March 22, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
Coming off a hyper-tight loss to Miami in a battle between ranked squads, the men’s tennis team is in town for spring break this week rather than out like many of their student-athlete brethren from The Flats.
Coach Kenny Thorne had a tall net of sorts before him. His vision: “I said we had to do something special. We’re coming off a loss. We need to get these guys in an uncomfortable position, and try to do something pretty cool.”
Thorne has little interest in babying his squad, but he cares. You wanna swim with the big boys of sport? The window for self-pity is the size of a port (hole). This is not a developmental squad; everybody is back from last season. The time is nigh.
So back into the ocean, fellas! And bring a change of underwear. There are sharks out there and whale sharks, too.
Seriously; and you’re going to swim with them.
The Jackets had scant idea they’d end up swimming with whale sharks Tuesday in the Georgia Aquarium, although they probably had funny feelings among them when they were told to bring swimming suits to Centennial Park.
“I kind of thought about it, thought something was up,” said junior Dusan Miljevic. “But I definitely didn’t think we were going to go swim with sharks.”
First, the team gathered in Centennial Park for a surprise meeting with Louie Giglio, an emerging pastor/motivational speaker from metro Atlanta who helped handle pre-game chapel duties for the Auburn Tigers before the national football championship game.
This would not be so simple, nor shallow, as a quick swim for the Yellow Jackets.
Thorne thinks deep, even if he sometimes comes off light.
Giglio’s messages/sermons have become popular with college-age people. You can look him up. Thorne’s become a fan, too.
“Just a passionate guy who loves tennis,” the coach said of Tuesday’s speaker. “When you get around guys who thrive on excellence, you want to get them around your team and he’s one of those guys.”
There could be great volume spent on Giglio’s messages. Time prevents that. Here follows a condensed version of what he said over 25 minutes to the team, gathered in the park by the statue of Billy Payne, whom none of the players claimed to have known of when Giglio asked.
The cornerstone of the speech/sermon was about vision, and the importance of having it. He referenced Payne, the businessman/entrepreneur who not only helped bring the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta, but willed Centennial Park into being.
“Where you’re standing right now was a wasteland. Abandoned warehouses as far as you could see in every direction,” Giglio said. “A bunch of people came to work every day . . . they’d say, `I wish somebody would do something about that.’ That’s the way most people think.
“Most people in life never have any vision other than, `I’m going to watch Jersey Shore tonight, and go to McDonald’s tomorrow.’ But Billy Payne looked out his window [over said wasteland every day at work], saw this area and had a vision.”
There was great inspiration in that part of the speech, and then Giglio came to another turning point: the concept, so very real for all of us, of adversity.
He referenced the bombing that took place in the park during those Olympics, mere meters away from where we were standing. My pregnant wife and I had been in the park a couple hours earlier, not 20 yards from the explosion point.
The Olympics went on despite the loss of life. One #@$% did not succeed in wiping out hundreds nor interrupting a global concave. The vision moved onward.
“Remember that when you have a dream, you’re going to face adversity. Remember, you are not the first person to face adversity,” Giglio said. “When you come up against your bump . . . most people say, `Why me?’ and they bog down and that becomes the end of their dream.
“You should say, `This happens to everybody who wants to do something great. There’s always going to be a roadblock.’
“In that moment, that’s when we’re either going to become ordinary and say forget it, or we’re going to step on top of that adversity and go, `Hello, Billy Payne, and every other person who’s had a dream. I’m not the first person who’s had adversity, and I am going to choose to rise up and stand up on that adversity and look further down the road.’ “
Given the importance of transition in life, Giglio’s slide into another uplifting example of he who overcame – the tale of Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus growing up poor only to one day cook up with the vision of and $250 million for the world’s greatest aquarium – was impressive.
Then, to the aquarium, with an energy uptick; Spidey senses were tingling.
Without question, assistant coach Aljosa Piric was the most nervous. They don’t swim with whale sharks in his native Bosnia.
“Are you going to swim,” he asked.
“No. Are you nervous?” I replied.
Earlier in the park, Giglio started by saying, “There is scripture that says without vision, people perish.”
Piric appeared to fear that would perish even though his eyes were open . . . wide open.
There were great, great photo opportunities, and I hope some of the pictures show up on the Tech website of the team swimming in two groups of eight.
The alternate group went down into a tunnel beneath the tank, and looked up to see teammates and coaches with whale sharks, sharks, grouper, rays, swordfish and much more between them and their teammates/coaches.
“Beautiful, simply beautiful,” Thorne said when he came out of the water. Piric had a different description.
“For the first 10 minutes, I could barely breathe, I couldn’t get my heart rate down,” he said. “One touched me, I swear. My heart rate shot back up. I couldn’t breathe.”
All turned out well. Beyond that, really.
The best comment of the day came at the very end, when I chatted with Miljevic.
I swear I did not lead him into his answer. I asked something like whether the whale sharks were amazing when close or something like that.
After his answer, while driving home, I thought metaphorically — there are whale sharks everywhere, big-time adversity at every corner.
I didn’t ask Miljevic about any of that. But consider what he said:
“I really enjoyed it,” he said. “[The whale sharks] were awesome, but I found it amazing when a lot of fish came together, and they were in a group . . . the yellow ones, especially, because they kind of shined in the water.”
Yellow, old gold . . . pretty much the same.
Wish you were there? You should. If you’ve been through anything like this, let’s hear it at firstname.lastname@example.org.