On the cover of the next issue of ESPN magazine (which hits newsstands today) is a photo of a young, tousled-hair 17-year-old, standing tall aboard a sailboat. His name is Zac Sunderland and, as we speak, he's on the home stretch of a quest--as his very slick and hyper-marketing-sensitive website (clicking on it brought up a pop-up ad for his to-be-released DVD, book and other support possibilities) puts it--"to be the youngest person in history to sail around the world alone." It is a quest, the site goes on to say (just in case we might not intuitively get the significance of the effort), that is "akin to climbing Mt. Everest, or sledding across the Arctic. ... The danger and difficulty cannot be underestimated [sic]."
Not, certainly, by the folks marketing the effort. Which is not to say that sailing solo around the world is easy. Just read the travails of an earlier 16-year-old named Robin Lee Graham who took 5 years to accomplish the feat aboard a boat called Dove in 1965. (A trip, I might note, Graham would not have completed if not for the pushing of his father and National Geographic, who both had a lot riding on his completion of the journey.) Sailing around the world by yourself is also not without merit. If you survive it, it's sure to be extraordinarily educational. And if you have your eyes and mind open along the way, it could make you a better person. It will most certainly be an adventure. So I'm all for young Zac's taking a year to explore the world. It's the hype I have issues with. For a couple of reasons.
First, call me old-school, but I think a 16 or 17-year-old should be a kid, not a commodity.
Second, the claim and goal of "youngest" is a dangerous bar that leads to lower and lower bars. If Zac succeeds, he will break the record not by years, but by months. There's another slightly younger sailor in his wake, trying to beat him to the title. And also as we speak, a 15-year-old New Zealand girl is preparing to set out to break Zac's record both in age, and in a non-stop version of the challenge. Fifteen. We don't even let 15-year-olds drive. And with good reason. What's next? The 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff tragedy comes to mind ... where an attempt to set a "record" for the youngest pilot to cross the country ended in a fatal crash that killed 3 people.
And yes, the media is complicit in hyping these stories. Andy Warhol's famous line, about how in the years to come everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, was not just an idle observation about the future. It was a disdainful comment about how the media would focus on someone with laser-like intensity, and then turn the lights and focus astonishingly quickly to the next great thing. Except, with the frenetic pace of media "cycles" today, that 15 minutes might have to be readjusted to something more like 15 seconds.
Which makes the headline in an online Los Angeles Times
story about Zac's progress all the more curious: "Sunderland on home stretch, bound for fame." Really? I'm not so sure. Perhaps, since he clearly has very dedicated marketing and merchandising people behind him, his operation will be able to give the trip a slightly longer-lasting imprint. But unless he starts a reality TV show about his life on a boat, the public will move on almost embarrassingly quickly. Don't believe me? Quick: What's the name of the American who won the gold medal in the Decathalon in the 2008 Bejing Olympics, earning the games' highest honor and title of the World's Greatest Athlete?
Right. I couldn't have come up with it, either, if I hadn't read a story
in Tuesday's New York Times
about how Bryan Clay's life is going, post-gold-medal. Clay, who's on track to become the first person in history to win three Decathalon medals (he won a silver in Athens), has enough sponsorship to allow him to train full-time. But his following on Twitter amounts to a grand total of 1,197 followers, and he's not sure where his gold-medal is in his modest 3-bedroom house (which he's lived in for a while, renovated himself with his wife, and which they share with their two small children). "It was a dream come true," Clay says about winning the gold. But "It doesn't change who you are or what it takes to get through day-to-day life."
It's a sentiment echoed by Dan O'Brien, who ... quick quiz, remember what made him famous? No? Join the club ... won the 1996 Olympic Gold Medal in the Decathalon in Atlanta. The Times article quotes O'Brien as saying that when he won the gold medal,
"I really thought I would wake up the next day and feel different. ... But the hype of the Olympics goes away, they ask you onto the Dave Letterman show and the Jay Leno show only once, and it subsides. You still have to figure out: How am I going to make a living the rest of my life?"
Welcome to the real world. Even Bruce Jenner, the Decathalon Gold Medal winner who really did achieve some level of more lasting notoriety, is better known today (at least among the younger set) for his reality show, "Keeping up with the Kardashians." Life goes on. Disconcertingly fast.
And yet, I found myself really liking this Clay guy, who doesn't have DVDs or merchandise for sale on his website -- just a foundation dedicated to helping high school students in need further their education. And who has gone out to the track, day after day, sweating and grunting and pushing himself to the limit--for more than 10 years in a row, now--in search of an extraordinarily difficult goal that probably won't have a big cash-in associated with it. While still getting excited about a new tomato discovered by one of his kids in the back yard garden.
No question--whether it's sailing around the world or going after the toughest Olympic Gold Medal there is--a lust for fame generally isn't enough to get you through it. Even if there's a good chance for a huge payoff at the end (which, occasionally, there is). You have to really want the mountain, somewhere deep inside yourself, to keep pushing when every muscle hurts, the winds are bad, and the goal recedes into a distant haze beyond the pain or fear.
And that's good, because no matter what the goal, outcome, or hype, the fame that arises from most accomplishments rarely lasts. Ironically, the moments and people we remember best are often those who don't even succeed. Remember Julie Moss, the woman in the then-little-heard-of 1981 Hawaii Ironman Triathalon who was leading by a large margin until the last mile, when she hit such a wall that her legs collapsed underneath her? Unwilling to accept assistance, she literally crawled to a second-place finish ... and in the process, brought the sport of Triathalon racing onto the mainstream world stage, where it has stayed ever since. Or Dan Jansen, the speed skater who valiantly tried ...and failed ... to win a medal for his sister the day she died? Those moments, for anyone who witnessed them, are etched in our memories forever.
Why is that? I'd like to think that something in a from-the-guts effort when the prize and victory are lost speaks to a quality we realize is more important than fame or the easy happiness of winning. It's not giving up even when our hearts are breaking ... which is something all of us, athlete or not, know the value of. Sometimes all too well.
We admire our heroes for their achievements. But we seem to remember them most clearly, and longest, when they exhibit the kind of strength for which there are no medals, records, or sponsorship deals. The kind we all hope we will find, when our own moments of testing come.