The first time was almost 20 years ago when I was a wrestler in high school. Here is an excerpt of that story from my manuscript, Surfboards, Singlets, and Seeds: Memoirs of a Wrestling Geek, which you won't find in any stores near you.
My opponent at Parkland would be Mickey W., a junior who had been one match away from qualifying for state the year before....I wrestled Mickey three more times that season, and won all three matches.
I was 19-1 and on a 17-match winning streak when I walked into Parkland’s gym that night. I knew Mickey would offer more of a challenge than the freshmen I’d been roughing up on, but he really wasn’t on my radar as a serious challenger. At the time, I don’t think I realized how well he had done at regionals last year.
Unbeknownst to me, Mickey was gunning for me. From his point of view this made sense. I was the only state qualifier from the year before who was back at 103. For this fact alone, I had to be the favorite to win the regionals. If you wanted to make a name for yourself in the region, I would be the guy to beat.
Our match started with us locking up our arms. Then Mickey did something that no one had done to me in 17 matches: he threw me. But unlike Carlos H, who threw me three times but never earned any back points, Mickey threw me onto my back and held me there for most of the first period. It was the first and only time all season that anyone scored a three-point near-fall against me. Struggling on my back for what felt like an eternity, I was in shock. Who was this guy to put me on my back like that? And with a throw? Who did he think he was, Carlos H?
In a quick 5-0 hole, I wrestled the rest of the match in a daze. I scored a few reversals but couldn’t chip away at his lead fast enough. Mickey went on to win, 9-5. After the ref raised his hand, Mickey ran off the mat and jumped into his team, who raised him up on their shoulders as if he had just won the state championship. If I hadn’t been the victim of his success, I would have found it a very inspiring scene. Clearly, Mickey had taken me a whole lot more seriously than I had taken him. He had gotten my attention.
I took the loss to Mickey hard. I hadn’t lost to anyone in a long time and it was jarring to get beaten by someone who hadn’t even been on my radar. I have a habit of really getting down on myself whenever I have a setback, which is exactly what happened after the Parkland meet. The day after the meet I had a conversation with [my oldest brother] Rick where I displayed a pathetically defeatist attitude. I felt like I had been so ineffectual against Mickey that he was simply too good for me. At one point I even uttered the words, “I can’t beat him.” This attitude baffled and frustrated Rick, who never suffered self-pity. He had the typical oldest sibling “type A” personality, and any setbacks he experienced only made him more determined to succeed.
Rick thought I was nuts for saying that I couldn’t beat Mickey. I’ll admit it was a ridiculous thing to say. But it was said in the heat of the moment after suffering a crushing disappointment. I may have the tendency to get down on myself, but I also have a very short memory. After a few days of self-pity, my determination slowly started to pop back up like an unruly cowlick.
Inspired by Rick, I decided on a new course of action. My new short-term goal was to beat Mickey. I knew I would be seeing him again in a few weeks at a tournament, and again at regionals the following week. Rick used to tell me that he would go out running and pretend he was racing against specific opponents. He would set goals for himself that symbolized his opponent, like running a certain course in a certain amount of time. If he succeeded, he had “beaten” his opponent. I decided that I needed some such symbolic goal to help me prepare for a rematch with Mickey.
I decided that, in the next ten days, I would do 1,000 push-ups for Mickey. Outside of my normal practices and workouts, I would do one thousand extra push-ups, each one with Mickey’s name on it. These weren’t your garden variety traditional push-ups. I always made sure my feet were elevated, so that I was at an angle to the floor that made them more difficult. After running my daily two miles before practice, I worked on my 1,000 push-ups for Mickey in the wrestling room while the team waited for Coach James to show up. I did them at home, at school, and in the wrestling room, whenever I had some extra time. In the movie version of this book, this is where the musical montage comes in—showing me doing push-ups all over the place. For comic effect, my cat could be sitting on my back as I do them at home.
Even though I gave myself ten days to complete the task, I finished all 1,000 push-ups for Mickey in about a week. I did the last one with my feet raised up on a stack of mats in the corner of the wrestling room. It was just before practice and my teammates stood around and watched me. My fellow wrestlers, however, were unable to hear the theme from Rocky playing in my head, so they didn’t play along with my inspirational montage. They didn’t count along as I approached number one-thousand or let out a loud whoop when I reached my goal. No one slapped me on the back and said, “You get him, Tiger! He doesn’t stand a chance now!” Instead, they looked at me curiously like a collection of nonchalant cats.
But the movie in my head was enough for me. As I counted the one-thousandth push-up, I stood in triumph, my biceps bulging and my spirit restored, eager to face Mickey. I would not be taking him for granted the next time we met.
I thought of that story a few months ago, as my broken clavicle was on its way to healing. Because I knew the bone would never heal back the way it used to be, and there would always be a bump where the break was, I decided maybe I should lift weights or do something to hide the deformity. So I started doing push ups.
Inspired by the 1,000 push ups I did for Mickey in high school, I decided I would do One Thousand Push Ups for My Clavicle. To build my shoulder strength back up. To show my clavicle that it could not beat me. And just to feel better about myself.
I had no illusions about doing them in a week like I did when I was 18 (and in peak wrestling shape.) Back then I could do about 100 of them at a time. My goal this time was to get to 1,000 by the end of the year. The first time I tried any, on Sept 27, I could barely get through ten of them. Since then, I have slowly upped the amount I can do at a time: 10, 15, 20, 25, 30.
In my last round I was able to do 35. That brought my overall total up to 930, and I should be able to hit 1,000 by the end of the week. I usually do them in the morning, and it's actually a great way to wake up. I still have my middle-aged flab, but I'm starting to see a faint outline of the wrestler's body I had 20 years ago.
I don't know what I'll do when I'm done with the thousand. I'll probably keep doing them, but not as often, and I won't keep track.
Maybe I should try 1,000 sit ups next?