I became a role model after my accident. The pun is as unintended as my new role was unavoidable. Maybe I’d been a role model before the ski crash where I broke my back. Maybe a person or people looked up to me, but I didn’t feel the responsibility because I didn’t know. After the accident, friends and strangers treated me differently—like I’d learned something new, like I had something to share, but I didn’t feel changed. When I was in the hospital a high school friend, Rob Schumlts said, “You’re the only one of our friends who could deal with this.” This shocked me. My high school friends from Deerfield Academy were some of the most intelligent and impressive people I’ve known in my life. What did that mean? I was the only one among our friends who could have dealt with this? It meant that people watched what I did. I meant that I’d become a role model.
I think about being a role model because it was a role that was both thrust on me and one that I embraced. After the accident, I had to educate the people around me because most of them had never interacted with someone in a wheelchair. As an athlete, sponsors were drawn to my image. No one ever paid me to compete—$6,000 was the most prize money I ever won in a year—they paid me for the message I could deliver—the message I embodied.
I have struggled with being a role model in the past, and I’m sure I will in the future. It’s not a comfortable role and probably shouldn’t be. There’s a part of me that wants to retire to the shadows because image can be two-dimensional. I loved that I became almost a legend—like a superman figure—amongst my friends. For someone, who always wanted to be outstanding, it was great, but I also felt the burden that I couldn’t have a bad day, couldn’t be uncertain, or insecure. Still, I had only achieved legend status in a small group. My athletic career suffered from a lack of exposure. Therein lies paradox. I needed the exposure to make a living and an impression, but with the exposure comes responsibility.
As our project becomes gathers momentum, I consider the pluses and minuses of being a role model. Joseph Campbell said, “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities for human life.” A role model often achieves mythical status, but it’s a living myth that is subject to the whims of society, which loves to build up our stars, knock them down, and then maybe embrace them again. My first thoughts about the role model dilemma drew me to Charles Barkley and his 1993 Nike ad (you can watch it on youtube) in which he says, “I am not a role model…just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
Charles represents so many of the inherent contradictions in stardom and its responsibilities. The ad seems to say that he doesn’t want the responsibility of being a role model, which makes sense when we look at how many of our traditional heroes: athletes, actors, Presidents, performers, etc. have failed in our eyes. No one can be everything to everyone. No one is perfect. As I approach a time when the public will look at me more, I know that I’m far from perfect. Like Barkley in the ad, I wish to avoid the role, but also like Charles, I feel a responsibility. In his book, Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man?, he leverages his celebrity to help a group that can’t help themselves. He wants to help the African American community.
One story from a collection of interviews stuck with me. Tiger Woods had just won his first Masters, at a club that still prevents women members, in a sport that closed its doors to many races, particularly African Americans. Tiger recounts a moment during the award’s ceremony on the putting green, when he looked up to a sea of white coats on the balcony. Cooks, staff, attendants, etc., they all watched in their white uniforms, and they were all black. They had never attended the awards ceremony before. At a place that has historically represented exclusion, Tiger won for a whole group of people who never entered the tournament. That to me, is the definition of a role model, helping those who might not be able to help themselves. Like Charles and Tiger, I feel a responsibility to represent many of those who don’t have a voice. That’s why I’m climbing. That’s why I embrace the spotlight, but I’m still not sure I embrace the role model tag, and that’s why I look around for my own.
Last week I picked up three different role models. I spoke with a friend in the midst of chemotherapy for breast cancer. She looked great, sounded great, and continued to be her vibrant self. I asked her if the disease forced her to looked at her life critically. She said, “Yes, and it confirmed what I’ve always believed. My family and friends come first and then my job.” First of all, she’s really good at her job, which tells you how good she is at the other two, but secondly, it’s great that someone can achieve that kind of perspective both before and during a traumatic event.
The second role models were a brother sister team, five and seven respectively. I skied with Karsten and Campbell, who are the son and daughter of my good friends Pablo and Lynanne. Karsten and Campbell became my role models because they had so much fun. They skied the whole mountain, deep powder (eight inches is deep when you’re only three feet tall), bumps, everything, but it was the joy that they brought to it—popping a jump so a sliver of daylight slid between the skis and the snow. These two ripped it up.
At the end of the day, Karsten chose our trail, a black diamond bump run. The adults looked at each other as if to say really? We followed him and he popped one of the bumps. Daylight flashed beneath his skis. He and Campbell had done this throughout our time on the mountain. To me, that sheer joy was worthy of a role model, because it represents the way that I want to live my life. I want to ride that little bit of daylight the way that they did. So I’ll move forward not completely comfortable with being a role model, but happy that I have such great ones to follow. Thanks Kasten and Cambell. Thanks Becky. And thanks Charles and Tiger, too.