Are You Training for the Olympics, or Something Bigger?

Colleen Quigley, an inspiration for the Wagner children during the 2016 Olympics

How was I to know I was raising track athletes?  I only knew that plopping two kids at a time into our double-wide jogging stroller got them to take a nap, and gave me the opportunity to hold onto my sanity through the, “Families with Young Children” phase of our lives.  Then kindergarten gave way to primary school.  I could see that Peter Paul and Mary were correct.  Like magic dragons, childhood quickly disappears in a “Puff!”  It wasn’t long before Annalise, John Harry, and Lizzie wanted to climb out of their jogging strollers.  Then, it wasn’t long before I heard myself, in between gasps, uttering the phrase:  “I’ll…See…You…At…The…Finish…Line…,” as they surged ahead during various 5k’s.

To make a long story short, the girl who won the “Twelve and Under” age division of the Webster-Kirkwood Turkey Day Run wowed her cross-country colleagues in the fall of her Freshman year.  Her coaches informed me that “she has a gift,” and “ought to run track” in the spring.  I could see they were right.  I gladly joined a chorus of voices trying to flatter and cajole her into listening to them.  My soccer loving daughter was having none of it.  Springtime in Saint Louis is not only track season, it’s soccer season for high school girls.  One evening, she arranged for her well-meaning friend, Zack, to have a word with her dad.  He sat me down, and solemnly informed me, “Dr. Wagner, your daughter is playing soccer, not track.  You just have to accept what she wants, not what you want!”  I had to admit, Freshman Zack displayed 24 karat brass in that encounter.  What Freshman Zack didn’t know was that I had one more trick up my sleeve.

The night before the soccer sign-up deadline, I contacted my friend, Gaylerd Quigley, a track coach, and the father of a future Olympian (2016), and professional track athlete, Colleen Quigley.  They both agreed to join Annalise and me for an impromptu dinner at Panera’s.  As beautiful on the inside as the outside, Colleen (a Senior All State, scholar at the time) graciously posed for selfies with Annalise (…that I immaturely hoped would be immediately sent to her smug Freshman consiglieri, Zack!).  Next, Colleen and her father described the secret of Colleen’s athletic success.  “Like building a pyramid, each season of running builds upon a previous layer of a cumulative foundation.”  “Each year’s greater success is built on year-after-year of training, and past seasons.”  “Most athletes run Cross Country to get better at Track, but if you want Cross-Country success, you will need to run Track.”  

Interviews of Front-Line Pandemic Health Professionals

I have thought of that meeting so many times during my interviews with front line doctors and nurses during the pandemic.  What enables a healthcare professional to one-day-at-a-time, move toward a situation from which most of us flee as fast as we can?  What keeps somebody showing up for work that involves the care of people, whose potentially fatal illness could easily be passed along to their caregivers?  What keeps you going through a month of living in a basement, sequestered away from family by night, and living with illness and death by day?  Some of the answers from the people I’ve interviewed reflected a strategy that was totally unique to each one of them.  Some of their answers overlapped, and involved precisely what a track athlete needs to do, over time, if she wants real success in her sport!

Elsie and Virgilio

Let me illustrate.  In the last installment of Sunday Morning Café, you were introduced to Elsie, a nurse married to another nurse, Virgilio.  Their love for a shared profession brought them to the United States from Manilla.  In a routine procedure with a patient who would soon test positive for COVID, and then die of it, Elsie contracted this insidious disease.  That led her into the most challenging battle of her life.  For six weeks she lived sealed up in her bedroom, fighting for breath, losing her hair, along with her sense of smell, and taste.  Vomiting, diarrhea, fever-induced shivering, insomnia, loss of voice, acute pain in her chest, and the occasional hallucination, as well as a lack of concentration were just some of the symptoms she endured.  When I asked her, “Elsie, what kept you going through all of this?  How did you find strength to fight this thing?”  Quietly and almost reverently, her eyes welled up with tears.  She responded, “Virgilio.”  After a moment’s silence, she repeated, “Virgilio.”  “Virgilio is my strength.”  She continued, “He is my security.  When everything was rough, I knew he was there.  I knew that when I was really sick, he would not let me die.”   

As a healthcare professional herself, Elsie knew that this disease was trying to take her life.  During the worst two weeks of this ordeal, she resolved, “I’m going to fight this illness!  I am not going to let it take me.”  When I asked her what gave her the resolve to stay fresh for this fight, once again, she spoke her husband’s name.  “All we have is each other (they are child-less).  I didn’t want to give up and leave him.”  Framed in the same Zoom call as his wife, Virgilio described his primary motivating force through their shared challenge.  Not surprisingly, it was his wife!  “You want to do everything and anything just to stay together.  This was the main motivator.  It was already the main motivator for [his] life.  Love kept [him] going.  It was the driving force.” 

Like a track athlete competing season after season, Elsie and Virgilio had lived their lives building their marriage one layer-at-a-time, one-day-at-a-time, one-year-at-a-time.  When the challenge of their lives arrived, their relationship served both of them as their raison d’etre.”  As a result of fifteen years invested in one another, their marriage not only held, it “became stronger” through the ordeal.  This is a finding reflected in my practice, as well as my colleagues’ practices.  Those marriages that were strong, got stronger in the pandemic.  Those that suffered from deferred maintenance suffered further erosion. 

Mark and Rachel

In a previous article, Dr. Mark described the crushing weight of his wife’s diagnosis of breast cancer during his month of service on the COVID unit, along with the contemporaneous month of quarantining from his family.  Years earlier, he and Rachel had invested in their marriage by engaging a marriage coach to improve their relationship.  Again, having completed many years of marital training, when it came time for the biathlon of COVID and simultaneous cancer treatment, Mark and Rachel had built a solid resilience resource in one another and their marriage.  Through their Facetime conversations during their month apart, they calmed their fears and made a plan to prevent COVID, fight cancer, and raise their three school-aged kids with a minimum of disruption.

Sarah and Al

A combination of Sarah’s unique circumstances, along with a profound sense of generosity, compelled her to offer her more vulnerable Internal Medicine physician-colleagues a gift.  If they wanted, she would take their COVID unit shifts.  A healthy millennial, with a healthy millennial husband of three years, no children, and robust young-ish parents, Sarah worked more COVID unit shifts than anyone else in her prestigious metropolitan hospital.  What was the source of her resilience through this ongoing slog?  Right at the top of the list was her marriage with Al.  Their relationship was a safe container for her COVID-related frustrations, as well as a respite from all things pandemic.  A transformed spare room provided a most exclusive on-site restaurant/wine bar/game-room/and theatre in their townhouse.  Colleen Quigley’s amazing Olympic and professional track career was built on a foundation many years in the making.  Similarly, the condition for the possibility of Dr. Sarah’s gold medal generosity to her colleagues and community, was the generative marriage that could sustain such heroic self-donation.   

Some Takeaways for Resilience

Gaylerd and Collen’s words found a home in Annalise.  For the next eight years, she ran track, adding one layer of training on top of another.  By extension, those words animated my son, John Harry, and my daughter, Lizzie.  Track awards, accolades, and even records have been tallied up for them.  But what I will forever appreciate. is the fundamental lesson to which the Quigley’s alluded that transcends track.  Those things of lasting value are really only purchased one-day-at-a-time through intentional practice, especially when it’s difficult.

A common resilience resource that showed up in all of my frontline healthcare workers’ stories was the power of a marriage that has been prioritized over the years.  When the challenges of the pandemic came, these healthcare workers found that the training they had done together made them ready for this Olympic-sized event.  Are you married, or in training to get married?  What are the intentional practices that grow resilience in your relationship with your spouse?  Are there any fault-lines or fissures in your marital foundation?  Few athletes reap rewards without a coach.  Could you benefit from a little relationship coaching?  

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