Tuesday, March 26, 2019

LIFTING OFF WITH ANNE McCLAIN


I gave up cheering for professional sports teams when I was 16-years-old. I just felt the
time and energy rooting for jerseys could be better served in another capacity. I truly
respected the athleticism and accomplishments of the players, but the wins and losses
didn't matter much to me, mainly because, well, they were not my wins and losses.

And during my career playing and covering sports, I wasn't much into hero worshipping.
I was of the belief that big stars put their pants on just like everyone else: one leg at a time. 

I have met Michael, interviewed Lebron one-on-one, and shared a scene with Kevin Costner
in the movie, "Bull Durham" - and never thought it was a big deal. I've only had one, "Holy
Sh%t, OMG" moment in the presence of another person when I had a chance meeting with
Ted Williams in the batting cages at the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox where
I was a minor-league catcher. 

In the spring of 1988, the greatest hitter who has ever lived was giving me one-on-one instruction
on the art of hitting. At 6'4", Williams was a towering man with a booming voice. I said to
myself, "This has to be God in disguise." Williams talked to me for about 15 minutes and
I'm not sure I remembered a thing he had to say. I was in awe of him. But it wasn't just


the Hall of Fame accomplishments that moved me. The man was a true American hero, having
served not one but two tours of duty in the military. I vividly remembered a picture of him
in his fighter plane and it blitzed through my mind when he was talking to me. Williams flew
39 missions in the Korean War. Incredible.

Some 30 years later, I experienced that same feeling of awe. Last June, I was assigned
to produce a feature on astronaut Anne McClain at NASA in Houston. First of all, being
at the space center was akin to being on the hallowed grounds of  old Yankee Stadium.
It wreaked of history and there was little doubt it was truly something special.

When I was doing my research on McClain, I had several, "Holy Sh%t, OMG" moments.
Her lists of accomplishments were beyond incredible.

*West Point graduate earning a degree in mechanical engineering.
*University of Bath (United Kingdom) Master's degree in aerospace engineering.
*Master's degree in international security from the University of Bristol (UK)
*Played for USA Rugby, a national team.

But the part that made my jaw drop was this:

McClain qualified to be a Kiowa Warrior helicopter pilot and was deployed to the Gulf
where she flew 1600 hours and 216 combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

216 combat missions!



Are. You. Kidding. Me?

I have tremendous respect for anyone who spends a day in battle, much less 216 combat
missions flying an attack helicopter. Absolutely amazing.

After her service in Iraq and qualifying as a flight instructor, McClain beat out 8,000 other
candidates for a spot in  NASA's astronaut training program which she completed in 2015.

Yes, there are high-achievers, and then there is Anne McClain.

I thought about her incredible background when I spoke with her on the deck of the training
pool at NASA. In many ways, it was like listening to Ted Williams talk about hitting. She, like
Williams, is an American hero - someone who served the country by fighting in a real war.
To me, it doesn't get much bigger than that. It was an honor to talk with her, especially when
she was wearing her astronaut suit and helmet.

I mean, how many times, do you get to interview an astronaut in their space suit on the
deck at the NASA Space Center? I knew how lucky I was in the moment.


And I was in awe of Anne McClain.

McClain lifted off from Russia with two other astronauts last December. It fulfilled a dream
for McClain, who said she wanted to be an astronaut since she was 4-years-old. Talk about
knowing what you want and getting after it. She outlined everything she had to do to get in
position to be an astronaut and accomplished them all.

I've been following McClain's mission at the International Space Station which ends in June.
The pictures are truly incredible, the accomplishment - even greater.


I faced a dilemma before that trip to Houston. I had the chance to go to North Carolina to
attend the 30th anniversary of "Bull Durham", the movie that became an important part of my
life and the people who were going to be there were pretty special to me.

But I felt going to NASA to interview an astronaut was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Re-hashing all the memories from the movie could wait for another time.

I made the right decision. Anne McClain is a true American hero and there just aren't very
many of them in our society today.




Sunday, February 10, 2019

WHY I QUIT DRINKING: PART II


Just over a year ago, I put my thoughts into words and cemented the story of going five
years without alcohol. In this social media-driven world we live in, where people only
seem to have time to read 140 characters or less, I knew there was a chance a lot may be
lost in translation, or in this case, a headline.

I wrangled with putting together a headline knowing full well that most people think they
know what's in the body of the story by just reading the headline. The one I decided on was
pretty simple and to the point: Five Years Dry: Why I Quit Drinking.

Just as I surmised, though, there were many people who just read the headline,
particularly the 'Why I Quit Drinking' part and felt like the knew what the reason was
without bothering to read the the body of the story.

I got a few, "Hey, congrats, I was in 'the program, too.' (I wasn't)
There was the, "Hey, I didn't know you had a problem. (I didn't)
And several people chimed in with the obligatory, "I hope everything's all right.' (It is).

As I sit here after going through another alcohol-free year, running my streak of days
without any kind of booze to 2,190 days, I had to drop the most common and over-used
response in social media today in response to those comments by my friends: LOL.

Man, people read a headline and the imaginations run wild. Sorry, my story about giving
up alcohol is quite boring. There wasn't a seminal moment or life-altering experience that
forced me to give up drinking. Six years ago of February 10th, I just didn't feel like I was
the best version of myself. I didn't feel all that great and didn't feel like I was in the
physical shape I wanted to be in heading into my 50th year on the planet.

So, I decided to give up alcohol and just about anything that wasn't good for the body human.
The Lenten season was coming up on the calendar so I challenged myself to give up alcohol,
bread, butter, cookies, candy, and ice cream for six weeks. I accomplished my goal with little
problem so I decided to see how long I could give up alcohol. Six years later, here I am.

I don't want alcohol. Don't need alcohol. And don't care if I don't have it again in my lifetime.
I don't care what people think and don't care about being 'social.' I just believe that drinking
is the single biggest waste of time, energy, and money in our society today. Yeah, it's even
more useless than spending time playing Fortnight.

I don't make judgements about other people and their drinking habits. To each their own. We
are free to live our lives any way we choose. However, I do offer advice when friends of mine
want me to talk to their kids about drinking. And it's easy. I tell them the sooner they figure
out that alcohol is poison to the mind, body, soul, and wallet, the better off they'll be.

Drinking even a couple of beers affects every single organ in your body. Liver, heart, brain -
name an organ and alcohol will eventually destroy it. In the last six years without alcohol, I have been sick just once - a bad case of bronchitis which wasn't enough to keep me from going to
work. A lot of luck is involved, I know, but alcohol weakens the immune system, too. I
want to make sure that as I grow older that I'm not polluting my body with toxic waste. That's
what alcohol is: toxic and a waste of everything.

Life is better without alcohol. Way better. As boring as it may be, that's my story and I'm
sticking to it.


Saturday, February 9, 2019

DEAR IRONMAN: DROP THE 'SPECIAL NEEDS' BAGS


Dear Ironman:

I've thoroughly enjoyed the five Ironman events I've completed. From Boulder to Lake
Placid to Mont-Tremblant,  the events were well-organized and well-run, making for a truly
memorable experience.

There's not much you can do about the pain one endures over the course of an 140-mile event,
but when it's all said and done, there is nothing quite like hearing Mike Reilly say, "You are
an Ironman" as competitors cross the finish line. It's a nice touch for an incredible event.

However, I really believe there is one thing the Ironman can do without: calling the bags
we use during the race "special needs" ones. Whenever I hear volunteers at check-in say,
"These are your "special needs bags",  I cringe. It just doesn't sound right. In fact, it sounds
 awful. The "special needs" bags in an Ironman event are used by competitors to put their
'goodies' in to help them get through the race. Power Bars, gels, goos, Swedish fish, aspirin,
band-aids, socks, Vaseline, sandwiches - if it can get a competitor through the endurance race,
chances are it will be in the "special needs" bag.



When I hear "special needs", I think about what most people do: those special kids who are
sometimes referred to as ones with "special needs." They are ones who need a little (or a lot) of
help just to get through the day.

Wikipedia defines special needs as people with autism, cerebral palsy, down syndrome,
dyslexia, blindness, ADHD, and cystic fibrosis. However, there are a lot of children born
with many other things that make them children with special needs.

When I hear someone talk about those "special needs" bags at an Ironman event, I feel
uncomfortable. If I was a parent of a child with special needs, I would certainly find it, um,
awkward, if not offensive. It's just not right and I think the Ironman franchise should find
a way to change the name of the bags.  Call them Fuel and Recovery bags, but please don't
call them "special needs" bags. Call them S.O.S bags - anything but 'special needs' bags.


Major League Baseball recently made a big change when it came to how they described 
the list where injured players land. Almost since its inception, baseball had a "disabled list." 
Because of their sensitivity to others, it will simply be called the "injured list"

"The principal concern is that using the term "disabled for players who are injured supports the
misconception that people with disabilities are injured and therefore not able to participate or
compete in sports," said Jeff Pfeifer, MLB's senior director of league economics and operations.

Despite the change being long overdue, it was a great move by Major League Baseball. 

There is nothing special about those bags,  But there is certainly a lot that is special about
the kids who have to overcome a lot just to get through the day. Same goes for the parents.
It is extremely tough, both mentally and physically, for the parents and kids with 'special
needs' to deal with the cards they've been dealt. It's heart-wrenching for those who watch
them try to overcome the challenges they face every single day, 24/7.

When I'm swimming 2.4 miles in a beautiful lake or riding 112-miles on courses with
spectacular scenery, I find myself counting my blessing on just how lucky I am to compete
in an Ironman event, especially in my mid-50's. I am thankful that I'm able to run, bike, and
swim and enjoy everything an Ironman event has to offer.

I just don't like to see "special needs" slapped across the bags that contain fuel and
recovery items. I don't think it qualifies as being in good taste. Competitors really are not
special. Special should be used on those kids who didn't have luck on their side when they
came into this world. They are the ones who have incredible character and tremendous will.

The "special needs" bags need to go away in the Ironman events. Call them Fuel and Recovery
bags. The "special" part needs to always be used when describing those special little kids.

Thank you.

Paul Devlin