Reprinted in October 2002 with permission from author
Now and then, you meet someone who makes people feel good just by being around. And the people around you seem to feel better, too. Special people create celebrations of friendship, caring and laughter everywhere they go. They touch us, and their touch ripples through us to touch those around us. Suddenly, everyone is smiling a little more, working a little harder, playing with greater joy. You are drawn along by their vision, their drive and their commitment. Over and over, you see them touching others in ways that make you proud to be human - again.
The Georgia International Road Skating Association hosts Athens-to-Atlanta (A2A) every year: an 86-mile romp over "the gently rolling hills of Georgia," a grueling ultra-marathon that tests inline fitness skaters, speedskaters and professional teams to their limits.The week before A2A, for the twelve years I have been involved, Puck arrives in the middle of the night to spread good cheer among the bleary-eyed race-pack stuffers completing last minute event preparations. His understanding nature and gentle care of the people around him help ensure that the hubbub that IS Athens-to-Atlanta embraces a weekend of joyful events none of us will ever forget.
More than just offering his charisma, personal encouragement and support, he chips in: never above stepping forward to help, never asking for anything in return, never asking what's in it for him. He wants to know - and support - what is in your best interest.
And this elfin leprechaun of A2A is no lightweight as a skater: he is the holder of numerous world-records; he is a fierce competitor, a world-class athlete, a savvy self-marketer, a journalist and an international
He is one of those people who just plain makes everyone around him feel good. He spreads joy and enthusiasm and courage. In the immortal words of Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets," he "makes me want to be a better man." He makes everyone want to be the best that they can be. And he knows it. And he uses it. Mercilessly. To help others achieve their very best, as people AND as athletes. Children, adults, men, women and chipmunks are equally seduced by his charisma, his constant - and genuine - encouragement, his aura of goodness, and his obvious love of life and of people.
He also rankles people. ~~ He is a loud and ferocious champion of fair play and good sportsmanship. ~~ This really annoys the cheaters.
It irritates them that there are competitors who are successful, and who make other people smile - and - are truly good people. They seem all too anxious to scrub off the patina of virtue... to bring others down to their own level. They extol us to scrape away the veneer, to hunt deeply and hard enough, and surely we will expose the slimy underbelly. The same people who are determined that they should be able to rewrite the rules to their own benefit.
In the age of I want it all, I want it all - and I want it now, of bazillion-dollar baseball brats and steroid-assisted world records, of whining, self-indulgent, self-appointed sports gods of all persuasions - Puck strives for a world where people can compete on a level playing field. Where victory truly means that the best athlete has won. Not the best cheater.
Perhaps he has been ahead of his time. After all, until recently, skating to many people meant Roller-Derby or hockey: the sports equivalents of World Championship Wrestling - as much mouth and hype and pumped-up aggression as sport. But then, even the elite and sophisticated world of thoroughbred horse racing suffers occasional owners/managers/jockeys who risk destroying a horse or rider for fraudulent victory.
Some people believe in victory at any cost. But not everyone. Labor Day, September 2, 2002, there was an international inline skate competition in Atlanta, Georgia, called the US10K: formidable professional and amateur skaters as well as speedskating teams competed for a foothold on a small platform - a moment to savor victory during the turbulence of life, a token purse that might cover the cost of wheels next season, a Times-New-Roman spot on a list on an internet site somewhere - until we all forget. The quality of those moments is defined by the integrity of the competition: the greater each competitor, the greater the integrity. The greater the integrity, the greater the victory.
And the greater we all are.
Last week, something special happened - a defining moment of who this Puck is as a person. The top tier of the speedskating world is very, very competitive. So competitive that there is often a concerted effort made between non-team members to deny a superior skater a victory. Unfortunately, this also happens in world-class competitive cycling and other sports. The lesser athletes have to "gang-up" if they are ever to have a hope of their own victories.
In the final hour before the US10K last week, Puck knew he wouldn't to be 'allowed' to win: that the front pack would do whatever was necessary (that the referees would not question) to keep Puck off that small spot on the podium, out of the money and off the winners list. He has endured this with protests, but good grace, for many years. He refuses to lower himself into the "screwdriver into their spokes" mentality, even though some of us have at times wished he would just knock them into the woods and be done with it.
Puck took a different path, taking a young skater aside, a fifteen year old who's been training very hard - who ran with the front pack through the first thirty miles of A2A last year. He's a good kid, who also looks out for others and seems determined to win at life the right way. Puck took this kid aside, and said, "You're going to make it. They are never going to let me win. They are all going to be watching me, so I'm going to tell you when to break-away. When I tell you to 'go' -- you GO. I'll distract them. You go..."
Not by giving him a push, or by cutting off another skater.
My wife, Kristy, and I were shooting video from a pace car at this US10K. Going into the final stretch, we watched a youngster put a huge gap on the front pack - and he just kept opening it up. At the finish line, Derek Downing caught him, and edged him by a wheel. But Jonathan "Jono" Gorman took second, and did it the old fashioned way: he earned it.
I pity the kids who grew up with parents who screamed at the umpires and encouraged them to cheat for hollow victories. And I wish they could all know Eddy Matzger.
Thank you, Eddy.
From all of us.
- - Scott Nilsson, Atlanta, GA
How did the 2002 A2A turn out? Read Scott's "Postscript" to this story, posted later in October on the London Skaters web site. -- Liz