THREAD: I want to tell you a story about reaching higher in your life, and looking at the world with fresh eyes.

The story is about my former coach, Al Cantello, and one of his runners, Willie McCool.

Al led the men's varsity cross country and track teams at the Naval Academy for 55 years. He coached and mentored thousands of future military officers.

He said endurance sports help sensitize people to prehistoric pursuits, and to the unforgiving nature of life.
I once asked Al what he hoped to teach his runners.

"Distance running," he said, "teaches you about savagery." And "Distance runners, at their essence...are the product of, and learn the power concept: look ahead, for life is hard."
Willie is one of the thousands of runners Al has coached.

As the captain of the cross country team in 1982, Willie set the course record on the Academy’s home course, covering five miles in just over 24 minutes.
Willie graduated ranked 2nd in his class. He was beloved by his peers.

He went on to qualify and serve as a Naval Aviator for 13 years before NASA selected him for the astronaut program. After eight more years of training, Willie was selected to pilot his first mission to space
Before the launch, Al sent Willie a flag with gold stitching – the letter ‘N’ surrounded by stars – one for every time Al’s runners had beaten Army.

N-stars are symbols of competition, and in a larger sense, symbols of military culture; the drive for victory; the will to win.
With Al’s flag in hand, Commander Willie McCool piloted his shuttle to space with six other crewmembers.

In space, Willie and his crew worked in shifts.

On earth, NASA Mission Control would play songs each morning to wake crewmembers for their next shift.
Each day, one member of the crew would relay a message back to Mission Control. When it was Willie’s turn, he requested the song "Imagine" by John Lennon.

When he woke up to that song, Willie said the following to Mission Control:
"From our orbital vantage point, we observe an earth without borders, full of peace, beauty and magnificence, and we pray that humanity as a whole can imagine a borderless world as we see it and strive to live as one in peace."
Eighteen years ago this morning, Willie and his crew began their final descent back to earth.

As they reentered our atmosphere, their shuttle – STS-107, Space Shuttle Columbia – broke apart, killing all seven crewmembers.

Willie and his crew were 16 minutes from home.
Today, at the Naval Academy cross country course, atop a small hill near the two-mile mark, where Willie would have been 16 minutes from the finish line during his record run, there’s a statue in honor of Willie and the crew of Columbia.
It bears an inscription of Willie’s quote and the words “16 Minutes from Home.”

This is a picture of the monument on this snowy morning.
There are two points to this story.

First, life is harsh, unforgiving, and cruel.

But as Willie reminded us, life is also free, fun, sublime, and joyful. There is peace, beauty, and magnificence in this world.
In one sense, the lesson is to look ahead, for life is hard.

But in another, larger sense, the lesson is to view life as
Willie saw it from space. To find beauty and exhilaration no matter how boring, dreadful, or ugly life can be.
Willie's example showed us while competition is the lifeblood of war and sports, it’s not the essence of life.

But when I think about Willie, I'll always think about his desire to compete, and his drive for excellence.

His goal to reach higher.
In honor of Willie and the crew of Columbia, I want to leave you with four metaphors for the competitive side of life, in the words of Al Cantello.
THE WELL (consistency)

I don’t care what you did for me yesterday: what have you done for me lately?

After a while people expect it when you win. You have to live up to yourself.

You go to the well and you go to the well and you go to the well…and the thing never dries up.
THE CLOCK (routine)

The clock never has a bad day.

It never says, ‘It’s raining outside, it’s cold, I have a sore throat.’ The clock ticks and doesn’t get tired.

The clock doesn’t eat chocolate éclairs. The clock doesn’t skip long runs.

The clock never has a bad day.
THE BOAT (commitment)

You're ten miles off the coast in your boat. Your boat sinks. What are your options?

Runner one: Wave your hands
Runner two: Swim to shore
Runner three: Swim as far as you can

Rank those options.

1. Swim to shore
2. Swim as far as you can
3. Drown
What should you do?

Swim to shore, Coach.

Okay. Failing that, you're gonna drown. How do you want to drown: right there, happy, or closer to shore, exhausted?

If you're going to drown, you better embrace it. If not, your head better hit the beach before you look up.
BANCROFT HALL (perseverance)

You need to be blessed with God-given talent to compete at this level.

But talent isn’t everything.

Look at John. He’s built like a hummingbird – the fuselage is too big. The wings are too small…the damn thing should never get off of the ground.
Yet he made himself into a runner. What gave him the ability to do that?

I’ll tell you.
Look at Bancroft Hall.

The building is made from granite. If I asked John to hit his head against that building, he’d do it over and over again without me asking.

I could leave and he’d be banging his head against the building…and one day IT would collapse, not him. Not him!
In Memoriam.

⭐️David Brown
⭐️Rick Husband
⭐️Laurel Clark
⭐️Kalpana Chawla
⭐️Michael Anderson
⭐️William McCool
⭐️Ilan Ramon

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