The woman in the elevator seemed like she needed a hug. I didn’t know her, but I could feel her anxiety: it was almost palpable. So, as the elevator doors closed, I stepped forward and introduced myself to this beautiful, fit, frightened athlete. There were only two of us in that little metal box, descending in the Manhattan Beach Marriot. Her eyes looked moist, but she tried to smile.
“Are you in a good place with what’s going to happen tomorrow?” I asked.
Deb Cordner Carson looked me in the eye and shook her head. “No, not at all.”
About 30 minutes prior, CrossFit had briefed the Games athletes on the details of the mountain triathlon that would start the 2012 CrossFit Games. It was a surprise workout, and many of the athletes were still wrapping their heads around the concept. Most were nervous, but with an electric energy. I had just spoken with Elisabeth Akinwale and, while she seemed a tad apprehensive, Akinwale buzzed with positivity — the excitement totally lighting up her face. Deb Cordner Carson, however, was definitely not glowing.
Deb was struggling, because the ocean swim of the 2011 Games had knocked her out of the competition. She had a fear of the water; but, for a year, she had been trying to work through it.
As we continued our descent in that elevator, her words tumbled out rapidly.Deb talked of how she wasn’t sure she would compete, of how she was going to speak with her husband and her doctor that evening, and make a decision. She spoke of her medical condition (lymphedema) and how it might factor into her decision. It was almost as if she needed to get all those words and fears out right then, before the elevator doors opened again. As if she could leave some of that burden right there, in that little metal box.
I didn’t know what to say. Somehow, I knew my words were unimportant anyhow. Instead, my ears were important. I was here to listen. Deb was here to talk.
As she finished her story, the doors opened again. We were at the lobby. I said some totally inadequate words (“Good luck with your decision”) and I left her with her fears. I had been no help. Deb Cordner Carson was alone with her fears, and her choices.
The next morning, when I saw her on the beach at Camp Pendleton, she looked even more scared — here, in front of the surf she feared. She was walking with Dave Castro (Co-Director of the CrossFit Games) and others, who seemed to almost form a shell around her, like they could protect her from the ocean. But nobody could protect Deb from her fears. She had to face them alone. Quite honestly, I didn’t expect her to step into the ocean. I expected to see one lone athlete sitting on the beach as the others plunged into the surf.
Deb Cordner Carson would prove me wrong.
She stepped into the ocean. She stepped into her fears, let them totally surround her, pulse against her body … and she fought. She swam. She kept going.
And then she emerged out of the water, onto the beach. I saw her as she was buckling her helmet, about to jump onto her mountain bike. Most of the competitors were already well on the trail. But it didn’t matter what time Deb Cordner Carson came out of the water. What mattered was that she came out on her own, victorious over the ocean. Victorious over her fear.
“SHE MADE IT!” I yelled to the people next to me — a couple of Marines in desert cammies, here to help us with the course. I jumped up and down like it was one of my kids heading towards us. “She was so scared to swim, but she did it!”
The Marines started cheering with me and whooping, a handful of people on a lonely patch of ground, bearing witness to the courage of the human heart. The Marines certainly knew about courage, and they respected it.
I snapped Deb’s photo as best I could on my iPhone as she started off — and then I tweeted it: “Deb Cordner Carson overcame her fears and conquered the swim!”
That was all that needed to be said. Her smile said the rest.
Over the course of the next four days, Deb Cordner Carson would grab two first-place finishes (in the Sprint and “Elizabeth”) and finish 13th overall at the 2012 CrossFit Games. I would learn how my co-workers — Angel Forbes and Dave Castro — had helped convince Deb again and again to at least try the swim. How a swimmer on a paddleboard was assigned to her, to watch over her and make her feel safe. I would learn about the tears on the beach and the hugs. I would learn so much about the human heart, and our connection to each other.
For her incredible heart, Deb Cordner Carson was awarded the 2012 “Spirit of the Games” award. When she accepted that award on the stadium floor, she glowed with positive energy. She had turned her fears into triumph … and became a role model for us all.