As the pandemic raged I moved clear across the country, from sunny California all the way to North Carolina. Every time there was a light at the end of the tunnel, a new Covid outbreak or variant would cause a resurgence and more challenges for everyone. It was clear to me as a professional athlete that, similar to 2020, I was looking at another year of spotty competition at best.
Truth be told, I was fine with that. I was working on fixing my Aerobic Deficiency Syndrome (ADS) with long, slow, aerobic miles on the water. If I’d had the opportunity to race, I certainly would have taken it, but competing at high intensities would have been counterproductive to my health. ADS is where you compete so much that it de-trains you, or you never fully train your aerobic system, and you wind up with high amounts of cortisol (the dreaded stress hormone) as a byproduct of using too much anaerobic metabolism.
This leads to Overtraining Syndrome, feelings of burnout, and greatly diminished health. A lot of people don’t realize that really “fit” athletes can be very unhealthy. I was one of those very fit but unhealthy athletes, and the world-altering pandemic brought with it the silver lining of having time for self care and better health.
I finally realized how unhealthy I had become when the shut down made me take a break from competition. I’m not sure that I would have ever realized the error of my ways if we didn’t all get a little forced time off. The back-to-back competitions, traveling around the world to compete and constant training left me exhausted. But I never noticed it while it was happening because I was always in such a hurry to get to the next event; I had no idea how this grueling schedule had affected me.
It was a life lived entirely within my sympathetic nervous system. I didn’t even know that I had a parasympathetic nervous system, and that it was the key to better health, recovery, and learning. I was always in “fight or flight” mode, constantly training to win and scurrying off to work, practice, or the next “super productive” thing. There was never a moment to waste and my body bore that burden.
I never took time to reflect on my health, my training habits, or my possible addiction to competition. There was never any time to rest, digest, or to take time off for mindful reflection and deep breathing, to stop and smell the roses and let any training or learning I had done sink in. Why should I take the time to look at anything deeper? I had a plan I was following after all. As for my health, I was an athlete, not a junkie, right?
When I got the news that the ICF World SUP Championships were actually going to be held in September, I changed my entire 2021 schedule. It was time to compete at last! I canceled events that I had been planning to attend. I also changed my training around to include a few more anaerobic sessions, in order to gear up for the higher intensity required of the shorter courses that I would be competing on in Hungary.
I was beyond excited for a challenging race and the possibility of doing well. I didn’t just want to compete in my first ICF World Championships. Taking part in a race with high competition meant that there would be good dopamine hits to reward me for winning, so the more competitive, the better!
Was I addicted to competition and winning? It’s possible. After all, I backed out of lower-profile races that I had actually really wanted to do with my friends. I felt gross when I canceled those plans, but they didn’t offer big challenges with big wins, so they had to go.
Somewhere in the midst of all of the uncertainty during the pandemic, and not knowing what races I should or should not do, I found myself lacking direction. I picked up an “I Ching” book to ease the sting of making tough life decisions all by myself. I also read books by Carl Jung and other resources about synchronicities.
I understand that to many people, the I Ching may sound a bit out there, but the world famous psychologist Carl Jung was a fan of it when it came to using the book for inner reflection. Jung said, “Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” Sure, I was looking for guidance and answers, but I was also using the book to present me with prompts to think about. In these uncertain times, I thought this would be a good way to get in touch with myself and answer questions I had about life, which had a lot to do with training and competing. So, it stood to reason that my athletic life would be affected.
Whether you believe in synchronicity or not, the fact that each reading gives you a prompt for deeper self-reflection and an opportunity to work on yourself can be helpful in and of itself. It was one such reflection that was about to upend my plans entirely.
In the nights leading up to the ICF event, I threw the coins on the new moon while focusing intently on the upcoming competition. The prompt was given, forty eight, which is the source, or the well. The reading said, “If the well is not penetrated fully, there will be misfortune.” I felt a slight unease in the pit of my soul.
What is “the well,” I wondered, and how does one penetrate it?
I was a tad nervous because deep inside I already felt like I knew what the well was. I knew how to get to the bottom of it too, and unfortunate as it may be for my current goals, competition simply wasn’t it.
I knew that wanting to win wasn’t what would satisfy me. It certainly wouldn’t nourish me. I knew this because I had drawn “48” just four months earlier when I had been looking for answers in regards to a big adventure I had planned.
The adventure had left me feeling fulfilled, whole, nourished, and alive. The objectives I’d had behind that fulfilling adventure barely resembled the objectives I had for myself at the world championships. Although I dreaded the realization, I knew that craving this new win wouldn’t fulfill me. I rationalized and thought, “I’m a good person and I want to win for the right reasons.”
I wanted to win very badly so that I could have successful businesses. I figured training hard and winning would be an excellent way to launch my new Athlete Agenda planner and my first book, You Are an Athlete. Instead of promoting someone else’s business, I was finally going to promote my own. As a huge bonus, I was also the co-founder of Paddle Ninja, an online training platform for paddlers, and a win would most certainly send lots of people our way for successful training plans.
Building my business was important to me and I wanted successful businesses so that I could make a living. Just to be transparent, up to this point, “professional female athlete” hadn’t been a very lucrative career.
I was determined to prove that I could make a viable career out of being a female athlete, and I wanted to make enough so that I could finally give back! I was passionate about starting a non-profit women’s water sports team that pooled resources and money to help other women jumpstart their careers. I wanted to give other women a leg up where I’d had none.
To say I had built up this event and all that it could achieve in my head would be a magnificent understatement. All the big dreams I had somehow came to rest on the shoulders of this one race. In hindsight, I realize how ridiculous that was. Alas, hindsight is 20/20.
What exactly is “the well?” It’s also referred to frequently as “the source.”
The translated reading says:
“The town may be changed,
But the well cannot be changed.
It neither decreases nor increases.
They come and go and draw from the well.
If one gets down almost to the water
And the rope does not go all the way,
Or the jug breaks, it brings misfortune.”
The “I Ching Workbook” by R.L. Wing that I acquired has a full page explaining, “The Well.” There were a few statements that I took the time to transcribe from the page into my journal, along with my thoughts.
The first thought that struck me was, “The well is the deep, inexhaustible, divinely centered source of nourishment and meaning for humanity.” This touched me deeply because “the well” is something all of humanity has in common. It connects us, unifies us, makes us “human,” but is also “divinely centered.” The book continued on to say, “The source contains and is born of the collective truth of humanity.” In other words, whatever we’re seeking at the bottom of this well, we are all simultaneously seeking it. Yet, it is the result of what we truly want.
The second thought I wrote down was that, “You must always return to ‘the source’ of your true nature for fulfillment.” This made me wonder, What is my true nature? What do I want? And why do I want it?
These are questions I may never be able to answer, but the book continued on to say: “The source receives from the individual’s experience, or not.” Whatever is at the bottom of the well (for me) comes from the experiences I am exposed to, chosen or not. These experiences that I’m faced with in life shape me as a human.
The source receives from my experience. Do I contribute to the source or take away from it? In everything I do, am I depleting the source, or am I contributing to it? The source will give to my nature always. If my nature is positive, will I get positive? If I am negative, will I receive more negative?
Maybe I’m over simplifying a very complex concept, but this sentiment echoed other advice I received throughout my life. These are not facts. These are just things that were said to me by other people:
“The malarial mosquito that bites the enlightened yogi drops dead, the yogi remains unharmed” (definitely don’t take that as real medical advice, but it was real advice I received first hand from a real yogi in the middle of India, and he certainly believed it)
“If you are really pure of heart, you gonna win in the end. Remember that.” (The grammar needs work, but it’s a nice sentiment nonetheless.)
These two quotes aren’t the most beautiful expressions of literary genius, but when spoken or read to me, they felt real. They made me feel strong, powerful, and sure I could take on any challenge thrown my way. Maybe they are silly or naive, but the theme shows up time and time again in literary references from simple cartoons to fine novels.
Do you remember the brave but altogether unsuspecting Smurfs, or the kind but oblivious Rocky and Bullwinkle? Evil forces constantly tried to take them out while they remained mostly unaware. Or consider The Pirate in Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats, a simple man who loved his dogs, and who, despite his friends’ plans to take advantage of him, always came out relatively on top and unscathed. At least as far as fiction works are concerned, when your heart is pure, those mosquitos drop dead left and right and you just keep on trucking.
When it was almost time to set out to paddle the 333 miles from my home on Hyco Lake, North Carolina to Cape Hatteras, completely solo and just for fun, I was feeling nervous and entirely unconfident. It was definitely something I had never done before and there were plenty of things that could go wrong.
In April 2021, just five months before the ICF SUP World Championship event, with the mystery of my self-supported adventure looming, I threw the I Ching coins asking for guidance from the universe, or at least a meaningful prompt for deeper self-reflection before I shoved off into the unknown.
For some reason, on that day, I loved the answer “48.” It felt like a good answer and I enjoyed the relief that followed. I was happy with that answer and reflected on it for a bit. I was thinking things like, The well is where we go for nourishment, and I go to nature for nourishment.
I was excited at the prospect of heading out on my own and trusting that I would be free in nature. If the well wasn’t penetrated fully, there would still be misfortune, but I certainly didn’t feel any misfortune looming. It felt like nothing could go wrong, paddling silently by myself in the bliss of nature.
Every stroke of my journey from Hyco to Hatteras was filled with beauty, synchronicity, luck, and zero danger. If danger was lurking, it never had the opportunity to show itself. Even though the trip was “go with the flow” and “make no plans,” it flowed better than I could have possibly planned it. Everything just fell into place the way it should. I can’t say I felt anything resembling that before the ICF SUP World Championships.
What does it really mean to be an athlete? Is it about trying to win? Can you enjoy training and pushing yourself and still be a top competitor without caring about winning? For me, the answer is a resounding yes. It almost seems counterintuitive that an athlete could want to win but also want to penetrate the source.
Perhaps letting go of the win at the right moment is key. You have to want it in the moment of competition, but you can’t be so blinded by desire and striving along the way that it leaves your rope too short or with a broken and leaky water bucket at the end.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I experienced at the ICF. I had wasted all of my energy worrying about my businesses, the win, and my success that was wrapped up in it all. There were a lot of holes in my bucket, too many to keep the water inside. At the same time, I concerned myself with worldly gains, and my rope grew shorter and shorter, lessening my ability to even reach the water to begin with.
Don’t mistake the water at the bottom of the well for the well itself. The well is the source of your nourishment, but it is not the nourishment.
Paddling is the well. Writing is the well. My garden is also a well. Your well might be something different. You might enjoy reading, walking, or crafting.
The water at the bottom is something you connect to with a metaphorical rope and bucket. The rope/body has to be strong and sufficient for the task and the bucket/mind can’t allow leaks.
The water is the same for most of us. It’s our ability to be quiet with ourselves. We desire clarity, self-sufficiency, doing for the sake of doing, wu wei, the tao, flow, consciousness, mindfulness, awareness, mushin, and enlightenment. We can always return to the well and reach the water. Our bucket and rope aren’t always in good shape, so sometimes we need to make some repairs before we lower them down.
When it comes to whatever your “well” is, I think that a chill vibe and loving every minute of it is really important. The big performance secret is not forcing nor striving too hard, but simply letting it happen.
Come to think of it, everything we do has the opportunity to become a well in life. Whether we win or lose, we can find meaning and gratitude in it. It could be competing in a worldwide championship, or it could be driving, doing the dishes, or any other daily task.
Anything done with mindfulness and awareness can become training for future mindfulness and awareness, which means future meaning and gratitude. We can return to the well time and time again to recenter ourselves, to nourish ourselves, if only we know where to look.