Monday, July 8, 2024

The Gift of Life: How and Why. One Non-Directed Kidney Donor's Story

In the United States, more than 100,000 people are waiting for a kidney transplant. In the meantime, the median wait time is more than three years. Perhaps you know someone who is on that fateful list. Or, maybe you know someone who is a living donor. Potential donors, willing donors and actual donors are moms and dads, aunts and uncles, siblings and neighbors. They are teachers, athletes and friends. One of them happens to be my cousin, Amy. 

Amy is what is known as a non-directed kidney donor. This means that on June 6, 2024 Amy electively, freely and officially donated her kidney to a person she may never meet or talk to. She was the first person in a four person chain. In other words, she was the catalyst, the wildcard, the x factor for eight surgeries that  afforded four individuals with new kidneys. This is her story.

The positive power of social media
As a teacher and an adult, the tenor of conversations about social media is rarely positive. The focus seems to center on its addictive nature and the detrimental effects on the mental health and well being of young people. It's not hard to see how it has taken its toll on interpersonal relationships and productivity. At its worst, social media can lead to isolation, cyberbullying, gross misinformation and more. The shadow sides are real, but that perspective is limited. 

As we know, social media helps people stay connected, gain information about current events; it provides a platform to promote our passions, and share our stories. Many times, the ideas, questions and calls to action make an impact. Listeners and followers are not passive people. A dynamic relationship has taken root and leads to something new... something unexpected... something more. Such is the case with Amy—a follower of @SharonSaysSo and the podcast Freakonomics.

Listening Up
Before the election in October 2020, Sharon McMahon, a past high school Government teacher, photographer, and business coach, started teaching about how the Electoral College worked. Sharon sought to post non-partisan truth on politics and government systems. She created short videos posted on Instagram as @SharonSaysSo about the basics of the U.S. Government. Amy and her sister Jodi found her format helpful and informative. Sharon became a household name and her posts a regular point of conversation. But how might that lead to kidney donation? A platform dedicated to Civics doesn't seem a likely venue to prompt such altruism. Right? Wrong.

Following a person's podcast or blog affords a special lens into the creator's life. One's personal reality is seldom completely detached from what we do and how we do it. For example, Sharon's followers know that she has a six year old son (and three other children), that she loves wildlife and has a husband who had renal failure. As written on Destination Duluth, When the pandemic hit in 2020, her husband needed a kidney transplant and had to be in Rochester at the Mayo Clinic, Thankfully, her husband’s transplant was successful.  As a loyal listener, Amy was dialed in—aware and empathetic to his plight, his journey and praise God, his recovery.

Furthermore, social media—its influence, stories, lessons and lore does not exist in isolation. Amy also listens to Freaknomics. One episode "Make Me a Match" was the spark and to the kindle from @SharonSaySo. A fire started burning.

Amy looked into what it would take to become a non-directed kidney donor with personal research and reflection. In addition to multiple blood draws and urine samples, she underwent extensive physical and psychological testing,  She realized this was something she could do. It became something she wanted to do. How? Why?

The How
To me, the  how of organ donation  is endlessly fascinating. Through Amy, I have learned that just 1% of kidney transplants involve a non-directed kidney donor. Though understandable, only about 100 people a year elect to make this life saving gift. Furthermore, many willing donors are not approved. However, as a marathon runner (she has run over 20 of them) I was not surprised that her kidney was in great shape. She registered with the University of Washington health center in Seattle and was told they would match her kidney—based on her blood and tissue types as well as her age. In three months time, the recipient of her kidney can reach out to her to share their story—or not. Amy understands why someone might choose to remain anonymous. Time will tell.

Amy's surgery was delayed about two weeks because the intended recipient had an infection. On donation day, she was informed that she had total freedom to change her mind. If she wanted to back out no one would second guess her decision. Though one's kidneys are located in the back of the stomach area, just below the rib cage, and on each side of the spine, kidney removal is through the abdomen. Her surgeon was able to remove hers by hand through her four inch incision. Her kidney now accompanies the recipient's two others. That's right, Amy has one kidney and her recipient now has three.

Amy was told after donating her kidney she must limit salt and alcohol and medications like Advil, Aleeve, and Aspirin are off the table. As a runner, this is no small sacrifice but Amy's point of view on that and why she did this are no different.

My Aunt Wendy's first marathon: 2010. Amy and I ran the half
The Why
Amy's why is very clear. It also happens to be in the form of a question. She decided to donate her kidney because she believes, "How often do you get to save a life?" Hearing this question prompts a pause. Awe. Inspiration. Hard to argue that...and it's true. Amy has saved a life in the most literal sense possible. But I'd like to think it's metaphorical as well. More on that later.

Amy credits her parents (or blames them?!) for the example they have always shown. Her mom— my Aunt Wendy and her dad—my Uncle Jay are two of the more hospitable, supportive and generous people I know. Though I don't live that close to them, I have always known their home to be a place of welcome for friends, family and those in need. Clearly those values have taken shape in their daughters.

Amy noted that her mom has passed on Tikkun Olam—a Hebrew phrase that means "repairing the world" or "mending the world." I am familiar with this principle because it underscores the ethics course I teach. Organ donation is a moral issue. It ushers in several ethical questions worth considering such as Why not create an open market for organ donors? And What is altruism? Is anyone truly altruistic? I think we have a pretty good answer here. 

Amy thanked her Dad for living by the words of Luke's Gospel. In Luke 12:48, he writes "Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more." I appreciate her humility and willingness to live this teaching.

At one point her surgeon moved her to a recovery room with a view. He said “heroes go to that side of the building.” Amy is many things—she’s fun and funny, loyal and loving. She’s an awesome teacher, runner, wife, daughter, sister, aunt and friend. Hero is one too.

5 of 8 Stricherz women/cousins. 7 of 8 are teachers ;-) 

I traveled to the Pacific Northwest this summer because I wanted to spend time with Amy and her family. I wanted to see and hear for myself more about this journey. Why?

To me, Amy flipped the script. Most of us live our lives in a fairly predictable way. As one of many Stricherz teachers, I know that summer brings for all of us time to travel and reach personal goals. We get more time with family and friends. We come together to celebrate and remember, all the while doing our personal best and hoping for the best for the next generation. In Amy, I found that some of us step up and out into the world in a totally selfless, loving and new way. 

While it makes sense that Amy might donate a kidney, it's nothing anyone of us could have ever predicted. I have always felt fortunate to have cousins that I love and admire, but in Amy I have a family member I want to share with the world. She has given me a new look on life, She has reignited my sense of hope. She makes me cry (in a good way) and smile at the same time. The movie InsideOut should consider adding a character like this one.

3 donors!
I wasn't sure if I was going to write about Amy's story, but after our time together. I realized I couldn't not try to. I asked her if it would be okay as she took me to the airport. Though she is not a person to seek personal attention, I had a sense that she would say “yes,” if but for the purpose that her testimony might prompt another non-directed donor to step in and up.

At weddings and special occasions, you might have heard the word L’Chaim. It is a Hebrew phrase that translates to “to life.” But it's more than just words. I have wondered if the people who say it know what it actually means.

I have learned that some words can never be fully translated. We can get close but it's best to share a story or consider the sentiment behind the word to understand what it really means. As I was processing all of what I have learned through Amy and his gift of life, I came to the realization that her story captures L’Chaim perfectly. My only regret is that when we were all together on Sunday, I didn’t think to raise a glass and say that. A good reason to return.
Love you, AES

Photo Credits
Kidney Chain
Kidney Heart

Monday, June 24, 2024

An Open Letter to Harrison Butker—Thoughts on Vocation and Staying in One's Lane

Dear Mr. Butker,
Congratulations on your second Super Bowl championship. On Super Bowl Sunday, I went from mass to a friend's house where I watched every minute of Super Bowl LVIII. I remember telling another Niners fan that like me, your Catholic faith is an important part of your identity. I learned this from my students who were tasked with researching the faith lives of six players on each team for a group assignment in my Sports and Spirituality class. Given your faith-filled conviction and success, I was not surprised that you were chosen to give a commencement address at Benedictine—a Catholic college in Kansas. 

I just completed my 24th year of teaching Religious Studies in a Catholic secondary school setting. I love graduation, baccalaureate mass and more. In fact, I  make a point of watching the commencement address at my alma mater, The University of Notre Dame every year.  Graduation at a Catholic institution allows us to publicly celebrate, profess and share our faith. I value that faith and reason, tradition, and ritual are longstanding, important components of Catholicism.

It is with this context that I came to watch and listen to your speech. I am aware that you received a standing ovation from the Class of 2024 and that 15 women did not join in this enthusiastic gesture. I can assure you I would be one of the fifteen. I would sit and perhaps I would have written what you have before you: this Open Letter. 

One of your themes was a call for graduates to Stay in your lane and accept that lane—a phrase you mentioned four times. You said, "Being locked in with your vocation and staying in your lane is going to be the surest way for you to find true happiness and peace in this life." You prefaced this message by admitting, "I never envisioned myself nor wanted to have this sort of a platform but God has given it to me so I have no other choice but to embrace it and preach more hard truths about accepting your lane and staying in it." 

This message confounded me as I have yet to hear a graduation speech reference this trope. While I think graduation is a time to consider vocation, the notion of staying in one's lane seems contrary to how I understand one's calling. No one gets there alone. We learn from the wisdom, encouragement and example of others. Does that mean I might walk or run in someone else's lane? Maybe.

Graduation is an act of hope. A school confers diplomas with the hope that its graduates will change the world—for the good! I'm not sure I want or need them to "stay in their lane" from that moment on. I also found it confusing that you would offer a message to women, about women, given this lane. 

You said,

For the ladies present today, congratulations on an amazing accomplishment. You should be proud of all that you have achieved to this point in your young lives. I want to speak directly to you briefly because I think it is you, the women, who have had the most diabolical lies told to you, how many of you are sitting here now about to cross the stage, and are thinking about all the promotions and titles you’re going to get in your career. Some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world. But I would venture to guess that the majority of you are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world. I can tell you that my beautiful wife Isabelle would be the first to say that her life truly started when she began living her vocation as a wife and as a mother.

On my graduation day, I was not thinking about promotions or future job titles. Nor was I thinking about marriage and children. I know exactly what I was thinking. 

For a few weeks leading up to graduation, I didn't know if I wanted to go to the ceremony. Those who know me will find this quite surprising, for Notre Dame alumna is an outstanding characteristic of my identity. I bleed blue and gold—sometimes, loud...always proud. I thought What difference would my presence in a class of 1800 people make?  I don't know from whence this cynical sentiment came. I am not proud of it. Though honest, this limited view was quickly shattered.

On Sunday, May 19, 1996 I walked into the JACC and I was overwhelmed. The entire atmosphere conferred in me a sense that I had achieved something quite remarkable. I saw my parents and my two siblings. I waved and smiled. They actually have a picture of this moment. To this day, I don't even know how I managed to see them! (pre-cell phones). I am so grateful for that memory because their joy became my joy. Thank you Mom and Dad, Mark and Sarah for being there.

From that moment forward, I remember holding  gratitude in my heart as the Father President, Monk Malloy greeted my classmates and the audience. As I sat and listened to the speeches, I remember feeling sad that this chapter of my life had come to a close. I thought of how much I would miss my friends and professors. I didn't want to leave the campus community I loved so much. I was excited to start in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE)  teaching program, but it was at the expense of bidding farewell to what I had known.
I did think about vocation, as I had a sense that teaching was my calling. It still is. But according to your message, I am an outlier. I was not among the purported majority who were thinking about my vocation as a wife and a mother. With all due respect, Did I miss my lane? 

Twenty-eight years later, I am still not a wife or a mother. Had you asked me on graduation day if that is something I desired, I would have said "yes." In or around graduation no one at Notre Dame asked me about those aspirations. In no way do I feel slighted, lied to or even misled by this community for not asking that question. 

I have always wanted to get married, I still do. And with the desire to be married, yes, I wanted to be a mother. A friend once asked me, Do you feel called to marriage?  I said "yes." I have always felt called to marriage but I am not married. I get asked why I am not married. I am told that I seem like someone who would be married. I have been told I would be a great mom. Thank you. Others think something is wrong with me because I am not married—I have wondered about this myself. All questions aside, I don't have an answer—for now—to this question. It is a mystery.

Mystery however is a component of our faith. God's ways are not our ways. I accept what is with humility and yet I live in hope. And still, I have felt fulfilled in my career and in my life as an unmarried person. I am not waiting for my life to truly begin. This is not a message that Jesus preached—to the woman at the well, to Mary or Martha, Mary Magdalene or to me.

My sense is that other women share this sentiment. Those include the "founding institution and sponsor of Benedictine College, the sisters of Mount St. Scholastica." Via Facebook, these sisters "responded to the controversial remarks of Harrison Butker as commencement speaker." They wrote

One of our concerns was the assertion that being a homemaker is the highest calling for a woman. We sisters have dedicated our lives to God and God's people, including the many women whom we have taught and influenced during the past 160 years. These women have made a tremendous difference in the world in their roles as wives and mothers and through their God-given gifts in leadership, scholarship, and their careers.
Their message reminds me that for women and for men, there are many paths to holiness. There is no singular call, no certain path to fulfillment. I don't even think there is a your lane or my lane. So why stay in it?
To me, a commencement speaker ought to build rapport with the audience. They should familiarize themselves with the campus community—its traditions and what makes it special. They can offer insight into what they have learned in their lives and share their story. I would have loved to hear  your thoughts on what makes for a great placekicker. How has this role helped you be a better husband, father, brother, son and friend? What are the life lessons that football offers you, your family and the world. Think Sports and Spirituality! (See Roger Federer at Dartmouth for more). For many, the disappointment in your address is as the sisters wrote: 
"Instead of promoting unity in our church, our nation, and the world, his comments seem to have fostered division,"

Given your passion for your wife's vocation, it would have been interesting to me to hear how having a college degree has made her an excellent homemaker. What did she learn in college that prepared her for the demands of motherhood? With but 2% of the world holding a college diploma, how are the women of Benedictine College endowed with a special responsibility to do what Ignatius of Loyola preached: Go and set the world on fire. Motherhood is a source of fulfillment for countless women—praise God that it is! The world needs wonderful, loving and holy parents—but they are not neceesarily "the fulfilled." I think the Beatitudes speak to who is.

Though your speech was given in mid-May, I felt the need to pen this letter because 
I recently returned from a service immersion trip to Jerusalem Farms in Kansas City, MO. This week long adventure included chores, urban farming, community building (read: playing cards), prayer, reflection and conversation. Because of the setting, the conversation turned to the Kansas City Chiefs and because J-Farm has religious roots, your commencement address resurfaced. What began as an ardent desire for me to understand how or why his speech resonates with so many people has led to this letter. I wrote it with a sincere desire that you listen to a different point of view. 

Given your lane, I find it ironic that you went after the Bishops in our church. You said, "These men who are present day apostles, our bishops once had adoring crowds of people kissing their rings and taking in their every word, but now relegate themselves to a position of inconsequential existence."  As you know, in today's society, Super Bowl champs are the men who wear rings that people kiss. As you know, many, many people take in your every word. Many will stand in response to that. Others do not—they can't. I wouldn't.

Let us pray that no one in this life be rendered inconsequential. Let us hope that we find fulfillment in many expressions of vocation. Let us love one another, serve one another, and pray for one another, Amen.

Photo Credits
Stay in your lane

Friday, June 21, 2024

Brutiful—Thoughts on the 2024 US Open at Pinehurst No 2

In four years of hosting Faith Fondue, I have noticed that my podcast partner and I reference and return to a number of  themes, topics and tropes time and again. We have made up terms and put others on repeat. Our audience has yet to complain. Thank you, listeners!  Among our favorites is "snark" or "the snark." We do what we can to say away from it.  In a recent episode, Haley shared a compelling word used by her friend —it is "brutifal." It points to a reality—one in which two contrasting ideas are not mutually exclusive but true: brutal and beautiful. How is is that something is both brutal and beautiful? We can both attest to stories and situations that can only be described with this compound word. Such is the framework for thinking about the 2024 US Open. Snark not included.

I just returned from a Sport at the Service of Humanity at Creighton University in Omaha, NE. Since its 2016 origins at The Vatican, this conference—which has taken place on several college campuses—has called on faith leaders, sport and athletic pioneers, and academic experts to explore how to combine the passion of sport and values of faith to build a better world. This gathering commenced on the Monday after the US Men's Open Championship. Nary a session passed without some reference to the final round at Pinehurst #2. It think that "brutiful" is the only way to describe it.

Jay Busbee of Yahoo Sports! captures both the brutality and some of the beauty in this recap. He writes

In an epic battle, DeChambeau and McIlroy went to the 18th hole tied at 6-under. McIlroy, up ahead, missed a 4-foot putt for par, opening the door for DeChambeau. Only, it took some sorcery from DeChambeau to make it happen.

After a wayward drive left him hunched under a tree, forcing him to punch out to a greenside bunker, DeChambeau hit the bunker shot of his life, dropping it to within 4 feet.

Unlike McIlroy, he wouldn't miss, and a second U.S. Open championship was his.

"I can't believe that up-and-down on the last," DeChambeau said. "Probably the best shot of my life."

For McIlroy, it's another major gone without lifting a trophy, this one maybe as bitter as any in the 37 (and counting) since his last major victory at the 2014 PGA Championship. He missed two putts inside 4 feet in the final three holes. Watching inside the scoring tent as DeChambeau's putt dropped, McIlroy understandably looked as dejected as ever.

McIlroy finished one group ahead of DeChambeau. This means upon finishing his round, he had to submit his scorecard and wait—knowing what his mistakes cost him. Brutal. The camera mercilessly showed his reaction to DeChambeau's finish—each stroke of the way: DeChambeau's errant drive that sat on top of some rocks and roots. The punch out into the bunker. One of the better ups and downs in golf history. The 4 foot putt that went in...and did not lip out. High on drama, brutal for McIlroy and his fans to see. 

Too many determine that "Rory choked." Sports fan love to ask How did he miss that putt?  I always wonder: Do these people really play golf? Dear brutality, please meet humility. I have a feeling you have met before.

Rory's finish was the only brutal aspect of this tournament. The course was too. Watching players putt from off the turtle back greens only to see the ball roll to the other side—or worse—back down to where it was. Truly this was a contest of the greatest golfers: man vs. the course. And there's the beauty.

Yes, the course itself is stunning. It's hard to look away from the game when it is played
amidst tall and stately pines on wide fairways, beside native sandy areas. Every hole is interesting and demanding. To me, it is the ideal combination of natural and historic character, highlighted by strategic design. Golf is a beautiful game when the course emerges as an equal competitor. The USGA put Pinehurst and 156 men in play. We saw the winners. Speaking of...

The Snark
A longtime fan of the Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins, so many people shared her her piece about Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova Bitter Rivals. Beloved Friends. Survivors, I had no other choice than to blog about it. I'm glad I did. Nearly one year later, I find myself in a similar situation, but this response is characterized by a different spirit. Jenkins' article U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau is a world-class phony is heavy on brutality, lacking in beautiful. It is far from brutiful. Although she speaks of a difficult reality that the game of golf and many other sports face—in light of Saudi funding—I find the article quite snarky.

The title alone is fair warning. I think the jury is out on Bryson DeChambeau. To call him a phony, albeit a world class one, is mean spirited. The whole piece reeks of snark. The comments section (which I always read with one eye) seems to agree.

She writes,

DeChambeau’s frantic efforts at audience rapport all week long were so obviously a public relations effort to reestablish a connection with golf fans who have recoiled wholesale from LIV Golf. The glint of his smile or the glare of the victory silver should not blind anyone to his actual conduct. It’s a true shame because the 30-year-old with the cartoon superhero’s jaw and the chesty swing yet soft hands really could be the star the game needs to replace the aging, ailing Tiger Woods. As it is, there’s no forgetting he’s a phony.

I have struggled what to make of  DeChambeau. A native of Modesto, CA he grew up playing on the JuniorTour of Northern California. Therefore, I have read about his success in the Northern California Golf Association (NCGA) magazine for years. In short, he is a local guy made good. As a teacher, I appreciate his academic, unconventional approach to the game—one that focuses on physics. It is so calculated and thorough, I begged a colleague to show a video from the Mad Scientist of Golf in his Physics class. He did; kids loved it.

I too take issue with LIV golf and was surprised and disappointed when DeChambeau went to "the dark side." But even before that, I found his brash demeanor to be too much. I grew increasingly less able to cheer for him and celebrate his game. LIV put a nail in that coffin.

But, in the past six months, golf fans everywhere have noticed a change in 
DeChambeau. Has the 30 year old developed and matured? Is it "real?" Is his outreach "authentic?" 

I know the exact moment when I started to take an interest in DeChambeau again. I had seen what he was doing on the course. He was less bulky, no longer wearing the chap cap but now dawning the LIV Crushers logo (I don't care for either look). He threw a ball to a young fan and an adult took the golf ball. DeChambeau confronted him and the wrong was made right. I loved it. His behavior isn't surprising. Many times, it's his world and we the fans are living in it. Still, I don't know that any of this makes him a phony. 

I hope my take is snark free. Regardless, what we fans are experiencing in crowning DeChambeau the champion a question worth consideration: Can we allow people to change? And if we can, what is the criteria we use? How do we really know? We really don't know these people and yet we do--right? I wish Jenkins had weighed in on that.

Time will reveal the truth about who Bryson DeChambeau is. Perhaps there is both brutality and beauty in that. Right now, he is a two-time US Open Champion. The game, this championship has given us so much to think about. On Sunday, sports and a brutiful game emerged victorious.

Photo Credits
Rory putts

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Life Lessons from Tennis by Dr. Roger Federer

I have long believed that I could include a lesson or example from tennis into Sports and Spirituality every single day. Though many of my students do not play or watch the sport, I'm convinced it is a poignant, fitting and sometimes the superior analog. Tennis is physical and mental, offense and defense, singles and doubles, male and female. Tennis is forehand and backhand, serve and volley, baseline and net. Its language is unique—let and love, ace and deuce. Tennis is private and elite—and yet it is accessible, increasingly diverse and global. The greats of the game are some of our country's heroes: Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, and the Williams Sisters. And this graduation season, Roger Federer emerged as one of tennis' great teachers with his Commencement Address at Dartmouth University.

Beginning his professional tennis career at 16, Federer did not attend college. He said receiving a Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Dartmouth was his “most unexpected victory ever.” Still, King Fed served as an ideal speaker because like the graduates, he has recently undergone a time of transition. In his speech he said, 

So I never went to college... but I did graduate recently.

I graduated tennis.

I know the word is “retire.” “Roger Federer retired from tennis.” Retired... The word is awful.

You wouldn’t say you retired from college, right? Sounds terrible.

Like you, I’ve finished one big thing and I’m moving on to the next.

Like you, I’m figuring out what that is.

No, in truth, I’m loving the life of a tennis graduate. I graduated tennis in 2022, and you are graduating college in 2024. So I have a head start in answering the question of what’s next.

Today, I want to share a few lessons I’ve relied on through this transition.

Let’s call them… tennis lessons.

In September 2022, Roger Federer retired from professional tennis. He was 41 years of age (at the time). the Swiss athlete's lessons are practical and wise. Like tennis they are physical and mental, offense and defense, singles and doubles, male and female. I urge you to watch or read it for yourself. They are:

  1. Effortless’ is a myth. 
  2. It’s only a point.
  3. Life is bigger than the court.

Personally, I found point number two to be singular. His examples are fascinating and speak to the breadth and depth of his career. Anyone can heed this advice. I know I need to do so.

Knowing how few of my own students know about Federer's career or play tennis, it's okay to ask Was his message lost on the graduates? And Is it spiritual?

I'll let the Big Green Class of 2024 answer for themselves. I do however find it spiritual. Here's why. In the post "Try Story," Vinita Hampton writes

St. Ignatius understood that our lives are in motion, that we are living stories. A great deal of our spiritual health lies in our ability to see the story-ness of our existence. And not only do we learn to see our lives as meaningful sequences of events, and ourselves as the main characters who become transformed, but we learn to recognize another major character in our lifelong story. God has always been in our story, and as our eyes are opened and we see where God’s love, peace, power, wisdom, and grace intersected our personal sequence of events, we begin to embrace our lives as sacred story—lovely, grace-filled story. 

To me Federer's lesson from tennis amount to a great story. He cites numerous characters and events, motion and drama. We gain a sense of his hopes and his humanity. What and who he loves—his wife and family, his agent who has become his friend—and connection to Dartmouth. Federer's story is a living one and like the graduates, there is much more to be written. Lucky for us, I don't doubt that in some capacity we will get the chance to read new chapters in the years to come.

Roger Federer, you even made this speech look effortless. Thank you for contributing to the cannon that is Sports and Spirituality.

Photo Credits

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Sports and Spirituality Icebreaker: Thank you, Polar Bears

It's graduation season. A moment for our schools and families to pause and participate in a time-honored tradition known as commencement. I love the components that characterize this rite of passage: the pomp and circumstance, academic regalia, baccalaureate mass, the valedictory address and more. Schools give extraordinary awards, extend diplomas and invite leaders, celebrities, authors, athletes, and alumni to impart inspiring messages, words of wisdom and even a call to action to a graduating class. 

Do you remember the person who spoke at your commencement ceremony? And if you remember them, what was their speech about? Did they quote Plato or Socrates? Jesus or a Jesuit named Greg Boyle? Perhaps they referenced a work of art or architecture. Did they share the story of a winning team or the lessons learned from defeat? Or, did they offer lessons from a polar bear. Probably not—which is the purpose of this. No motor board and robe required. 

I found this message on a graduation card, and figured "Advice from a Polar Bear" might serve a nation divided quite well. Though this Arctic animal is not expected to offer the address, we can learn from it just the same. Maybe this is an appropriate message for the kindergarten or eighth grade graduations. But wisdom never shows its age. It's is acquired by time, reflection and living life and meant to be accessible for all. Here's the message from our fury friend:

  • Live Large
  • Be thick-skinned
  • Sniff out opportunities
  • Learn some good icebreakers
  • Be fearless
  • Keep it cool!

In my capacity as a leader in the Office of Adult Spirituality, I have come to see a lot of people dread or fear icebreakers. And yet, we still lead gatherings with them. Why?! I think they are important for tone setting and getting the attention and focus of the community. The polar bear is right. I think leaders—school administrators, teachers, board chairs can benefit from good icebreakers. I suggest collecting them as you go. Hold on to those that energize you and let go of those that do not. 

I created Sports and Spirituality Bingo with the intention that participants would get up and out of their seats to ask questions and get answers from their colleagues/peers. One can fill all squares or a line of five in a row—vertically, horizontally, or diagonally. I offered a general Bingo for the faculty of St. Ignatius College Prep to commence our retreat. Truth be told, the room was buzzing and I got some great recommendations for future reading.

I doubt that a college or university is going to offer an icebreaker at their commencement exercises. And in today's world, we know that colleges and universities must be careful—deliberate and discerning—about the one who is to offer a commencement speech. He or she is given a high profile platform and it's public.This person ought to espouse the values and guiding principles of the institution. Time and again we have seen this go right and seen it go wrong. You may live by the understanding that even bad press is good press. I have wondered Benedictine College's stance on this axiom. Their 2024 speaker, Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker spoke as someone who claims to be "authentically and unapologetically Catholic." His message has garnered a wide-spectrum of responses.  I invite you to watch for yourself. (NB: I watched about the first 12 minutes. That was sufficient for me.).

I make a point of watching the University of Notre Dame's commencement address every year. I still remember a few ideas that Dr. Mary Ann Glendon offered to the Class of 1996. However, the speech and stories from the Laetare medal winner, Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ are seared in my memory. Though she was honored for her work with individuals on death row, we left feeling as though we were the honorees—honored by her presence, her prayers, her humor and example. Thank you, Sister Helen!

Odds are your speaker won't give lessons learned from a polar bear....but this message is worth considering. Maybe that's your next icebreaker: Which one of these points do you find most important? challenging? appropriate for you?!

Congratulations to the Class of 2024—live large! 

If you want the Sports and Spirituality Bingo file, please send me a note and I'll share the document.

Photo Credits

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Challenged Athletes Foundation: No Daylight to Separate Us....Only Kinship

The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre argued that “Hell is—other people." The problem with his claim is that the opposite is also true. Heaven is—other people, too. And no where was this more evident than at the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF)'s seventh annual gala, Celebration of Heart.

CAF has a mission of providing support for people with physical disabilities so they can compete in competitive sports or broadly, in fitness activities …also known as adaptive athletics. It should come as no surprise that "people who are active in sports have higher self-esteem, are great teammates, are more independent and have an enhanced quality of life. CAF is a community—a self-selecting one of forward-thinking adaptive folks who want to excel in life (Shanken)." Sounds like heaven to me. 

As written on their website, "The Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Celebration of Heart is a tribute to our dreamers—honoring the strength and resilience of the athletes who aspire to reach new heights. And to those who have the heart to help them turn dreams into reality."

Held at the magnificent Pier 27, the gathering was meant to be an evening for people to "meet remarkable athletes, learn their stories, and feel their passion." We gained a sense of "how CAF opens a world of opportunities to those with physical disabilities, cultivating communities through programs, mentorships, and coaching; funding the equipment that makes participation possible; and, most importantly, providing unwavering support."

Special guests included 50 athletes—of all ages, races and abilities. From triathletes to basketball players, runners to rowers—there was no inability amidst those who society sees with a disability.
I learned about CAF through the co-chair of the evening—Alan Shanken, a long time CAF board member. Winner of the "never met a stranger award," I met Alan at the Olympic Club where we both work out and play golf. The man can't help but build bridges and create connections with other people. And, we have many—our common love for the Golden State Warriors and Steph Curry, his niece (who is my former student), and East Bay living. I shared with him the stories of two good friends who have their own unique challenges as athletes—Alex is a triple amputee and Mary has a neurological condition that has affected her mobility. In sharing their stories, I got to learn about Alan's stories and the stories of CAF. A friendship was born. I'm so grateful.

Alan was the (unofficial) hospitality chair and served as emcee for the program. I learned a new mechanism for inclusion from his very first speech. For those who may be visually impaired, he described his physical stature, general appearance and what he was wearing. This measure was just one more example that no one at this gathering would be excluded.
Two honorees described their relationship—one of mentor and mentee. Though their physical challenges differ—the mentee is in a wheelchair and the mentor has a deformity on her arm. Both shared their dreams and where that journey has taken them. One woman will compete for the United States in the Paralympic games in Paris this summer. In listening to their testimonies, it's hard to say who has benefitted more from this relationship. It is a positive sum game.

The event raised nearly $800,000. It was obvious to everyone in attendance that CAF is a cause worth supporting and celebration. And, that celebration was manifested on the dance floor. 

In this space, I saw people dancing in their wheelchairs—spinning them around and singing out loud. I held hands with my friend Mary and her walker. At one point, someone took off their prosthetic leg and lifted it up and down as if to shout "L'chaim!" Young and old, coordinated or not, we all stood in a circle—smiling, clapping, just as we are—joy intoxicating us all.
For some people, the idea of getting out on a dance floor is hell. But not this one. The best way to describe it was a place of kinship. Greg Boyle, SJ writes:
No daylight to separate us.
Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased.
I once held a vision of eternal life as this taco stand in Las Brisas, Mexico. I think the dance floor at the Challenged Athletes Foundation—a circle of compassion, inclusion, acceptance and unity, even in our differences—is much more accurate. It is a place of kinship; here, the margins are erased. Join us. All are welcome to participate in the work of CAF. Congratulations to all who planned and hosted a wonderful evening. 

Photo Credits

Saturday, June 1, 2024

How to Grow the Women's Game: Thoughts on the 2024 US Women's Open

The 79th U.S. Women's Open is underway at Lancaster Country Club, where 156 players are competing for the Harton S. Semple Trophy. Nine of the top 10 in the Rolex Women's World Golf Ranking and eight past winners have teed it up, including defending champion Allisen Corpuz and 2015 U.S. Women's Open winner In Gee Chun. As the Eras tour continues in Europe, a new era continues to unfold for women's sports. One might argue that star power alone could get women's golf there, too. The LPGA has a candidate in the red hot Nelly Korda; the number one player in the world is going for her seventh win in eight starts. It's one suggestion, but believe creativity and complementarity are the path to progress for the women's game. Are you ready for it?

Creativity never goes out of style. Curiosity cultivates it. Call it marketing 101. And to that point, I love that the #2024USWO social media campaign called attention to the 2024 host site with the question: How do you say "Lancaster?" Turns out golfers aren't the only ones who have struggled with this phonetic feat. Now, fans know not only how to say "Lancaster" they will remember the club, too. Cool. Creative.

Furthermore, I believe the men's and women's games ought to complement one another. We learn, gain inspiration and can enjoy both. Fandom need not be an either/or proposition;  Following one game shouldn't be at the expense of the other. I will never hit the ball as far as either a man or woman on the tour, but I might 6 putt (Ernie Els—hole one at the 2016 Masters) or take a 10 on a par three (Nelly Korda—hole 3). Professional golfers are both immortal and mortal! I'm the latter, only.

I do wish professional golf would lean into the mindset of complementarity. It may require creativity, but a little could go a long way. For example, in 2014 both the men's and women's US Open championships were held at Pinehurst. This allowed fans to watch both tourneys with a certain familiarity and appreciation for the competition. I valued comparing and contrasting the unique demands the course made of the men and women as it related to their game. 
It's possible that some clubs could not handle all that goes into hosting two major championships (the venue changes every year and the contest is held at both public and private courses). I get it.
In 2029 both the men's and women's championships will be held at Pinehurst! Back-to-back! 

Regardless of venue, perhaps creative timing could help. For example, the men's US Open always takes place on Father's Day weekend. Could the women's US Open follow suit and happen over Mother's Day weekend?  The media does an outstanding job of highlighting the players who are fathers on the tour as well as the Dads and Granddads who taught their sons/grandsons. It's the sweetest of tributes and could correlate to the women's game. There are several mothers who compete on the tour and I would love to hear more about those players who learned the game from their own mom or Grandmom! I say conspire with creativity....see where it goes and who it shows!

In December 2023, golf took a lesson from professional tennis. For the first time since 1999 PGA and LPGA held a mixed-team Challenge Season event: the Grant Thornton Invitational. As written by the PGA

As we look to capitalize on the growing interest in the game of golf, the addition of a mixed event to the calendar has been a priority, and we greatly appreciate title sponsor Grant Thornton for their support in delivering an event that will make our sport more appealing and welcoming to all,” PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan said. “We look forward to partnering with the LPGA as we deliver first-class entertainment and competition to our fans and the residents of Southwest Florida, who have embraced the PGA TOUR for the past 22 years.”

“We could not be more excited to add the Grant Thornton Invitational to our 2023 schedule,” said LPGA Commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan. “By joining forces with the PGA TOUR to host a mixed event where the top male and female golfers in the world compete alongside each other, we’re going to deliver a memorable and entertaining experience for all golf fans, showcasing our players’ incredible skills in a new context to a new audience. This is an important step forward for golf, women’s golf and the LPGA.

Lexi Thompson competes in her final US Open. She qualified in 2007 at the age of 12!

My experience at Wimbledon in the summer of 2023 had me thinking that golf ought to embrace a similar opportunity. While the Grant Thornton Invitational has men and women compete side by side, I don't know why a number of tournaments could not field men and women. They would play the same golf course, but from the appropriate tees. Like tennis, players would enter under the women's or men's draw. This would allow spectators and fans to see the best male and female players in the world! Read more here: Lesson from Wimbledon: A Reminder about the Importance of Equal Access.

Let us continue to usher in a new era for both women's and men's sports. I'd love to see cooperation in the competition. Creativity and complementarity. Let's conspire for both.

Photo Credits
US Open Logo
Two Trophies

Monday, May 27, 2024

The Slow Work of Luka Dončić

Sports fan never tire of talking about speed. MPH. Wheels. Who or what hasn't gotten faster? While Aroldis Chapman officially holds the Guinness World Record for throwing the fastest baseball pitch at  105.8 mph, it's interesting to note that the number of pitchers who can throw 100 mph has increased 31% since 2015. In tennis, the serve has been clocked at shocking speeds. Sam Groth is credited with the fastest serve in tennis history at both a Challenger and ATP tennis event (164 mph and 147 mph, respectively). Yes, both serves were aces. Football fans obsess over how fast (or slow) their favorite players run the forty. Surely a number of records in track, swimming and other sports of speed will be broken in Paris at the Olympic Games. And yet, while the world is speeding up, there's one athlete who is successfully slowing it down: Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Dončić.

Standing 6'7" and weighing 230 lbs you won't have a hard time noticing the Slovenian All-Star. Though he does not get anywhere too quickly, it's hard to argue that he doesn't do so effectively. He goes in and out of the paint, taking shots from downtown or midrange.  Textbook Eurostep gets him to the rim time and again. 

I have come to believe there must be a healthy disconnect between his mind and body. He might make the decision to complete the no-look quickly but the ball finds its way to the open man at a speed that is part of some other multiverse.

He has incredible vision, which allows him to find an open teammate. That decision is made ever-so-quickly, but the pass often looks like a lob. It is never flashy, but its forceful. Dončić's passes have a near downward trajectory. And its merely an extension of his shot. 

No one back peddles better than Luka. You will never say that he is light on his feet to which I would say "Do you need him to be?" He drains the three. He makes game winning shots. He finds open teammates. It's not a sprint. It's not even a marathon. It's a basketball game.

In short, it's worth studying Luka and his game. His purported lack of speed creates space and sets a new pace. For years, coaches and players toy with this equation, but Dončić is on to something. It's not even that "slow and steady wins the race." Again, this is not a race. There is however something to be said for thinking differently about speed. 

Few people espouse the virtues of slow. People criticize the Catholic Church for being slow to change. We want change and we want it now. The Holy See finds wisdom prayer, discernment and the passing of time for potential progress. Some things in life—teachings, guidance, direction—cannot be rushed. None of it is easy. No doubt, there is tension in the waiting and deliberation. But as Ignatius of Loyola advised "stay with the tension." Indeed, it can lead to growth.

We know that patience is a virtue. But patience isn't needed when things come quickly. Rome wasn't built in a day, or even three. Masterpieces take time. Aphorisms continue to address the relationship of humanity to speed, because we are forever up against it. 

In response to the fast food movement, we have slow food. When teaching my cousins to drive, my Uncle Jay passed on what my Grandfather—who taught driver's ed for years—always said "speed kills." Very true.

Golfers might learn lessons from Luka, too. Every golfer knows the counterintuitive nature of the game, especially as it is concerned to speed. Why is it when things start to break down in my swing, I am summoned to slow it down?  Furthermore, one must know the speed of the greens to sink a putt. Are they fast or slow? An awareness of speed is essential.

So where does that leave us? Perhaps with a reminder and an invitation to step back (or should I say back peddle) and go slow. Society will tell us to speed it up but spirituality reminds us to slow it down. You might not need to watch a basketball player like Luka Dončić to learn this lesson, but I have found it to be a fun way to put it into practice. 

Right now it's looking like the Dallas Mavericks will face the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. If I were a Mavericks fan, I would be telling others "trust in the slow work of Luka." For the rest of us, this prayer by is a beautiful one—worth remembering and offering regularly.

Patient Trust by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit 
gradually forming within you will be.

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
 that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

Photo Credits
Slow Work