Eight years. Eight years without flying, without traveling more than a 24-hour drive, without putting myself in a vulnerable position. Imagine the level of denial I was living in, convincing myself I could be the best coach when I couldn’t even travel to my athletes’ competitions. I spent my days coaching my athletes on how to perform under stress while modeling the worst stress coping skills when it came time to fly. Sometimes it takes a nerd to convince a meathead that he’s headed down the wrong path.
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Who knew that a Google executive would be the one to put me on a plane. A very close friend of mine, a Google COO, fought the same demons. He would talk to me constantly, always bringing up that I needed to fly, making it as uncomfortable as possible. He annoyed me, mocked me, gave me book after book until finally, I broke. I told him I would go with him to the Harrisburg airport.
I purposely showed up late. Not sure if he knew, but I showed up 35 minutes late, hoping that we wouldn’t be able to get on our scheduled flight. We stood in line, too late to purchase a cheap ticket on the short flight to Philly. BUT...he made me stay in the airport for over an hour. Watching flights come in and out, talking to me about the landing gear, the tail numbers, the calls, and the safety precautions. Shortly after we left, I booked a flight to the 2016 US National Championships in Salt Lake City. This was also the Olympic Trials. I knew I would get on the plane, otherwise, I would risk not coaching an athlete, Norik Vardanian, at the Olympic Trials.
My fear of flying started way back in the early 1990s. I was young and my Grandparents took me and a cousin on a nice trip. When we were flying back to Philadelphia, I remember the plane bouncing all over the place. I remembered feeling sick, asking my Grandfather if we were going to die, wondering if we would be ok. The plane landed and I tried to hide my anxiousness deep inside my gut. I had never felt like that before nor did I ever want to again!
I flew more during high school with my parents. I always felt as though I would die, my plane would certainly crash but if I was with parents, it would be okay. We would pass together and for some reason that made me slightly more comfortable. Clearly, this was not a healthy way of battling my issues but it worked...until the security blanket of my parents was removed in college.
A Lost Experience
In college, I flew with the Penn State track team 8-10 times a year. I was the freak sitting at the window seat with my head in my lap, rocking back and forth wondering when my peril would come. By my senior year, fellow teammates had cell phones and would video me freaking out. They would video and laugh at my ridiculousness. I never felt offended, I never cared, what I cared about was arriving safely at my destination! No one ever really offered me a way to handle my stress. Rewind to my freshman year.
I was one of the best freshmen throwers in the US. I was a stud shot putter, ready to go to Junior Nationals at the end of the year and qualify for a Junior international team. Or so I thought. I went home for a few days before Junior nationals, and my Dad dropped me off at the airport. Alone, I decided there was no chance I was flying to Los Angeles by myself. No chance. I called my coaches, made up a lame excuse and said I couldn’t come. I ruined my opportunity to make a team. I ruined my chance to have an awesome experience. I let my fear conquer me. Fear and anxiety ruled my life. That was 2004.
Twelve Years Gone
From 2004 to 2008 I did fly close to thirty times BUT I never conquered my fear. I would take medicine, I would get intoxicated, I would ignore all of the signs that I was struggling with an issue. By the end of 2008, I told myself I would never fly again. I was done. I threw in the towel. Fuck it. It wasn’t for me.
Eight years later, and Mr. Google made me read the book, “Flying with Confidence.” He asked me hundreds of questions, he would play games with me and force me to think about being on a turbulent flight. I would regularly be reduced to tears through turbulent flights I read the book, over and over. I did my best to understand the physics of flight, airline mechanics standards, and the nature of turbulence. I studied the tricks I could play on my brain, the methods to identify anxiety and handle stressors PROPERLY!
It was May of 2016, I was sitting on the plane, part of me was wondering if I would ever see my kids again, part of me was crying that I was actually conquering my fear. Tears were streaming at take off, I grabbed my neighbors' quads at take off, partially in fear and partially rejoicing my accomplishment. We were in the air and I was on a freaking plane. Holy shit. Three days later, I was coaching at the Olympic Trials, coaching Norik to an American record and a 5 for 6 performance.
Next trip, straight to the USA Track and Field Olympic Trials in Eugene. I flew there with my wife and two kids. We were finally taking a vacation. We never went on a vacation, even for business. I had five throwers competing and was prepared to guide them through their performances, and was excited that my ability to fly was opening up opportunities to experience new parts of the world! Eight days between Eugene and Portland, coaching athletes and spending time with my family. Flying made my life COMPLETELY different!
Next stop: Malaysia. Fifty hours of travel to the other side of the world. We flew to Tokyo, then to Singapore, then to Penang, Malaysia. I made it to Asia. In three short trips, my entire perspective on the world changed, my perspective on coaching changed, my life changed for the better. Nothing will replace the moment we landed in Malaysia, I looked at the map of the world and realized where I was. The geographical distance was a perfect metaphor for how far I had come with the support of my friends and family. I am forever grateful for the community that surrounds me and helped me conquer a crippling fear of almost a decade.
My career changed, my life changed, my family dynamics changed, and my athletes improved. I gained a better understanding of the rigors of travel. Have I conquered my fear? Absolutely. Do I still struggle? For sure! I have learned more about who I am, deepened my connections with family, I have broadened my life goals, I have broadened the dream of my legacy, all with the support of a community.
By gaining consistent support, by recognizing my failures were illogical, my mindset was caused by fear that was unnecessary, my support system helped me consistently grow and conquer my anxiety, they showed me the light toward a more positive existence that has helped me grow into a better person AND has helped me have a greater impact on my athletes and others surround me.