At an Athens airport hotel, at the end of my 2023 season, I sat on some steps that led to the shore of the Mediterranean. Suddenly, I was on the other side of the season, running through the past 7 months in my mind – all the details of each training block along the way, the high moments and rough ones, the frustrations, the travel, and the cumulative effort into the whole thing.
But right now, I don’t want to write about the details of the whole thing. I don’t want to comb through the ups and downs of this season as a bike racer. Instead, I want to write about the feelings that hit me as I sat on those concrete stairs heading down to the Mediterranean, because I think they may say more about my experience, and these feelings are perhaps universal in a way.
There was a sudden shift in my mood when I looked out at the sea, and realized again what was happening on the other side of the Mediterranean in Gaza & Israel. I had been reading the news over breakfast during the race week, trying to understand the complexity of the conflict as it unfolded. But I hadn’t let myself really feel it. And there, looking out over the sea, I felt beneath any attempt at understanding, how utterly awful it is. I felt something that I think we all have, something like a childlike innocence at the core, which is deeply confused at how we can spread devastation like we do and why we can’t see the obviousness of each other’s humanity. While we can chart out all the sociological and historical causes of war, we can also recognize the intelligence in our childlike innocence. So from those stairs in Athens, I felt that, and I realized that while I cannot fully comprehend the extent of people’s situations over there, as a human, I can advocate outright for peace.
There’s an obvious ocean of difference between thoughts of my racing career and thoughts of bombs being dropped on children in Gaza and hostages far from their familes. But I guess that’s how life is. There’s something else on every shore of the world, and yet there’s a common ocean between us. When you realize that the island you’re on, that small, largely privileged life you lead, is still connected to those who are oceans away, sometimes it seems like there are only two choices… You can either choose ignorance and carry on with self-involvement, or on the flip side, see the world as an endless problem to solve and weigh your life’s value in relation to your efforts to fix that problem. I’ve been swept away by both views. I’ve wanted to stick my head in the sand and focus on my own successes at times. In other moments, especially for a while in college, I was jaded about the “selfishness” of racing, wanting to quit and join the Peace Corps or something like that. But there’s a viewpoint that transcends these extremes which I’m trying to stabilize myself.
I’ve learned over the last few years that balance isn’t doing a whole bunch of things, as much as it’s a state of mind. You can focus on one thing, but if you remember the big picture, you can be balanced. Having a balanced perspective is knowing there’s an ocean beyond, empathizing with people on other shores, and yet, appreciating the island you’re on for what it is. Putting blinders on as a professional athlete is hard at times, but I have to recognize the focus is a conscious choice that I am fortunate to be able to make. This is what leads to appreciation.
There’s a poem I love by Jack Gilbert that says we must “risk delight” with how ruthless the world can be. We must risk believing our paths are worthy of our joy and enthusiasm, just as they are. We must leap into the pursuits that make us human, and remember that our joy, humor, grief, pain, all of it is part of a collective human experience. By giving weight to the little things that fill our lives, but not being overly serious or self-involved, we show that we’re more than the terrible things that happen on other shores of the world. And I believe that by doing this, we naturally find ourselves in positions to make other people’s lives better, and we find that we actually have the capacity to do so.
It’s now 3 weeks after the season ended, and it’s funny how an ending can feel like a beginning and smack in the middle of it all at the same time. I guess it’s always like that, in a way. We go on and on, the reference zone of past and future shifts, but we’re always where we are. Right now, bombs are dropping on children just like they did 20 years ago in Iraq, or 80 years ago in Europe. And yet, the sun still rises out of the middle of that devastation. Seasons blend into new ones. The big event that seemed like an end is just another beginning and smack in the middle of it all. This isn’t to say that these cycles of violence are inevitable, as there is nothing more urgently important than stopping it. This is to say that the urgency is always in the right now. The choices we make in this moment are the only thing that’s important. We can only work with where we are.
Sometimes, we find ourselves on the other side of the sea with no tangible tools to fix a problem beyond our empathy and understanding. We can only live the lives we are in, and love them for what they are. I firmly believe that peace ripples out. Collective peace will happen only if we each see that we’re responsible for peace being a continuous act, and involve it in our every step. Right now, I find myself in a consuming world as a professional athlete, and I mean it when I say I’m grateful for everything it brings me. I want to risk delight, risk caring deeply about the little things in this pursuit because this is the shore I’m on right now. And yet, just like I tried to do from the Athens airport hotel, I want to be able to lift my gaze up and remember all that’s happening over there on the other side.