The traditional katana is widely considered the finest sword in the world, and is the measuring stick against which all blades are compared. If one desires to own a katana, there are two different paths that one can take to achieve this. One can travel to Japan, and find a Japanese swordsmith who uses tamahagane (jewel steel) which was smelted over the course of a week around the clock by as many as five people. Next, over the course of the following weeks the steel will be created into a katana by a team of people, all holding their own specialty in specific areas of forging the sword. One to forge the shape, one to fold the steel, one to polish the steel, one to put a fine edge on the steel, one to make the sheath, one to make the hilt, and one to make the handguard. During this period, the steel will be repeatedly(up to 18 times) heated, hammered, and folded in a process that combines multiple layers of steel of varying hardness, removes the impurities of the steel, and leaves an almost perfect katana. Purchase this sword, and return home. Alternatively, one can use Google to search for “katana” and click the “shopping” option. There, one can purchase a ready made katana for $29.95, delivered straight to your door. A person’s satisfaction with their new katana will greatly depend on which route they have chosen for its creation. The process in which the forgers have dedicated their lives to, and have put their full effort into in order to create the best sword they possibly can, or the process in which countless katana shaped pieces of metal are stamped as quickly as possible in order to make more money.
We humans are much akin to the noble katana. Who we are at any given moment greatly depends on the skill, effort and care put forth by those involved in our own forging, whether it be ourselves, or our parents, teachers, mentors, or coaches. It is true that a person is not “complete” until they breathe their last breath, however, it is also true that at the present we are as much a finished product as we have ever been. Thus, although we are not completed, the effort that has been produced to make us who we are right now, and at any point along the path to our completion remains of the utmost importance.
Analogous to all people, my own forging has had many hands involved. My parents, family, girlfriend, and friends imbued me with their innate qualities of morality, kindness, generosity, and principle. There are, however, two sources of my characteristics that together I credit with composing the man that I have become up to this point. These two sources are the United States Marine Corps, and the gym where I train, Gym Jones.
The Marine Corps began to shape me long before I ever arrived at boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina. It started when I read the book “Brotherhood of Heroes,” the tale of the battle of Peleliu in World War Two. It was through the stories of the Marines told in those pages that I was introduced to the courage, spirit, tenacity, altruism, and brotherhood that Marines possess. Qualities that I would soon be ingrained with as well. The basics of these qualities were taught to me and my fellow recruits in boot camp through rudimentary but effective means: the proverbial stick. It was through punishment that we were shown what it meant to possess the attributes of a Marine. Punishment would come in a variety of modes based on the same concept: countless pushups, situps, sprinting, carrying, and of course, screaming. The drill instructors would use any excuse (not that they needed one) to inflict pain upon us: not being loud enough, looking at the wrong place, imperfections in uniform, dirty squad bay, and not moving fast enough for their specifications, to name a few. The reality of the situation was that we were never loud enough, always looking in the wrong place, never had perfect uniforms, the squad bay was always too dirty, and we were simply too slow. The idea wasn’t simply to pointlessly inflict pain, but to teach lessons using the pain as the instructor. It was to force us to make ourselves better so that the platoon as a whole would be better. The idea was to form a brotherhood through shared suffering, and shared dependence. It was to teach us to keep fighting the pain so that the platoon as a whole could stop being punished. The point was that once we reached perfection, the requirements changed so that we were forced to constantly reach for it, thus forcing us to become better than we ever knew we could be. This is how the Marine Corps takes hunks of iron and turns them into jewel steel. But, as we all know, the jewel steel is only the beginning of a katana. What makes it an impeccable blade comes later.
It was through the true purpose of the Marine Corps that I became what I am today, and that is the act of fighting the battles of the United States. It is through the preparation for, and the fighting of, America’s wars that Marines gain their fine edge, and an idea of the true meaning of courage, spirit, tenacity, altruism, and brotherhood. After having been imbued with the essential qualities ascribed to Marines in boot camp, it is up to the individual Marine and his leadership, all the way from the fireteam leader to the Commandant to make him the ideal tool for the Corps. And there is no better place than a war to do this.
It was during my two deployments that I learned what it means to be courageous. Almost on a daily basis my fellow Marines and I would be subjected to situations with high potential for danger, and situations with infinite, unknowable possible outcomes. The dangerous and unpredictable nature of these conditions elicits fear, nervousness, and uncertainty in all people. However, without fail, when the time came to strap on our gear and proceed forth into these conditions, we did it with no hesitation because it was what we needed to do. To me, that is courage. I learned it from the example set by my leaders, and my compatriots, and when it was my turn, I endeavored to teach others by my own example.
My favorite among the many mantras of the Marine Corps is, “adapt and overcome.” It is my favorite because it embodies the spirit and tenacity that Marines must possess in order to be the world’s greatest warfighting force. To Marines, accomplishment of their mission is of the utmost importance, above that of their own lives, and the ability to adapt and overcome is key. The idea is straightforward: change whatever you need to in order to become what is required to transcend an obstacle. If there is no bridge over a river, a Marine will swim. If there is a wall in front of us, we will blow it apart. If there is an enemy on a hill that we want, we will remove him. Marines do not stop until they have accomplished their mission, regardless of any monkey wrench that gets thrown into their plan. They will change their plan a thousand times if need be until what needs to be done is done. And then they will move on to the next mission. It was these two qualities that allowed me to keep fighting after I was wounded. My plan of accomplishing something with my life, and making my life as good as possible was met with obstacles and monkey wrenches. But, since I had already learned these lessons, bypassing these obstacles and moving on was easy and natural.
The brotherhood that Marines share is the defining feature that initially attracted me to the Marine Corps, and over the course of two deployments I experienced it in its fullness. The reason that I was able to be courageous and adapt and overcome was because of the men that stood beside me doing the same thing. And it is because we were experiencing war and hardship together that we grew close enough that I cared for them more than I cared for myself, and would sacrifice my safety for their wellbeing, even if it meant being extinguished. And although it never needed to be said, I knew this was reciprocated. To me this is the definition of brotherhood and selflessness, and from my having been a part of such a relationship is why I am loyal and often put others before myself as if it were a default setting. It is through being a part of such a pure brotherhood that Marines can achieve truly great personal accomplishments, and also be a part of even greater accomplishments, the accomplishments of the whole.
Without the Marine Corps, I have no idea where I would be, or what I would be like. All that I can say for sure is that I am what I am now due in large part to what I was taught and what I experienced during my five years in the Marine Corps.
It is fascinating to contemplate how the most seemingly meaningless and coincidental occurrences happening at just the right time can lead to incredible experiences. A college friend of mine sent me a hyperlink to www.GymJones.com during my first deployment simply because it bore my last name. Little did he know the profound effect that this now open doorway would have on my life. I voraciously read the entire website multiple times, and began to apply the principles advanced by Mark Twight and Rob MacDonald in my daily life as much as I could for the next two years. After I was wounded, and had decided to compete in the Paralympics, I contacted Rob(aka Maximus) to request he help me with my training. I was invited to the Gym located in Salt Lake City, and since then have had an enriching friendship with both these men, and many more people. Maximus has since written a large portion of the training I used in my rowing years, and currently writes almost all of the training I do for triathlon. Through these relationships I accepted a new swordsmith to take part in my forging.
At Gym Jones, I learned several lessons that allowed me to become who I am today. The first of which was that the most important muscle in the human body is the one housed in the cranium, and that life experiences should be undertaken with consideration to improving the strength of this all important organ. The simple fact is that the brain, and thus the so-called mind is consciously and subconsciously in control of everything a person’s body does. Subconsciously, it controls the vital processes required to keep your body alive. It also regulates physical output in order to preserve the homeostasis of the body within the limits of what it can survive. For example, if you are running a marathon in hot weather and you begin to slow, that is not your body breaking down, but rather your mind reducing the body’s output so that it does not reach a fatal level of heat(for more, look up the Central Governor Theory).
Consciously, our mind is in control of much more complicated tasks. The conscious is constantly battling the subconscious in the form of what is referred to as willpower. Despite what the subconscious mind may be thinking, it is the conscious will that drives us to force the extension of what the subconscious will allow.
The conscious is in control of forming habits. Every time we are faced with a decision of whether to quit, slow down, and rationalize a reason why that’s ok, or keep pressing forward, one of these habits is strengthened. The more times we choose to push on, the stronger that habit will become. It takes time and purposeful effort for these habits to become ingrained, but once a person develops them in the gym doing something as simple as choosing to keep rowing hard for another minute, they can apply what they have learned to the rest of their lives. They will learn to take the harder path so that they are challenged more. They will learn to put extra effort into daily tasks. At Gym Jones, the only habit they allow to permeate is that of choosing to put one’s full effort into everything they do. They do not tolerate quitting. The trainers and the trainees are the guardians of this protocol, and will bring to shame anyone they see violating it. If the problem persists, they will be asked to leave, because there is no room at Gym Jones for imperfections in its steel. Because I had already been exposed to the Gym Jones philosophy, when I began my recovery I was already ahead of the game, because my habit was to keep pushing forward and working hard no matter what. In fact, the first message I sent to my buddy Daniel via a cell phone video was telling him that we needed to get back to working out, even though I was just released from the intensive care unit, and he was still down there.
The conscious is in charge of deciding what is normal. In terms of performance, a person’s baseline is established based on their exposure, and also what they have chosen to accept as superlative, and mediocre. Once this spectrum is formed, we may have a tendency to naturally restrict ourselves to its boundaries. Thus having a perceived normal that is shifted further towards the superlative sets a person up for greater potential achievements. For example, the world record for my category in rowing for a 1,000 meter race is 3 minutes, 54 seconds, with the 2015 world champions finished the race in slightly over 4 minutes. If a new rower were to witness this and begin training with a 4 minute 1,000 meter race as their goal, seeing as how even the world champions are not quite that fast, then this new rower will have great potential to row 1,000 meters in 4 minutes. And that’s great. But is it really? Can 4 minutes really be seen as great when there was a boat that did a 3:54, in a race where one second is a big deal? I submit no. I would suggest that this new rower make 4 minutes the normal. He should look at it as a time that anyone should be able to achieve. And in so doing, shift the superlative to the right so that it encompasses the 3:54 mark, and thus by becoming truly great, surpass it and set a new record. When I set out to bicycle across America, I chose to ride from the Northeast corner to the Southwest corner, over 5,000 miles. Yes, I could have started in Florida and rode to Southern California, knocking off roughly 2,000 miles, and many people would have still considered that great. However, since I was subject to the philosophy of Gym Jones, I just couldn’t stomach the idea that by doing so I would be associated with what I considered to be average. I was setting out to accomplish a great feat, and so straight across was simply not good enough. Diagonal was the only way. By taking this approach in my recovery from double above the knee amputations, and by applying it to my expectations in sports, I have set myself up much better than if I had accepted a lower standard.
Who you are depends entirely on your influences, and the level of effort that is put into forging yourself into what you desire to be. I made a conscious decision to allow the United States Marine Corps, and Gym Jones to take the forefront in my creation, and while I am certainly no perfect sword, I am much better than I would be if I had put these responsibilities into the hands of people with less ability. Choose your influences with meticulous care, put forth your best effort, and become a katana. Or risk becoming a cheaply made copy.