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February 2, 2018

The Ex-Navy Seal asked me: “What If You Cramp Up?”

The Ex-Navy Seal asked me:  “What If You Cramp Up?”

I told my new ear, nose and throat doctor on Tuesday that I was going to Haiti this week to do a 10K swim. All I needed was some steroids, I said, having been in this spot before far too many times. I will pass on the antibiotics, and I’ll be fine.

“Do you have to swim?” he asked.

“Well, yes,” I said. “I’ve been training for about three months.”

He paused. “Don’t go into the water until Sunday.”

I grinned, knowing what he would not find out would not hurt him.

I think all former (and current) athletes understand my pathos when I admit how and why I bucked all common and medical sense for the past 10 days. I caught a fever a few times, and couldn’t get a full breath through my nose, yet I decided to take Ellen’s advice and “just keep swimming.”

After I came back from my knee reconstruction, I did not come out of a practice at Northwestern for almost five years with one exception. At the start of my fifth year, at the end of an early-season practice, I came down on our team manager’s ankle and felt my ankle rip. I missed the last 45 minutes of practice, and could not get to the training room fast enough. We iced, taped, wrapped, iced, and elevated as much as possible. Within about 48–60 hours, I was guarding the point guard at Washington, which was hard enough for me to do with two good ankles. I had an air cast on over my moleskin and athletic tape wrap. I survived the game. I remember getting my contact lens knocked out, and instead of catching it and putting it in my mouth until a break, I missed it. So I played the last minutes of the game with blurry vision. By the end of the season, I was out of all the braces and playing my best with no tape or moleskin.

This is not normal behavior. Yet most of the women on our team were nursing their own injuries for most of the year. One teammate, Katrina Hannaford Christie, got a stress fracture almost every February, and every year and played on it the best she could until the end of the season.

At Illinois, earlier in my career, when I was being put in and removed from the dog house on a regular basis, I jammed the rebounder in the last few minutes of a losing effort. I basically walked right into a moving elbow. I took it, and was subbed out. To this day I cannot remember the game. All I know is that I went through post-game motions. I remember seeing my coach up in my face in the locker room. He said to me, “Mo, do you know where you are?” as he tapped me on my cheeks. I finally came to, and I said, “Yes. I just can’t remember the game.”

“That’s good,” he said. “We lost and you were terrible.”

Those are the only two times in my career that I came off the floor in practice or a game. Never did I miss practice due to an illness. I don’t know many teammates who did back then. Anything short of mono or throwing up in the locker room with witnesses, and you were expected to be there.

In preparation for this 10k swim — which I might not be as well prepared for as of this late hour given my days off to get my breath back) — I had intended on going to a swim camp in Santa Barbara for six days over holiday break. It was canceled due to the fires. My training advice came mostly from an old high school friend and All-American swimmer, and my cousin, a former college swimmer and college coach, via a few messages. One parent told me to read Total Immersion. I read it all and watched videos. An Iron Man friend, Joe Bachana, was kind enough to take me to the pool and fix and save my stroke early. Another tri-guy gave me two lessons for free thanks to parents who gave me their workout passes that were about to expire.

But the most entertaining and useful advice came from my former teammate, Heather Parker (Ertel). A few weeks ago, I posted old highlight reels and full game footage, including our favorite NCAA game verses Georgia Tech. Heather, who played on and off throughout her career and was a late developer, had a great game. She wrote to me that she’d always told her kids about that game, especially her 12-year-old son, Miles. Heather wrote to me that she was so happy Miles got to see her reverse layup at the end of the half. Then she added, “Call me so I can give you advice about your swim.”

Heather, a 6’5” forward with great hands, was such a strong swimmer that she beat us all in the pool during pre-season workouts without getting her hair wet. Legend has it that she won more than one state championships in Illinois and got out of the pool, put her sneakers on and went to AAU practice. Heather called me after having three kids in her 30s and said, “I have to tell you something.”

I was scared. “I had to tell somebody.”


“I missed my sport.”

“What was it?”

“I would have been an Olympic water polo player.”

I agreed. I wondered if there was still time, so I asked, “What are you going to do?”

“Nothing! I have three kids. I just had to tell someone.”

We got on the phone earlier this month. Heather told me that sometime in the last decade or so, she basically trained for a 1-mile swim with her infant son poolside during his naptime. The act scared some of the old ladies at the pool, and they reported her or glared at her long enough to guilt her out of it. The day of the race, the water was so cold that more than one swimmer was pulled out. Heather stayed in, but said she could not get her head back in the water for freestyle, so she did breaststroke for the rest. She came in 4th in the women’s division in what was dubbed a national master’s race — with her head out of the water for most of it.

“I was so mad that I didn’t place,” she said. I really wanted my kids to see me bring home something.”

So what advice did Heather, the above-water swimmer, give me?

“Well, first of all, I don’t want this to scare you. I know a guy who told me about a guy who died from overheating.”

I laughed because this is classic Heather. I assured her that I had a thin swim skin to protect my skin from the sun and jelly fish. I may wear a bikini under it, but I doubt I can get out of the skin while underwater. A parent in our program, who is a dermatologist and has seen my skin color, researched the best sun screen for long swims late one Saturday night, and he emailed me his best finds and the reasons why.

Second tip: “Don’t have any open wounds.”

Heather said her daughter banged her leg while getting off a boat in the Caribbean, and the wound was ugly for a while afterwards.

Third tip: “Make sure you exhale all the carbon dioxide out every time. Big exhales so you won’t get as tired.”

This was really helpful. I didn’t know how important it was and immediately started doing it. Only problem is that I was listening to “Sing, Unburied, Sing” while swimming, and it’s hard enough to understand this Faulkner-like writing if I had the book in my hand. Breathing heavily through it made it so hard to follow that I had to go back to my all-music three-hour soundtrack where I play songs recommended by people or songs that remind me of good friends and times, and I think of them for 2–3 hours while staring at the bottom of a pool and try not to think about how happy I will be when I get my life back and reach the end of my Michael Phelps diet.

I will think of Heather and all those who helped me when I swim, including one antagonist whom some of you may recognize. Those who follow my feed have seen this former Navy Seal appear on my posts. He will never fully understand what marked the beginning of the end of my tolerance level with him, and yes, it is connected directly to this 10K swim event.

This “former member of the special forces” and a self-proclaimed backer of women had played me for a while due to his military experience. I believe in listening to police and law and military to learn from them, and I’ve found it beneficial sometimes, but it often ends up being a one-way conversation that ends with the thought of “get a real job” or “you don’t know how the real world works.” Even when I am looking at the same footage of Eric Garner being mobbed by a group of white NYPD officers, my opinion apparently doesn’t count as much because I don’t know what it’s like (for a group of men to converge on an unarmed black man who is being busted for selling cigarettes and saying, “I can’t breathe.” I recognize that I didn’t make the choice (and it was and still is a choice thankfully) to potentially put my life on the line for my community or country. I am not dismissing that indisputable fact that these are some of the most dangerous jobs on earth. Yet I have also learned through this experience and others to not always defer to them when it comes to them thinking they know everything about everything and everything about everyone, especially women. This is the case in point.

First Former Special Forces-Navy Seal is his first name. His middle and last names: Conservative Party Over Country & Party Over All Snow Flakes & Trump Fan But Won’t Admit It. Let’s call him Seal for short.

Seal read that I was going to do Swim For Haiti. Proceeds from the trip go to support kids in the village. He messaged me that he wanted to get in shape and he’d ask his wife if he could go. “Anything for the kids!” He at one point — probably right before this email about wanting to go — said the line of all lines that will only be felt by any woman who has done something strenuous in her life (giving birth counts in every way):

“What if you get cramps?” Seal wrote to me. Or it may have been “What if you cramp up?

As if I have never been under duress in my life.

A guy friend said, “Did he mean menstrual cramps?” which made me laugh.

At the time, I didn’t mind all of his pro-Trump and pro-Republican comments up until a point where he was showing his true Trump colors and in complete denial about how little our current administration thinks of women right now or ever. I wrote back, “Sure, Seal.” Join me, a former Division I basketball player who apparently you think did not have to do much to go through much to get that job.

Then I thought to myself, “If he goes to Haiti and you swim with him and get out front, which you will, you may end up killing a Navy Seal. And, Jesus, who needs that on her conscience? And your dating life is hard enough.”

How would I kill this man through no fault of my own? If this out-of-shape Seal decided to swim a 10K, and I was there, he’d do everything to keep up with me, he’d overheat. He’d have a heart attack. (That has to be why his wife said no to going to Haiti to swim with a woman from his hometown that he follows religiously on Facebook.)

I told Nettie Respondek this story. Nettie was the best high school player in the huge state of Texas her senior year, and also a two-year captain at Vanderbilt. Her jaw dropped when I told her the cramp line. She immediately overheated.

“If you get tired or you cramp up,” she said. “You float on your back, turn back over and you keep going.”

This for the Seal — is apparently a revelation. Apparently he has never heard of Diana Nyad, age 60, who became the first person (including Navy Seals) to swim 100 miles from Cuba to Florida without a protective cage. It was her fifth try in 35 years. It took 53 hours.

If he missed Diana’s story, he certainly must have posted and shown his support of the more than 150 gymnasts who leveled their vile abuser to his face this week. If you did not see the statement by Aly Raisman, please watch it and then post that you did. I have never seen a statement of such courage and strength delivered by a victim. Not one tear. Not even the shallowest of Meryl Streep tears, which she got away with in The Post. Not one break in Ally’s voice as she stared dead into him. I cried for her, and I was mad that I did, but I did it anyway — in private.

Seal must also have forgotten all about women who give birth with and without medication, including my mother who did it without for four children, my grandmother who delivered 10, and my sister, who did it for one of two. I stood as witness to that pain and that scream and the shock of it all, and realized my worst injuries never hurt that badly or even close.

Seal didn’t quite get the series of subsequent comments by him that made me say enough is enough. He invited a Marine friend in on a post and the Marine friend lit up the comments with “Grab ’em by the p — -y.” Marine continued to post and called me and others cowards, and said to get a real job. Marine continued to post when I said my grandfather served under Patton, and my great uncle was shot in the head and left for dead, but survived; and another great uncle did amputations for American and German soldiers in the field. To their shame, what did the Seal do? Nothing publicly. Nothing until several of us called him out on his silence.

And why did I keep him on my friend list? Because I am too stubborn to say I can’t handle someone who always rails against anyone with an open mind (aka a liberal mind) for it would only prove that I was their “snowflake.” Then the last straw was when he laughed at me after I posted that I was going to canvas for Doug Jones in his campaign to beat Roy Moore, a pedophile with more than one victim, who was removed from the bar two times for his anti-Muslim and anti-gay statements.

Seal commented with a laughing-in-your face emoticon.

I said enough.

I commented on another post later after the comments about Haiti made by our president. Seal happened to read it, and when another person called him out, he said Trump was not a racist. It was not reported correctly, according to Seal. It wasn’t s-hole it was s-house — maybe that was the defense he supported as was the case of most of his party. He admitted that he supports Trump “60 percent of the time.” I guess when he’s acting like a racist and abuses women, Seal is not behind Trump. Or when Trump is flat-out lying, he is not behind Trump or he half-way is because the media is making all of this up even while being attacked regularly by the entire White House after stating facts. I guess I’ll just tell all the Haitians that not all of the Trumpers support him 100 percent of the time. Just 60 percent of the time.

So here’s what I’ve got for Seal.

You don’t know who you are messing with because you’ve failed to accept us as your equal due to the fact that you think being able to carry 120 lbs or whatever it is on your back makes you strong, and that’s all that matters when it comes to having guts and courage. A woman who is armed with nothing more than her first amendment and swim goggles very well may beat you in a 10K race even while suffering from cramps of any kind and while on meds after a doctor said not to swim. I am part of a sisterhood that is stronger than you will ever accept. Thanks to Title IX, it is comprised of current and former gymnasts who make my work ethic look like a minimum effort. It is comprised of teammates and opponents who overcame multiple surgeries, injuries and illnesses to play big in big games even while sometimes still figuring out how to process or bury current or past physically and sexually abusive relationships.

I know plenty of good men who have endured the same as athletes, as young boys and men, as human beings. I know that they recognize toughness, grit and guts when they see it. I hope that fatherhood is not what brought them to this realization, but if it did, then I’ll still take it. In return, I will ask them to carry the torch of equality with us, and to be part of what I’d like to believe is a growing population of far more secure and adaptable men. I know men who will read this story and see how brutal it must have been for those gymnasts to do what they as true warriors did this week, and for Heather to swim that race and almost win it before hopping out to tend to her three kids and go back to what she has determined is her priority.

Heather’s kids may not fully understand the strength of their mother until later in life. That’s why having her son see that reverse lay-up in the Georgia Tech game means so much to her right now.

But for the rest of the men who struggle to tip their hat to a woman — it’s time to open your mind or fall far behind. It is time to “adapt” if that is an easier way for you to say or reconcile in your mind the word “change.” And if you don’t, well, we won’t wait. In spite of what you may believe, our intent is not to kill you. We are simply striving to be the best and the toughest we can be. We are living the lives we live to show our respect for our mothers and grandmothers who didn’t have the chance to swim or run or compete, and to celebrate that we are examples to current and future generations, and that we constantly look to each other for inspiration. We may quite possibly be examples for other men in the same way that I view men who inspire, motivate and support me as a human being. Of course we cannot control those who doubt us or don’t care about what is going on right now or those empty souls who sit back and laugh at us. But what we can do is recognize that there is no better time than now to keep on swimming.

My former college teammate, Heather Ertel Parker.