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By DAN GREEN
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Simple Truths
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFinish STRONG What's in a NAME?
John Baker was too short and slight to be a runner for his high school track team. But John loved to run, and he wanted to make the team. His best friend, John Haaland, was a tall and promising runner who had been heavily recruited by the Manzano High school track coach, but he wanted nothing to do with the sport. John Baker asked the track coach to let him join the team under the condition that his best friend would follow. The coach agreed, and John Baker became a runner.
The team's first meet was a 1.7-mile cross-country race through the foothills of Albuquerque. Reigning state champion Lloyd Goff was running, and all eyes were on him. The race began, and the pack of runners led by Goff disappeared behind the hill. The spectators waited. A minute passed ... then two ... and three. Then the silhouette of a single runner appeared. The crowd assumed that it was one of the favorites. But to everyone's amazement, it was John Baker leading the way to the finish line. In his first meet, he blew away the field and set a new meet record.
When asked what happened behind the hill, John explained that at the halfway point of the run, he was struggling hard. He asked himself a question: Am I doing my best?
Still unsure if he truly was giving his best effort, John fixed his eyes on the back of the runner in front of him.
He would let nothing distract him. Not fatigue, not pain, nothing. And, one by one, he caught and passed each runner until there was no one else to pass.
As the season progressed, John proved that his first race was not a fluke. once the race began, the fun-loving, unassuming teenager became a fierce and relentless competitor who refused to lose. By the end of his junior year, John had broken six meet records and was largely regarded to be the best miler in the state. In his senior year, he ran the entire track and cross-country season undefeated and then won the state championship in both sports. The future certainly looked bright for the seventeen-year-old.
John entered the University of New Mexico in 1962, and he took his training to the next level by running more than ten miles a day. In the spring of 1965, his team faced the most feared team in track—the University of southern California Trojans. There was little doubt that the mile belonged to the Trojans. During the race, John led for the first lap, then slipped back to fourth. At the far turn of the third lap, he collided with another runner vying for position. Stumbling and struggling to stay on his feet, John lost valuable time. With just under 330 yards to go, he dug deep and, living up to his reputation, blew past the leaders to win the race by three seconds.
John Baker's future as a runner looked bright. After graduating from college, he set his sights on the 1972 Olympics. In order to have time to train and also make a living, John took a coaching position at Aspen Elementary in Albuquerque, where he had the opportunity to work with kids—something he had always wanted to do. Within a few months, Coach Baker became known as the coach who cared. He invested a great deal of time and energy into his students. Not at all a critical coach, he demanded of his athletes only what he demanded of himself: each runner's best effort. The kids responded and loved learning from Coach Baker.
In may 1969, just before his twenty-fifth birthday, John noticed that he was tiring prematurely during his workouts. Two weeks later he developed chest pains, and one morning he woke with a painfully swollen groin. He went to see his doctor, and they discovered that John had an advanced form of testicular cancer. The only chance John had was to undergo surgery. The operation confirmed the worst: John's cancer had spread. His doctor believed that he had, at best, six months to live—and even so, a second operation would be necessary.
What devastating news. How easy it would have been for John to feel sorry for himself and simply quit life. In fact, shortly before the second operation, John drove to the mountains prepared to do exactly that. He did not want to put his family through the pain. Just before he drove off the cliff, though, he recalled the faces of his children at Aspen and wondered if they would think that this was the best Coach Baker could do. Suicide was not the legacy he wanted to leave behind. At that moment John decided to rededicate his life to those kids. He was not a quitter. He drove home determined to give his best effort each of the days he had left.
In September, after extensive surgery and a summer of treatments, John returned to Aspen and started a unique program that involved handicapped kids in the sports program. He appointed kids as Coach's Timekeeper or Chief equipment supervisor, and everyone who wanted to participate was included. By Thanksgiving, letters from parents in praise of Coach Baker were arriving daily at Aspen elementary. John also created a special award for any child he thought deserved recognition. He used his own trophies as awards—after carefully polishing off his own name. He purchased special fabric with his own money, and at night he would cut out blue ribbons to give as awards.
John refused to take medication to help with his pain because he was afraid it would impair his ability to work with his kids. In early 1970, John was asked to help coach a small Albuquerque track club for girls—the duke City dashers. By that summer the dashers were a team to contend with. Baker boldly predicted that they would make it to the Amateur Athletic Union finals.
By now, Baker's condition was complicated by the chemotherapy treatments. He could not keep any food down, his health rapidly deteriorated, and he struggled to make it to practices. But at one October practice, a girl ran up to Coach Baker and shouted, "Coach, your prediction came true! We're going to the AAU championship next month!" Baker was elated—and hoped he would live long enough to go along. Unfortunately, that was not to be. A few weeks later, John collapsed. He would not be able to make the trip. on Thanksgiving day in 1970, at the age of twenty-six—and eighteen months after his first visit to the doctor—John Baker passed away. He had beaten the odds by twelve months. Two days later, the duke City dashers won the AAU championship in St. Louis ... in honor of Coach Baker.
A few days after his funeral, the children at Aspen elementary began calling their school "John Baker school." When others rapidly adopted this change, a movement began to make the new name official. The Aspen principal referred the matter to the Albuquerque school board, and in the spring of 1971, 520 families voted on the matter. There were 520 votes for the name change, none against. That may, at a ceremony attended by hundreds of the beloved coach's family members, friends, and kids, Aspen elementary officially became John Baker Elementary.
Today, John Baker Elementary stands as a monument to a courageous young man who believed in giving his best effort right down to the very end of his days. The John Baker Foundation carries on his legacy. The following poem—written by John five years before he was diagnosed with cancer—is used with the permission of that foundation.
Finish STRONG Fear Is in the Eye of the BEHOLDER
It was a perfect day for surfing off the coast of Kauai. The thirteen-year-old surfing protégé had just finished riding a twenty-foot wave and was lying facedown on her surfboard. As she paddled out to catch another wave, her hope of becoming a professional surfer appeared to be destroyed in an instant. Without warning, she felt a tug on her left arm, and in a split second she realized that she'd been attacked by a shark.
Bethany Hamilton had learned to surf at the age of four. When she was eight, she entered her first contest and won both of the events she competed in. At the age of ten, she placed first in the Under-11 girls division, first in the U-15 girls, and second in the U-12 boys division at the Volcom Pufferfish Surf Series. She was determined to become a professional surfer, and she was definitely on track to make that happen. Then, in a single violent moment on that fall day in 2003, it seemed her dream was shattered.
Bethany, however, was born with the heart of a lion and the competitive spirit of a thoroughbred. she was determined to return to surfing. Depending on her family, her friends, and her faith in God, Bethany recovered rapidly. Within ten weeks of the attack, she was surfing again. Convinced she could overcome her physical challenge, she worked hard to learn to surf around her disability. But she also had to overcome the psychological fear of another attack. Bethany would face her fears by singing and praying when she was out on the water.
Then, incredibly, less than a year after her attack, Bethany returned to competition and took fifth place at the national surfing Championships and first place at the first event for the Hawaii National Scholastic Surfing Association. In 2004, ESPN honored her with an ESPY Award as Best Comeback Athlete of the Year.
Bethany's ability to overcome her physical and mental challenges puts her in an elite class. She chose to finish strong.
Her choice to confront her fears and continue working toward her goals is a powerful picture of courage.
Finish STRONG An Expedetion in FAITH
On August 1, 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton set sail with a crew of twenty-eight on an expedition to the Antarctic. Their goal was to cross the Antarctic on foot, something that had never been done. Shackleton was already a successful and highly respected explorer known for his determination, conviction, and faith in God, the Creator of the world. Shackleton loved to explore. He had been knighted for his successful 1907–1909 expedition to Antarctica. No wonder Shackleton received five thousand applications for the twenty-eight available positions. Many people believe that he placed the following ad in a London newspaper to attract applicants:
For hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.
While there is no evidence that this ad actually ran, it nevertheless aptly describes the task that shackleton was trying to recruit for.
Five months into the expedition, their ship, Endurance, became stuck in the heavy ice floes near Antarctica, which is not a rare occurrence. Believing that the ice would eventually recede and the ship would be freed, Shackleton kept focused on the expedition. However, over the following three weeks, the ship became solidly frozen in the ice; attempts to free her were futile. At the end of February in 1915, the crew prepared the ship to become their camp for the remainder of the winter.
In October, eight months after Endurance first got stuck, the pressure caused by the ice started breaking the ship apart, making it uninhabitable. When the order to abandon ship was given, the entire crew tried to salvage as many supplies as they could. Taking the sled dogs, food, gear, and three lifeboats, they moved their camp to the ice floe next to their sinking ship. The temperatures were brutal, reaching -15°F on average. For the next five months, the expedition camped on the ice floe, surviving on what little food they had left.
In April, the ice floe they were camped on began to break apart. Shackleton ordered the crew to take only essential supplies and board the lifeboats. They fled the disintegrating ice floe and traveled seven days by sea to elephant Island, a barren place made up mostly of rock-covered snow with temperatures reaching -20°F. For the next nine months, under Shackleton's leadership, the broken expedition remained loyal, optimistic, focused, and faithful to their leader's belief that they would survive—and their leader remained steadfast in his faith in his God.
Shackleton's plan for his crew's survival depended on his ability to reach a whaling outpost that was more than eight hundred miles across the most treacherous seas in the world. Determined to save his crew, Shackleton set out with five crew members in one of the lifeboats. The odds of making it were one in a hundred, but Shackleton successfully made it to the outpost and four months later returned to elephant Island with a rescue party. Nautical scholars consider this journey by lifeboat to be one of the greatest accomplishments in maritime history.
Finish STRONG It Ain't Over TILL IT'S OVER
As the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens neared, expectations were very high for Paul Hamm, the reigning world champion and the first US man to ever win a world all-around title. No American had ever won the men's all-around Olympic Gold medal in gymnastics, and Paul was expected to change that. (The only US gymnast to ever medal was Peter Vidmar in the 1984 Olympics.)
This cardinal sin of gymnastics significantly impacted his score. After the vault competition was over, Paul found himself in twelfth place. I remember watching the telecast and seeing him sitting on the sidelines with a pale look on his face. At that point in time, he clearly believed he had blown his chance to make gymnastics history.
But then Paul Hamm demonstrated the difference between mediocrity and greatness. He chose to put his fall behind him and move forward. He gave his best effort in order to finish strong. First up at his next event, he pulled off a great routine on the parallel bars and nailed his dismount. This solid performance plus the struggles of some of his competitors helped Paul move into fourth place in the all-around, and his last and strongest event—the high bar—was still to come.
Paul was determined to take advantage of this positive turn of events and make sure that he won at least the bronze medal. After all, he was a master of the high bar, and he had scripted a highly technical routine in order to have a shot at earning the most points possible. And Paul would be the last competitor to go.
As I watched the broadcast, I could see Paul pour his heart into his routine. I could feel his energy, focus, and determination. When he nailed his dismount, it was electrifying, and even before his score was revealed, Paul's face showed that in his own mind he had won, regardless of the outcome. He had won by coming back after a crushing failure on the vault and proving to himself that he could perform—and perform brilliantly—after failure. And that spectacular performance marked one of the most dramatic comebacks in all of sports. Paul Hamm won the gold medal in the men's all-around by 0.012 points, becoming the first Us man to ever win the Olympic title. Talk about finishing strong!
Finish STRONG A Spirit Forged in STEEL
on June 23, 1940, Wilma Glodean rudolph was born prematurely, weighing only four and a half pounds. Wilma was the twentieth of ed and Blanche Rudolph's twenty-two children. The Rudolphs were African Americans living in a time of segregation. Since the local hospital was for whites only and since the Rudolphs had little money, Mrs. Rudolph was forced to care for Wilma herself. The early years were very rough. Wilma's mother nursed her through one illness after another—measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox, and double pneumonia.
A few years after Wilma's birth, her parents discovered that her left leg and foot were not developing normally and, consequently, were becoming deformed. Doctors told Blanche that Wilma had polio, that she would never walk, and that she would have to wear steel braces on her legs. Refusing to accept this diagnosis, Mrs. Rudolph set out to find a cure. She discovered that Wilma could receive treatment at Meharry Hospital in Nashville.
The Rudolphs also relied on their faith in God, the Great physician. When young Wilma would ask if she would ever walk, her parents pointed her to her good God: "Honey, you only have to believe. You have to trust in God because with God all things are possible."
For the next two years, Mrs. Rudolph drove Wilma fifty miles each way to physical therapy appointments. Eventually, the hospital staff taught Mrs. Rudolph how to do the exercises at home. Everyone in the family worked with Wilma, providing her with encouragement to be strong and to get better. Thanks to the patience, support, effort, and love she received from her family, at the age of twelve, Wilma could walk normally without the assistance of crutches, braces, or corrective shoes. Having spent a great deal of her life limited by her illnesses, Wilma felt a freedom she had never felt before. It was then that Wilma decided to become an athlete.
Wilma chose to pursue basketball first, just as her older sister had. For three years she rode the bench, not playing in a single game. But Wilma's spirit had been forged from steel, and she continued to practice hard, re fusing to give up. In her sophomore year she became the starting guard for the team and subsequently led the team to a state championship. But Wilma's first love was running. At the age of sixteen (barely four years free of braces), Wilma participated in track at the 1956 Olympics and won a bronze medal in the 4 x 100–meter relay. However, it was at the state basketball tournament that she was first spotted by Ed Temple, the coach for the women's track team at Tennessee state University. Ed recruited Wilma on a track scholarship and changed the course of her athletic pursuits.
Wilma's most famous athletic accomplishment happened during the 1960 Rome Olympics. The little girl who could hardly walk without the assistance of crutches or braces had completely overcome her physical limitations, and she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics.
Excerpted from Finish STRONG by DAN GREEN Copyright © 2012 by Simple Truths. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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