82: My Favorite Injury

82: My Favorite Injury

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

My Favorite Injury

I’ve always believed that life provides a series of experiences that serve our growth, insight and wisdom. That philosophy was tested—and ultimately deepened—during a series of surprising and challenging incidents at the age of twenty-six in the year 1979.

The previous year I had run my first under-three-hour marathon and, armed with the goal of improving that time, I intensified my training. By midsummer I was running seventy miles per week and keeping up with much faster runners for the first time in my racing career. My training partners included elite-level runners whose presence and encouragement contributed to my progress. They told me I could run a 2:40 marathon (two hours and forty minutes), with the potential to reach 2:20, given the progress in our training. Running had become both a physical and spiritual passion in my life, and I was riding a wave of rising excitement and bliss.

That all came to a grinding halt when I developed a painful injury in my knee. From running an effortless twenty miles at a fast tempo in the mountains, I could now barely run one mile. The pain increased until I couldn’t even run a few steps without sharp pain. I decided to rest a few weeks, expecting to return to my training. As the weeks passed, however, my body experienced no improvement and my spirits sank. The doctors were unable to predict when I might recover. With each passing day, I could see the benefits of my hard, progressive work of the last six months ebbing away, and I grew increasingly disheartened.

I had to find some way to sustain my fitness as my knee healed. My body had grown accustomed to the rigors of training for two or more hours a day. It felt imperative that I keep my cardiovascular system strong and not lose the gains of the last half-year. I bought some swimming goggles, joined the local YMCA and set about duplicating my training regimen, assuming I’d soon be able to swim for several hours a day. I was about to receive my second difficult lesson in dealing with challenges and setbacks.

I had a smattering of swim lessons as a kid and believed that, as a marathoner, I would have no problems with a transition to the pool. But the first day I plunged into the water, it was painfully apparent that my expectations far exceeded my ability. After swimming only one length of the pool, I stopped and clung to the edge, gasping and winded. I tried a second lap with the same result. This continued for about twenty minutes, one lap at a time. I was exhausted.

I recalled that while growing up in New York I had little exposure to swimming. I didn’t really like being in the water. In fact, the ocean frightened me. I remembered when a camp counselor forced us to stay out in the ocean for “our full thirty minutes,” despite the chilling water temperature. A poor swimmer, I found the waves intimidating. Even as an adult I had rarely ventured into the sea.

In early July, determined to solve my dilemma, I befriended the lifeguard who spent many hours a day by the dimly lit, indoor pool in the YMCA basement. He patiently guided me seven days a week. I worked hard, determined to improve, but progress was slow. I would swim every day until exhausted; then I’d wait a few minutes and try a few more laps. Week by week, my effort and his coaching and encouragement began to pay off.

By August I was swimming nearly forty laps a day. In September I swam a mile a day, learned the breaststroke, backstroke and crawl, and even started lifesaving lessons. Feeling more competent, my confidence grew and I pushed onward. By December I could swim two miles a day and felt as comfortable in the water as I had running on land.

By the Christmas holidays, my knee had improved, but it was not yet ready for running. So I decided to travel to Hawaii, hitchhike around the islands and camp on the beaches. This seemed an idyllic break in my past routine—and besides, my budget didn’t allow for much else.

I learned soon after my arrival, however, that during this period in the islands, tensions between locals and tourists had reached a peak. Recently, newspapers and radio reports had related several incidents of campers being burned out of their tents and visitors being assaulted at night by locals. As I made my way around Maui, I was repeatedly warned to be cautious when hitchhiking and especially careful if sleeping on the beach.

Hearing this news, I remember standing on Makena Beach late that afternoon, feeling vulnerable, depressed and alone, when a distant scream pulled me out of my dark reverie. It was a voice crying “Help!” from the ocean. I looked out to see several figures bobbing in the ocean beyond large, crashing waves. Without thinking, I threw off my shirt and shoes and raced into the water. Swimming through the rough surf, I found two men in their twenties holding up a terrified, much older man. They said they were exhausted from the riptide and had no strength left to bring him in. They asked me to take over so they could swim to the beach and get help.

The older man started panicking, grabbing my neck and pulling me under as huge waves thrashed us. I grabbed him firmly, looked directly into his terrified eyes and said, “Do what I tell you and I promise I won’t let you die.” He nodded and stopped struggling. I turned him on his back, held him with my left arm and, using all the strength of my right arm, started to swim against the riptide. The surf was terrible. A fierce storm two days earlier had shifted the sand and left behind enormous waves and an even more ferocious undertow. Sharp coral to the east precluded swimming at an angle to the beach. I would have to overcome the waves and swim straight in, against the riptide, towing the weight of an exhausted elderly man.

At first I swam with all my strength, thinking my fitness would be enough. I quickly tired, however, in the strong surf and undertow, which repeatedly pulled us out back into the sea as if we were weightless corks. I realized I had to conserve my energy—not only to make it back in with this man, but to save my own life as well.

Little by little, I neared the beach, trying to ride each wave and swim when propelled forward. A group of rescuers had locked arms and formed a human chain in the shallow water, reaching out toward the crashing waves. After an eternity, I pulled the man within thirty feet of the beach and placed him into the arms of the other rescuers.

I staggered out of the water and collapsed onto the beach, breathing hard. Then I stumbled away from the rescue group and the elderly man, to sit alone with my thoughts, which were rushing back in like the tide. Only minutes earlier I had been standing on the beach consumed by my own problems. Now, a few paces down the beach lay a man whose life I had saved. My past concerns disappeared. His cry for help had pushed me to a place far beyond my inward troubles and personal predicaments—past my fear of the ocean into an act of courage and strength.

I never again spoke to the man I saved. I never even learned his name. It wasn’t necessary. He was safe now, surrounded by the group. I was consumed by a revelation... free and liberated. Life’s incredible lessons and opportunities had again worked their magic.

The same knee injury that seemed to end my marathon dreams had catapulted me into choices and events that had a profound effect in my life—and had saved the life of another human being. It struck me then how the interconnected threads of our destiny are profoundly tied to one another. I used to wonder if things happen for a reason. Now I believe I understand: When things happen, it’s our job to make the best use of the events. Everything that happens is a chance to grow, to create something positive out of a negative. When one door closes, another always opens. It’s our job to pay attention.

I work as a sports chiropractor now, and when my patients struggle with an injury, I sometimes share the story of my favorite injury—one that saved a life, and maybe two.

~Leonard Stein
Chicken Soup to Inspire the Body & Soul

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