Swimming champ teaches lessons for all our lifetimes

BeckyMichaelBjThis column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in Towson Times.

It’s my new favorite mug. For four years it sat on a shelf in my kitchen cabinet. But in the last two weeks, it has been cradling my coffee each morning. Created with an online photo gift shop, the mug features my picture with Orioles Hall of Famer B.J. Surhoff on my right.

And to my left, Michael Phelps.

“Becky and her Studs,” was the caption I contemplated. (Who needs diamonds when you have those guys by your side?) But, I thought better of it and instead the mug’s inscription simply reads “March 2004.”

What an understatement.

But it was accurate.

In March 2004, I worked with B.J. and Michael to create public service announcements for a local charity, Pathfinders for Autism, a parent-sponsored nonprofit whose mission is to help parents learn what other parents have discovered about managing life after autism. B.J. and his wife, Polly, are founding board members.

Michael had recently joined us as an honorary board member. He had experienced firsthand the joys that swimming can bring to a child with autism.

“Mason loves the water,” Polly explained when I asked her about the link between autism and swimming. Diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, Mason, like his mother, began swimming at an early age. A national champion herself, Polly still swims competitively and works out at the Meadowbrook Swim Club, where years ago she and Mason met Michael.

Often, autistic children crave pressure to settle themselves if they are feeling anxious. In the pool, the sheer weight of the water can have an amazingly calming effect.

With Polly’s encouragement, Michael joined the Pathfinders board in 2004 and helped launch an awareness campaign through radio and television announcements. Even then, you could tell he was a champion.

“If you have a family member with autism, you’re faced with the challenges of finding the right treatments and support services,” he stated. “Pathfinders Autism Resource Center can help you find the right answers.”

His easy manner and boyish charm crystallized into a steady focus as he read the prepared lines. The transformation was remarkable.

Beyond the incredible medal count and his promotion to one of the world’s best athletes, I love what Michael Phelps has taught us during these Olympics:

Set goals and write them down. Only he and his coach knew his goals for Beijing. Posted by his bedside, he reviewed them daily.

Be private but not aloof. Although in a league of his own, he reportedly enjoyed the Olympic village and hung out with all the swimmers.

Enjoy all the moments, not just your own. He roared not only for his individual achievements, but for those of his teammates.

Take the high road, maintain focus. Sportsmanship counts. Twice he was taunted by competitors and twice he won against them without verbal retaliation. He put bullies in their place with his performance.

Remember who brought you to the dance. His respect and admiration for his mother touched people worldwide as we saw the beauty of a journey shared with family.

Indeed, those who succeed have so much to teach. With my favorite mug and fresh memories, I look forward to the lessons ahead.