Crossing Norm’s Bridge
Normally, I would not have stepped onto the boat.
I am not invited and question whether I really belong on this boat.
Yet, on this spring evening at 2008 Canoe Sprint Olympic Trials in Oklahoma City, I am glad to have a few minutes to catch up with my longtime friend from summer camp, Norm Bellingham.
Our respective work brings us to Oklahoma — Norm as the Chief Operating Officer of the United States Olympic Committee and me for my broadcast duties with NBC Olympics in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games in China.
Norm also happens to be a fellow Olympic champion in canoeing.
As we make the short walk from the race venue to the boat dock, I am planning just a brief visit with Norm before leaving him to his evening with VIPs and dignitaries.
“Come on, Joe. It’s a boat ride,” Norm says, prodding me to join this sunset excursion on Oklahoma River aboard the Devon Cruiser, a 60-foot cabin cruiser that is typically booked for private parties and business meetings.
“Sure, why not?” I said reluctantly.
As the boat departs the Oklahoma City Boathouse District, I have no idea about the bridge upon which I am taking a small step forward.
A bridge’s symbiotic relationship to the river below it forms a distinctive energy.
An energy that implies connection.
This was not the first time that Norm led me to the entrance of an unexpected life bridge — another bridge in which the other side was not visible.
Twenty-five years earlier, a small purplish station wagon pulled up to the lake at the summer camp in the Washington, DC area where we had learned to paddle.
On this day, I was paddling on the lake in a doubles canoe with my friend, Nicky Markoff. Nickly’s younger brother, Alex, joined us in his kayak.
The driver who stepped out of the car had become a legend around camp — and much further beyond. At 18 years-old, Norm’s enduring work ethic and his race results were on the rise within a training group that already included the world’s best canoeing athletes.
“You guys want to go to a workout on a Feeder Canal?” Norm asked.
To say we were excited was an understatement.
We tied down all of the boats atop Norm’s car and made the 45 minute drive towards the Feeder Canal, a canal designed by George Washington that feeds water from the Potomac River into the C&O Canal. The Feeder Canal was the training site for the majority of the U.S. National Team athletes.
At first, Norm set a few practice courses for us. He would give us instructions, feedback, and demonstrate better ways to navigate the water.
Then, other athletes started to show up. By “other athletes,” I mean that nearly every one was a world champion or world medalist. It was the first time we had seen these athletes — our heroes — “up close and personal.”
Then, Bill Endicott, the legendary coach of the sport, arrived on the river bank and addressed the group. He explained the training session — which sounded absurdly hard. But Norm encouraged us to give it a go.
After one repetition, Coach Bill waved us over to the tree branch overhanging the river where he always sat. Bill rattled off all of the upgrades in equipment that we would need — boats, paddles, lifejackets, etc.
It was an overwhelming intake for a couple of 13 year-olds and some of the memories from this day remain a blur.
But, after the session, Bill said something that I will never forget.
“It’s so great you guys are paddling together at such a young age. Come back again soon!”
A step further out on to this bridge.
A bridge that would guide my competitive life on the river for the next 21 years.
A bridge brings focus to our ambitious pursuits that would be challenging, if not impossible, to accomplish alone.
The first two sections of this series, The Paddler’s Energy and River Strategy, combined with our current section, Relationships Bound By Water, comprise my three fundamentals in pursuing contentment on an uncertain river. Everything else is course correction and adaptation.
Relationships that form amid the forces of uncertainty not only share the navigational experience but inevitably reveal the quality, depth, and strength of such alliances in our most vulnerable moments.
As the river represents the medium for an essential life advancement, a bridge vastly expands its impact.
(Which is where we will continue next Sunday on a boat ride up the Oklahoma River.)
With gratitude, — Joe
Crossing Norm’s Bridge is a part of my continuing Sunday Morning Joe series, The Pursuit Of Contentment On The River Of Uncertainty.
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I coach established and experienced professionals, who feel stuck in place, to thrive in transition and bring focus to what matters most without compromising their lives.
My personal experiences winning an Olympic Gold Medal, serving as CEO of a national sports organization, and my current “Simple, Slower, and Less” lifestyle in the Catalan Pyrenees help to form accountable and transformative collaborations that see my clients create their next and most impactful chapter.