead a blind triathlete through the 140.6 mile course. Congratulations to Patricia Walsh and Caroline Gaynor. You are more than tough enough. You are groundbreaking historical special women who will forever be connected in the record books of the Ironman Triathlon!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

New York City Triathlon 2010

Sunday, July 18, 2010 was the tenth installment of the annual New York City Triathlon. Participants swim 1 mile in the Hudson River, bike 24.8 miles along Hudson Highway, and run 6.2 miles around Central Park. The one mile swim is considered the fastest swim in all of triathlons because of the strong current which pushes swimmers along. Professional triathlete, Greg Bennett, has the race record finishing the Hudson River swim in nine minutes and forty-one seconds. As posted here previously and elsewhere, I was just hoping to survive through as painless of an experience as possible. In the ten days leading up to the race, I had been suffering anxiety attacks at almost every waking moment. I found myself gasping for breath even when just sitting down checking my emails. All my friends kept trying to relax me with their confidence, but the truth was only I could calm myself down. I would only be able to do so if I found the confidence to believe in myself. As the plane sped down the runway and took flight towards New York, I took a big deep breath, held it, then released. I thought, "Here we go." I arrived in NYC then took a drive to meet Brendan Hermes, the man who would be guiding me on Sunday. I arrived at his house, met him and his wife, received a tour of the house, then attempted to settle in for the weekend. Prior to sitting down to dinner, Brendan sat me down to finally hear about the specifics with my panic attacks as well as get the best possible understanding what happened to me the last time I had jumped in the Hudson River in 2008 so he could finalize a strategy in his mind as to how he would best help me through the one mile swim. As he had previously done on the phone and through FB, Brendan assured me he would do everything possible to help me get through the water. I just needed to trust my abilities and him. There was something about hearing his voice up close that truly made me feel at ease. Sure I was still concerned, but now, I was a bit more relaxed.

On Saturday morning we made our way into the city to meet up with others from the C Different Foundation. This was Brendan's first time guiding an athlete who was blind so he was champing to get on a tandem for the first time ever. The last time I had been on one was two years prior while racing in the NYC Triathlon. We took a two mile ride while working out some code words which would help us communicate during the bike ride portion. We were both confident we would breeze through this portion as we also felt we would through the run. We sat in on the mandatory meetings, received our bib numbers, went to race transition to make sure our bike was there, worked our way to the restaurant where we would have our Team CDF dinner, and after our bellies were full with some wonderful food, we hopped on the train and headed home. We had been busy since 9a.m. and now it was after 10p.m. Wake up call was 3:45a.m.

Race day. By 4:15a.m. Brendan and I were out the door to make our way towards transition to prepare our gear, get our bodies marked, then make the one mile walk to the swim start. As we walked in to check on our gear, we were greeted by Matt Miller, founder of CDF, who said, "Israel, looking like Bruce Lee as always. Go get 'em today!" I thought to myself, I'm feeling scared about the swim and now Matt is calling me chubby. He knows I strive to have a Bruce Lee physique so when he makes comments like that, I know he's observing that I am not quite there. We get to the race start. I kept trying to calm my nerves by reminding myself how I had been visualizing me cross the finish line. In order to get that far, I would have to make it through the water. My friend, Mark, offers to say a pre race prayer which he does. We walk to the start. We sit on the dock. Then we slide into the water. I hang on to a rope, the horn sounds, and it is time to go! I was in shock. I take quick short breaths. Brendan shouts "It's okay. I'm here!" I try to breathe with tranquility. I gasp. I try to lay on the water and stroke my arms to do the front crawl. My arms just slide through the water, but I did not feel that I moved so I quickly spin around and lay on my back. I have a rope around my hip as race officials had informed us that he and I would have to be tethered together for the Hudson River otherwise we would be disqualified. He adjusts the rope while helping me line up in the water. I am still nervous but I move my arms and take big deep breaths. I pop my head out of the water and hear screams. I get startled and try to remind myself to stay focused on my job and Brendan's voice. I stay on my back and stroke my arms. I will see how long I can go this way and as we near the end, I figured I would try to front crawl to the end. Brendan kept saying "You're doing great." "We're really moving. We'll be done in no time." He laughed proudly and excitedly which made me so happy. I started to get tired. My leg cramped up on me. The tether kept sliding down. I would move my hands to hip level and during my recovery I would try sliding it up, but I was not successful. Brendan tried moving it too, but it would slide back down. Eventually, the rope went so far down that it trapped my legs together. I could not kick! Brendan noticed this and quickly came to my rescue releasing my legs from the rope's hold. Then he said, "We just passed the 800 meters sign. More than halfway done." Then 900 quickly followed by 1,000. I thought about Mark's prayer and I knew in my heart it was helping. Then Brendan informed me that we had about 175 meters to go. I revised my plans to front crawl. Why mess with what was working. Finally he said, "You can stand up now, Is. You're done." I made it to my feet, turned around, and was greeted by a race volunteer who pulled me out of the water. It was over. I wanted to cry, but there was still more to do. We jogged towards our equipment where Matt Miller walked up and said, "Way to go Bruce Lee. Now get on that bike and keep going."

We jumped on the bikes which would be our home for the next 24.8 miles. Brendan let me borrow his camelback. Instead of struggling to reach down to get my fluid, I would simply put the straw to my mouth and drink whenever I wanted. I was nervous about taking one hand off the handles, but after a few attempts, I was able to get it. Now we were in business. The ride was about halfway over when my butt started to hurt. We had to stop a couple times then Brendan suggested instead of dismounting, I should simply push my butt off the seat so I could give it a break without having to stop. This was a wonderful suggestion. Before long, we were off the bikes, getting some extra fluids, and moving to the run portion.

I could not feel my legs for the first mile of the run. I could not even feel if we were moving, but yes, we were. Brendan made sure we were hydrated and even gave me showers at the aid stations by taking cups of cold water and pouring it on my head. I cramped up, but poured water on my leg which helped. We kept chipping away and passing people up left and right. Before I knew it, we were nearing the home stretch. We descended a hill. As we did, my legs felt stronger than at any point during the run so I picked up the pace. We hit our stride and we made it through the final loops. I kept asking where the final shoot was because I was ready to sprint home. Brendan kept saying, "No, not yet." Finally, we reached it. The spectator support was great all race long, but there was something extra special about hearing the cow bells, screams, and yells, this close to the end that I just took off pumping my arms and rotating my legs. I heard a thunderous roar from the crowd like nothing I had ever heard at any other race. Not even New York City Triathlon two years previously. I could not tell if Brendan was still holding on to the rope. Did I take him by surprise? Did I run out too fast? Brendan was still holding on and started yelling at me to slow down. I had crossed the finish, but momentum carried me forward into a cameraman who was on the ground well beyond the finish. My leg hit his camera, but I was able to stop in time before causing any damage.

We had completed what turned out to be one of my best races. I had made it through and had beaten my finishing time from 2008 by forty-eight minutes. Two years back, my friend, Kelle said "Take what you learned today and apply it the next time." I felt I was one and done, but Kelle insisted, "There is always a next time." Not only was there indeed a next time, but after only a few minutes of celebrating this accomplishment, I could already tell there would be many more next times!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Guilt And Loyalty Overrule Common sense

I have a dear friend who some times can not understand people's actions and when such a case occurs she asks, "Who does that?" The answer is Israel. The question is who would ever agree to race in the New York City Triathlon which involves a 1500 meters swim in the Hudson River, 40 KM bike ride, and 10K run around Central Park knowing full well he can not swim confidently enough in a pool let alone in open water? Yes, I have completed the New York City Triathlon before, but I was also extremely pensive leading up to the race strictly because of the swim portion. Caroline, whom I met the weekend of the race told me at a dinner one month later that she attempted to converse with me several times over the weekend, but I never responded so she asked others and was told "Israel is really nervous about the Hudson River." In fact, Caroline said it was nice to see me finally smile when we saw each other a month later. I've worked with some wonderful individuals who have attempted to teach me to swim. After some time with each of them, I can usually swim a length then a lap and in a couple cases more, but I am always tense. My acting teachers all use to also say that my body was tense. One said she understood that it was a defense wall or protective layer to prevent me from being hurt in the real world, but it also prevented me from fully being an artist and now it stops me from enjoying swimming. I get scared when my form is off or I don't get a good inhale and I get anxiety attacks. Some times this even happens in the shallow end of a pool. Again, why would someone who can not quite swim agree to tackle the Hudson River? Out of guilt and loyalty. It was announced recently that the national and international governing bodies of triathlons have implemented a rule which states all blind and visually impaired participants must wear blackout goggles. Those in charge believe this will level the playing field and bring more blind and visually impaired to the sport as they look to grow the sport and hopefully make it a Paralympic sport by 2016. It may give them the desired result, but it discriminates and singles out blind and visually impaired people. Matt Miller, founder of the C Different Foundation, an organization which pairs athletes who are blind with sighted guides for road races and triathlons attempted to reason with those decision makers who implemented this rule then he put out the word to as many blind and visually impaired individuals as possible to get them to New York for the NYC Triathlon. He wanted to bring as many of them as possible to show the decision makers that behind the categories of blind and visually impaired are names, faces, and stories hurt by the new rule. I have always respected Matt for his accomplishments in all aspects of his life so of course, I supported his efforts and hoped he could organize a successful turnout. I was not planning on racing in the event because of my inability to swim. Teachers and coaches have said I can swim, but I know that I am not confident nor comfortable in the water. Matt and others made it clear they wanted me in New York. I wanted to show my support, but could I learn to be comfortable in the water in six weeks when I had not accomplished that after three years of swim coaching? I needed to be consistent in going to the pool and practicing, but would that be enough? I did not know, but I did not have the time to find out. Matt needed an answer and I did not want to disappoint him. CDF has given me opportunities to race in events and enabled me to meet wonderful people. I owe it to Matt do I not? What about my lack of swim ability? Still, if I passed up the chance, Matt would be disappointed in me. He will get over it. I will too. I know he will, but I am not sure if I could get over knowing I disappointed him. So I said yes. Knowing full well I would get daily anxiety attacks for weeks leading up to the race. Recently, I have been having anxiety attacks in the pool. Mostly in the deep end, but even in the shallow end. Why do I get so scared? I can be fine performing my strokes and breathing then suddenly, it breaks down and I panic! As one person who observed me in the pool said, "You have all the tools to swim, but you psych yourself out." Days away and I am worried. As I see it currently, my best bet is to try the front crawl and breast stroke just to see if I "have it" on race day otherwise, just get on my back and do the back stroke all the way through. So long as I am relaxed and moving through the water, will anyone care how I'm getting through the swim portion? My biggest concern is my guide, Brendan, who will have to put up with my anxiety attacks and discomfort in the water as my guide, Brian Pearlman, had to do the last time I was in the Hudson River. He has done his best to calm me down and say it does not matter how long it takes us as long as we get through it together, but I feel the burden of guilt for putting him through this. Knowing that I am not a swimmer why did I not just tell Matt, good luck to all, I support your mission, but I will sit this one out? That is what anyone else would have done. I am trying my best to fill my mind with positive thoughts, but it is difficult as one minute I am fine then the next I am scared. Maybe this time when Caroline walks up to me I can manage a smile. I know I have to relax and have fun. The event and the 4,000 athletes competing will all be worth it as will be the spectator support along the course. If my involvement helps make a statement in opposition to the blackout goggles rule then that is nice, but that has never been of my concern. I want to support Matt's foundation and the wonderful people I have met through my association with the organization. Maybe next time I will let common sense overrule loyalty and guilt.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Rani Brings To Life The Big Funk

It was with great pleasure that I began to make my mark on the radio industry hosting a guest driven show, attending, games and concerts, and befriending media members, athletes, and coaches. It was only a matter of time before I would begin to dominate the ratings book on route to a hall of fame career! Only, destiny disagreed. A couple years after graduating college, I was out of shape, unemployed, and heart broken. The expected rise to the top had turned out to be a downward spiral to rock bottom. I drowned my sorrows in taking a thirty minute film script from a college script writing course and turning it into a full length feature. After completing a draft, I felt it best to register for acting class. A week before class began I was told I would be assigned a scene from Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House and my scene partner would be a young talented actress named Rani. On the first day of class I arrived early and found a seat waiting for Rani to enter. Then a young woman walked in, exchanged pleasantries with the instructor, and turned to me and said, "Hi Israel, I'm Rani. I'll be your scene partner." I had the opportunity to spend time with her as she read through our scene and told me a bit about herself. One thing was immediately clear, I was going to really like this young woman because somehow in some way she was going to redefine my life. It is a feeling I had experienced before and it always came true. She was fun and displayed a no nonsense approach which shined through her determination and toughness. Prior to meeting Rani I had the belief that the three basics of acting were memorize lines, display some pretend emotions when the script called for it, and toss in an accent when appropriate. In my first session with rani she dispelled those and immediately went to work on helping me build my foundation as an actor. She had a natural ability of knowing when to be demanding and in my face and when to be supportive and tender. It was the most educational experience for me as an actor aside from the day I finally stepped on to a Chicago stage for the first time as a professional actor in front of a live audience who had paid to see me evoke a response, take them on a journey, and carry a show. What I took from my scene partnership with Rani became the foundation for not only my artistic life but for my personal life. She opened my soul to experience emotions I had never had as an artist and as a person. She was not only my first scene partner in my first acting class, but she was the first director I ever had. She had the ability to tap into me as no one ever had to bring out what no one ever did. She was that talented. She continues to be that talented! She has a gift and ability to bring out the best in people even if it means being as she was with me, a one woman wrecking crew tearing down my walls then digging her heels in then being a one woman search party reaching down into my core finding a dead spirit breathing life back into it pulling it out and saying, "Here. This is your best!"

Rani's ability to bring the best out of talented individuals is on display currently, but this is the final week to see it with The Big Funk directed by Rani Blair-O'Brien

"The director, Rani Blair-O’Brien, has done a great job corralling these performance and gets the upper register from the meta-psychic storage of each actor."hollywoodchicago.com

presented at Red Tape Theatre. St. Peter's Episcopal Church 2nd Fl. 621 W. Belmont Ave. Thursday at 7:30p, Friday and Saturday at 8p. For tickets, please log on to: