With the Olympics Games underway, and the Parolympics just around the corner, I am reminded of when I was an athlete in my own Games. I have had many wonderful experiences that helped shape who I am today and recently I have found myself looking back at those times as a source of strength and courage. These are the very things I need to continue moving forward on the roller-coaster ride of becoming an entrepreneur and starting to living life again.
Many people in New York know about the Empire State games but few people knew that during those games there were also games for physically challenged athletes.
Back when I was in fifth grader in the Syracuse City school district I was approached by a woman during one of my classes. She had blonde hair and was dressed like a gym teacher, her name was Ann. She talked with me in the hallway outside my classroom about an opportunity to be a part of the Games for the Physically Challenged and explained that I would train and compete in athletic events be they skiing, track and field or swimming and we would work out what sports would best suit me. I would compete with other disabled athletes from all over New York state and have the chance to win medals. Ann told me that she was one of the coaches for the area and I would be traveling with her to competitions. She then asked me if I was interested in joining. Of course I said yes, but first we had to check with my parents. Needless to say, my parents thought this was a fantastic opportunity for me and so shortly after that I began my training.
Ann would meet with me at school to practice techniques, determine what weights of shot put and discus I would use at my events, measure the distance of my throws, and time my sprints. It was only then that I started to compete.
The bus rides to the events were always filled with so much anticipation. Spending time with other athletes and volunteers singing songs, playing games, the snacks, and sense of comradery was a joy. I was among friends and people who truly believed in me. For competitions I would travel to different parts of New York from Amsterdam, to Brockport, Lake Placid and down to Long Island. I participated in a number of events including, shot put, discus, club throw, 40-meter sprint, the back stroke, and downhill skiing. We had it all; an Opening ceremony where we walked in with a cheering crowd of people, countless events, a medal ceremony and a closing ceremony banquette. There would be a buddy or a volunteer that would accompany an athlete to their sporting event, and meals as well as be their best cheerleader. Many of these trips would be more than a day or two and to go on overnight trips was very thrilling as a kid. This independence and winning gold medals gave me a really great feeling of achievement. How could I not feel the love?
One my most exciting and formative experiences was just around the corner. It happened on a night like most nights of the week, I was 18 and a total daydreamer and after doing homework I was sitting snuggled up on the couch in our den watching a movie. That night A Circle of Friends was playing and it was set in 1950’s Ireland. Watching the movie I began to feel the draw of journey to Ireland. Envisioning the lush green rolling hills, dramatic ocean side landscape, I imagined surrounding myself with the people, history, and culture feeling the music and maybe getting to visit a real Irish pub or two (because you can’t go to Ireland and not visit pub, I mean It’s just not right). I began to imagine so vividly in my mind I was there!
The loud ring of the phone broke me from my dreaming. Most times I would jump to see if the phone was for me, but tonight I wanted to stay close to my movie and continue to dream of going to Ireland. Then I heard my mom call my name, “Bryony the phone’s for you!” Dammit!!! I was going to miss the movie! I was... not happy. Grumbling to myself, I answered the phone.
I was surprised to hear Ann’s voice on the other end of the line. She was calling to tell me about another event, an opportunity to do something special with the Games and she wanted to know if I would be interested in going. At this point I said sure without knowing anything, I just wanted to get back to my movie. That’s when it happened, the words that would forever change my world, “You're going to Ireland!”
I froze and screams of exhilaration filled my head. It was to be an all-expense paid trip for two and a half weeks and I would compete against Irish athletes. I managed to hold my composure until I hung up the phone and then all the jumping, laughing, screaming followed immediately after. I was so wrapped up in the feelings of the moment, I could feel tears start to swell up in my eye. It was really happening! I had wished felt and believed I was there and now the dream was real. How could my wish come to me so fast? At the moment I didn’t care and I ran to tell my mother the amazing news. Now the only thing I needed to do was get my passport ASAP and prepare for my trip. It was going to take a lot for me to make it through the next few months and pay attention in school. I can say I did manage but it was not easy for this ADD girl.
Up at dawn for a long drive the airport in Rochester, NY. It was early July and this would be my first time flying and traveling alone without my family. Was I nervous? Oh yes! All the excitement buzzing through my body was more than enough to keep those feeling at bay, though. At the airport I was introduced to the other athletes from the area and some coaches. We were heading down to NYC where we would meet up with the rest of the team and our chaperones before we made the journey across the ocean.
Our flight on Aer Lingus was long and the turbulence... I have decided it is not my favorite. It’s complicated enough holding on to things with my hands but a super bumpy ride well it's hard to hold a cup with only one finger while your being bounced around. Upon our landing in Dublin the first thing we did was eat! Greeted with a warm welcome in that unmistakable Irish brogue we were treated to a full Irish breakfast while we waited for our luggage to make it through customs. It was perfect: eggs, bangers, potatoes, roasted tomatoes and black and white puddings. “What was a black and white pudding?” The thought was most definitely in my mind but, super hungry, I dove right in and tried everything and liked it all. Later I found out what the puddings were, “I ate what?” Yup, shocked to find out it was blood sausage. All I can say is cheers to having a new culinary experience!
Finally, we made it onto the bus that would take us to down to County Wexford to meet with our host families who we would stay with while doing some touring of the area. Each athlete was encouraged to bring along a gift for our host families as a thanks for their generosity and opening their homes. Being from New York I decided to offer something that would bring New York to Ireland and matched my loving cooking. I brought the New York Cookbook by Molly O’Neal. This is where my fun begins.
Throughout the trip the team visited a few pubs. For me, this was one thing on my checklist. My father, who came from a very Irish family and dreamed of visiting a few himself, told me that it was a must for me to bring back stories for him. I went to one pub in Wexford that was down the street from my host families home. It looked just like one would think an Irish pub would be: dark wood, pressed tin ceilings, pictures on the walls of people who have come before, Irish liquors and beers lining the shelves behind the bar, benches, stools and a place to play some music. The comfortably dimly lit rooms were filled with the sounds of laughter and conversation from those young and old gathering to be together.
Since second grade I was involved with music. I had been in all of my school's chorus groups, plays and a musical group called Peace Child. I always wanted to show that I could be a great solo singer but I rarely had the opportunity and others always seemed to be picked over me though I knew I would someday have more chances.
On my first trip to a pub, the stage was set for people to come up and sing or play an instrument for the evening. Oh, what fun. I sat with excitement to hear the voices of the local people. After a while, a call when out to anyone else who wished to sing that night. In my heart I did. I could feel it, I wanted it, to become part of the atmosphere of the evening but I just sat there locked in my thoughts.
I totally chickened out! I missed my chance because I was scared! Scared of what people would think of me, those thoughts of self-defeat spun through my head. What will they think of me? I going to mess it up. my voice will crack. I’ll forget the words. Who are you, thinking you are a good singer? It's just not worth it if people will think bad of me. Whoa! I really fell into that thought train pretty hard. Leading me down a track that I have been down before. The self-talk that played in my mind at different times in my life the perceived lack of value because of my disability. For as much as I was strong, I also felt weak and unworthy. I always found such joy from the little things in life I could disguise my pain from the fate I was given at conception. I let those feelings prevent me from having fun and truly living in that moment.
That feeling came and went throughout my trip. Mostly masked by all of the other adventures I was having and relationships I was creating.
Then came another chance. At a pub in Dublin. Much like the night in Wexford, a call went out to anyone in the pub who wanted to perform. With some hesitation, I raised my hand slowly as if no one would see it go up. I was spotted and encouraged by my teammates to go up. Fear was still abundant in my heart with a bit of courage starting to trickle in around it. Then I sang with my voice alone filling the space around us all. Everyone listening to each note coming from my voice. Whoo!!! I did it! I did it! I did it! Do I remember the song? No. Was my performance perfect? No. Did I find bravery and bring peace to my heart in that moment? Absolutely yes! What a relief it was that all of my fears of being inadequate that I had envisioned did not come to pass. It was just my mind playing sneaky tricks on me, keeping me from living and experiencing life. People cheered, congratulated me and in that moment I conquered.
One of the volunteers in Wexford was a tall young Irish man a couple of years older than myself. For three days we hung out, talking, sharing dreams, laughing while sightseeing around southern parts of Ireland. We went to a stud farm, a castle, an Irish heritage park, and a meeting with Wexford's mayor for dessert. On our last night in Wexford before the team was to drive up to Dublin the team went to a party being held at a local hotel. Once there we watched some local step dancers and enjoyed the time with friends. After the dancers had finished he asked me to the floor for a dance. Responding yes. We danced smiling. Fast and slow to whatever music played. Before the night ended he asked me to stay in Wexford and not go up to Dublin, a request that threw me for a total loop. I had to go up to my events and I asked why he could not just come along to Dublin. He told me that he was going to start training to become a Garda, the police for the Republic of Ireland and asked me to come meet his parents for breakfast the next day. He went on to explain that he had a close family, he’d have a good paying job and that I would be well taken care of if I chose to stay with him and start a life together and not go back to the US. I let him know that I had to go back home, I was not ready for that part of my life yet. The moment was completely surreal and I could almost hear enchanted Celtic music playing as if I was part of an old fairy tale. Again, I told him that I could not stay and he did not continue to ask. We just continued to have fun with the friends around us and we walked me back to my host families home and respectful said goodbye and gave me a hug. That was the last time that I saw him.
This moment opened my mind to the belief that I could really find love. Not at the moment but when I was ready for it to come into my life. Here was a man who, for the few days that we were together, saw me for a vibrant young woman with passion and spirit and so much to accomplish in life.
My mom used to tell me that I had the best tools to determine who was a good man and who was not, my hands. She said that a man that would truly love me would not see my hands as a disability but part of what made me unique and beautiful. She was right. I found a great man a year later who would become my husband, soulmate and best friend. Thanks, mom. Do I every ask what could have been? Sure, it’s one of those “what if?” moments in life. Though as the years go by I can see more and more that I am just where I need to be. This experience felt like it was a nudge from the universe telling me that love was coming and that I needed to be open to it when it came my way.
For the rest of my time in Ireland, I would be staying at a school for the deaf, the campus where we would have our events. The team would continue our sightseeing tour with a visit to Dublin Castle and a bus tour around Dublin to see all the historic landmarks. We visited the Guinness factory, Half Penny bridge, Trinity college, went shopping and eating on Grafton Street and more. One of the funniest moments came when I saw a horse walking down a busy street of Dublin all by itself. Yup, that's right. A horse. One would think you would see the usual dog or cat perhaps. But a horse in the city! Now that just blew my mind. I think that it may have come from the gypsy camp that we passed along while traveling the city.
There have been only a few famous people that I have met in my life but this was one that struck me with awe. American Royalty and a true Irish family. The Kennedy family. It as with luck that this trip we were invited to the estate of Jean Kennedy Smith the American Ambassador in Ireland for a celebration in honor of her sister Rosemary. My big take away was that I went to a Kennedy party. I was completely starstruck and I locked that one away in my totally awesome experience bank. Because when was that opportunity ever going to be invited to the home of Kennedy again?
We spent the afternoon at her home touring the grounds and the house. Seeing pictures that I only saw in textbooks were sitting right there on her piano. I could barely keep my composure. How could I get this lucky? The closest I would get to an American dynasty. Jean was composed, elegant, and very patient with all the very attentive visitors. What a surreal moment for me. We made sure to get a group picture with Jean and I could not leave without having her sign my booklet of the day's activities. I also enjoyed our tour guide and Jean's intern from the US. He was not much older than me and cute. So when asked to have a one on one tour of the rose garden with him I said yes! I think my cheeks were flushed the whole time. Well, after that it back to reality and time to get ready for my events.
When it came time to compete I was comfortable with my new surroundings and feeling confident that I would excel. With some old and new friends to cheer me on I propelled myself to race faster and throw further in all of my events, letting the feelings of pure exhilaration and pride in myself lead me to victory. When my events were through I was both tired and amazed that all the hard work back home lead to this moment. On this trip, I had pulled myself out of self-defeating thoughts, overcome some fears, learned some truths about myself and my future and had a load of fun to boot. I had the power within myself to accomplish what I put my mind to by getting out of my own way, taking action and letting the positive, strong and winning thoughts shine through. I believed and then I achieved! I was on top of the world and nothing was ever going to bring me down from this place. I had earned it all and it was worth every glorious minute.
When it came time for the medal ceremony and banquet I was still riding high and so wanting to hear the results of my events. Sitting at my table I listened to the other athlete's names get called up to receive their medals. With each name called the room erupted into joyous screams. Finally, somewhere in the middle of the bunch, it was my turn. I heard my name and I waited in silence to hear my events and where I placed. One by one they were called out and all I could hear was, “Gold, Gold Gold!” All the cheering and screaming seemed to slow in that moment, then my heart leaped from my body as I rose from my chair and made my way to the stage to receive my medals and have them placed around my neck. This was one of my finest moments, a feeling like no other I have had. I was more than just a girl with a disability, more than just the sum of my fingers and toes. I was a champion and this was something no one could ever take from me.
When all the fun and excitement was over it was time to pack up and go home. The bus ride to the airport was quiet and sad. I traded addresses with the others in hopes that we might stay connected over the years.
I was already in mourning at the end of my adventure. I was still wanting more, knowing that there were more experiences to be had but my time in Ireland had come to an end. Many hugs and tears were shared at the airport that day and the heaviness of the goodbye remained in our hearts as we journeyed home. I have so wished and longed to return to the lush green rolling hills of that alluring land.
The road to changing my life and becoming an entrepreneur has taken me through a number of trials, thoroughly testing me in ways that I could never have expected or prepare for. I have struggled to find the necessary belief in myself and my ability to do the work. Throughout, I have ridden a cyclone of emotion including fear and doubt. Fear has made me feel alone and at times has left me frozen, leaving me with the feeling that I lack the worthiness to ever achieve the life I am trying to create. Sometimes I believed that I must be crazy, and who am I to have this dream and how will it even come true? Should I just give up and go back to doing a regular job so that I can end all this pain and struggle? Yet I recoil at the thought of giving up and going back to doing the usual everyday thing, losing my dream.
It is when I am at the bottom that I bring myself back to my time in the games and remember my adventures, success, and the lessons that I learned along the way. I am on my own heroine's journey, pushing to keep myself going no matter how impossible the task seems to be. Changing the fears that keep me frozen to a power that charges my journey, opening me up to new experiences and propelling me forward. Along this road I find that holding the love of my family close, finding joy in simple things, recognizing my successes no matter how small and continuing to truly believe there is great thing ahead enables me to find the courage to rise and uncover the spirited women I once was and become a woman living her dream and finding true happiness and purpose.
When you truly Live, Eat and Love well every day, wonderful things can happen. Wishing You Joy, from the Fingerless Kitchen ~ Bryony Grealish Syracuse, NY