Yesterday while standing on the pool deck talking with a fellow triathlete Karah Osterberg, I observed that the person swimming one lane over from the lane I’d chosen looked mighty fast. “That’s Leah Hayes,” Karah told me. “You know, the one with her name all over the record board?” as she pointed across the pool where the name LEAH HAYES filled nearly every category.
Sure enough, I’d noticed Leah’s name at every level from eight-years-old to the current day. Year-after-year she has set pool records. Now she has six national age-group records to her credit.
Her coach sat at the end of the lane next to the pool. Leah was cruising through sets of 50-meter reps making it look so easy that I was reticent to get into the water at all. Karah smiled and waved as I sat with my legs in the water. “Have fun!” she chirped, as I watched Leah spin through a flip turn as smooth as a metal cylinder.
Leah is a gifted athlete. She is also a refreshingly straightforward person, as you’ll see from this Sports Illustrated video about her life and its challenges.
As you can see, this young lady has a big heart in many ways. With seemingly so few genuine people making headlines in this world, it is refreshing to meet someone so determined to do well while doing good with others. “I love to compete!” she notes in this video. Yet she also shakes the hand of every competitor.
I guess I share, in some elder way, an appreciation for her honest approach to losing her hair. Those of baldies know that it makes no difference whether you have hair or not. Mine is male-pattern baldness while she has an auto-immune response that attacks hair follicles. Granted, the loss of hair on the head for a woman is not easy. Yet it might have been far more socially traumatic thirty years ago than it is today. One of the things I love about the liberal aspects of our culture is that people are far more often allowed to be who they are, or who they want to be. Those who can’t accept that are the people with real problems.
By example, her fourth-grade classmates got the picture about her hair follicles quick enough. I’ve been substitute teaching lately and have observed that in some ways, kids are far more accepting of differences than most adults in this world. They still pick on each other, and bullying still takes place. But when you talk to them about it, they also get the reasons why it’s wrong. That’s progress.
It was an honor to swim next to such a great example of character and purpose in this world. I also learned some technique by watching Leah move through the water. She’d pop up between intervals with a bright smile, a set of sparkling earrings and a willingness to chat quickly between sessions that would leave lesser swimmers gasping for breath and unable to talk.
I’ve met many world-class athletes in my life. I believe I just met one more. And it made my day, for sure.