We’re all tested in life now and then. About four years ago, Heather tried out for the Cleveland Cavaliers dance squad and went through quite a crucible. On June 28, 2008, on the eve of the finals, I wrote her the following letter. I’m grateful that Heather is letting me share it with you. Enjoy, my sweet daughter, and maybe it will help you one day.
All my everlasting love,
First of all, congratulations on making it to the finals. I knew you would be there!! We’re all very proud of you. I can only imagine how physically and mentally drained you must be, and I suspect tomorrow will be more of the same. There are a few things I hope you can keep in mind.
First and most importantly, I can promise you that without exception every other person who made it to the finals is feeling exactly the same as you. The same exhaustion. The same anxiety. The same fear that everyone else is more confident, better rested, and more prepared than they are. That may be hard to believe in this moment but it's true. As you can probably attest from what you yourself may be feeling, being outwardly poised does not make your inner feelings any less excruciating.
I suspect that a number of the other young women who will be competing against you in the finals tomorrow are current or former Cavs cheerleaders, or have been on local teams like the one you were on in San Diego, or appear to be friends with each other. That might concern you and make you think they have a leg up on you. But they don’t, and they are thinking exactly the opposite. To you it looks like they have great camaraderie. To them it’s the reverse. They look at you as unburdened by their existing rivalries and petty internal fights.
You may be thinking that the judges look at them as the tried and true. They fear the judges look at them as old news and look at you as the fresh, hot new blood they’re convinced the Cavs are looking for. You wonder if they have an advantage because they’ve been to local workshops. They wonder what workshops you've attended, and what moves you know that they do not.
Take it from someone who has competed his whole life and has studied the dynamics of competition. Everyone there, and I mean everyone, is worried that you (and everyone else) are about to take their spot.
Three thoughts about the exhaustion, fear or anxiety you may experience tomorrow:
• 10 hours or less from when you read this, it will be over. You can sustain anything for 10 hours. The adrenalin alone will get you there.
• A friend of mine was a very successful wrestler in college. If you’ve ever seen a college wrestling match, it’s seven minutes of brutal, unyielding isometric torture. I once asked my friend how he got through it. He told me that no matter how exhausted he was during a match, or how ready to give up, he always knew that his opponent was equally exhausted and that his opponent’s psyche was as strained to the breaking point as his was. All he had to do was endure just a little bit longer than the other guy.
• I have no idea if this is true, but years ago when Sylvester Stallone was making one of the Rambo movies, I heard a great story. Supposedly during production in the desert, the temperature repeatedly got so brutally hot that Stallone kept passing out from heat exhaustion. Finally someone suggested to him that they should simply move the production inside to an air-conditioned sound stage.
Stallone apparently responded that once filming was over, he would forget his exhaustion and fainting spells quickly enough. But that for the rest of his life he would remember his effort to make a great film. And so I say that to you as well. By tomorrow night, and certainly within a few days, you’ll be fresh as a daisy again. What will stay with you forever is what you leave on the dance floor tomorrow.
One final thought, about staying in the moment. I once read an interview with a pole-vaulter who had just won the gold medal in the Olympics. In the interview, the athlete explained that in the year prior to the Olympics, every day he would put on the same old pair of sweats, go into the empty rickety gym near his house, and practice. Before each jump he would envision himself about to make his third and final jump with the gold medal on the line. He envisioned the fifty thousand screaming fans in the stadium and the fifty million people watching on television. And then he would jump. Over and over and over. He did it a thousand times.
Sure enough, at the Olympics he found himself in the very situation he had imagined and worked for every day. He stepped up for his third and final jump with Olympic gold on the line. Fifty thousand fans screamed and cheered. Fifty million people around the world held their breath as they watched his every move. The overriding magnificent dream of his life hung in the balance.
The interviewer asked him what the moment had felt like, being in the situation for real. The athlete answered that he didn’t really remember. He said that when he got up for his final attempt at gold, he simply envisioned himself in his old pair of sweats, in the same empty rickety gym where he had jumped a thousand times, and just went about the business of jump one thousand and one.
I guess what I’m saying is, stay in the moment tomorrow. Don’t get overwhelmed by what might or might not happen. Just go out and do what you love to do. Remember that line about “dance as if no one is watching”? Do that. Don’t play it safe. Don’t worry about being embarrassed. Don’t worry about failing. Don’t leave it inside you.
You can do this, Heather.
It is in you.
You have the look.
You have the talent.
You have worked and prepared for this day.
You’ve earned it and you deserve it.
Make it yours.
You won’t regret it.
All my love and more.