Mewhirter: “I’ve never felt so happy, so alive, to be in so much pain”

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Travis Mewhirter and Raffe Paulis after qualifying in Austin

In September of 2009, a man named Simon Sinek stood on a stage in Puget Sound, Washington, in front of a small crowd of big people, and spoke for 18 minutes in a now-famous speech that most refer to as “Start With Why,” an eponym of a book he published a month earlier.

The speech has been viewed more than 5 million times. The book has been reviewed nearly 52,000 times on Goodreads with an average rating of 4.07 out of 5.

I have seen the speech several times. I have discussed the book with Reid Priddy. I understand the message: In order to inspire great action, we must first understand why we’re doing what it is we’re doing.

Why is this important?

Why is this worth the time, effort, money, and emotional and physical strain we’re investing to accomplish whatever it is we seek to accomplish?

Why?

***

It’s Monday. May 14. Three days before the AVP Austin qualifier. Raffe Paulis and I just finished up a practice against Ed Ratledge and Rafu Rodriguez. We played well, splitting two sets, winning the last, 21-15. A perfect tune up for what is surely to be a nasty qualifier on Thursday.

I’ve known Raffe for a while now. Two years prior, a week after having moved to California, I played him in the Huntington Beach qualifier in the first round. He beat me and Matt Nelson 21-9, 21-16.

Understandably, it took two years of constant messaging to get him to just to practice with me. Though we had known each other for quite a bit, neither of us really knew the other. We had never had a conversation that went deeper than a brief analysis of the match we had just played or the tournament that was going on.

So it took me by surprise when, on our walk back to our cars, he asked me a question that dug a little deep: Why do I want to qualify? Do I really want it? Or do I just kind of want it?

I laughed. Hadn’t he seen my writing? Hadn’t he seen how much it hurt to lose in Hermosa last year? And in Huntington a week before?

He had. But it still didn’t answer the question: Why do I want to qualify?

We reached our cars.

I didn’t have an answer. I stammered over a few. Something about being respected as an athlete. About proving to myself that, after a lifetime of playing sports, I had what it took to be a professional.

But those answers weren’t it. I knew it. Raffe knew it.

And over the next week, my search for that answer proved to be the key to, for the first time, beginning to understand myself, and not just the beach volleyball player, but the human being, the son, the brother, the writer, the optimist, the grinder – it answered every piece of my deeply-layered identity.

That question helped me to find my why.

Travis Mewhirter
Young 14-year-old Travis Mewhirter pitches a little league in Cooperstown

I’ve always admired athletes.

My father played quarterback for a high school in Pittsburgh and once beat Dan Marino. My mother, though the happiest woman you’ll ever meet, is a ruthless competitor who still runs half-marathons despite more knee surgeries than I care to count. They met at Grove City College, and my dad fell in love the day he saw my mom chew out the left fielder on her softball team for flirting with a guy rather than fielding a fly ball. I loved hearing my dad regale stories of his football days, just as I loved hearing about my Uncle Jim Alcorn breaking every passing record there was to break in the state of Pennsylvania, how he tore it up in college and was on the God-blessed Browns for a brief period of time. I loved watching my cousin Dan play basketball at Robert Morris, and watching my other cousin, Matt, shoot under par on golf courses. I take immense pride in my other cousins, Claire and Jayne, dominate as two-sport athletes at Marist College.

My favorite memories as a child came either on a playing field, in our driveway playing the made-up basketball games that children do, or at Baltimore Orioles games with my mom, dad, and two brothers.

When I watched the Orioles, my focus always turned to two players: Mike Mussina and Brady Anderson. Whenever I protested eating my vegetables, or showering after practice, or drinking milk, or getting in an extra hour of practice, my dad would say “Well Mike Mussina would…” and that was all the convincing I’d need.

If Mike Mussina did it, then I’d do it, because I wanted to be just like Mike Mussina one day. Whenever I played sports, I asked for No. 35, Muss’s number. If 35 wasn’t available I’d take 9, for Brady Anderson.

Because I was going to be like them one day. Just you watch.

I was going to be a professional athlete.

My ambition to become an athlete began long before I had ever stepped foot on a beach, before I had ever touched a volleyball, before I had accomplished anything of note.

But it did not answer the question of why.

I dug another layer deeper.

***

It’s August of 2015. I’ve just had one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had in my life: I told my editor and good friend, Seth Stringer, that I’d be leaving the Northwest Florida Daily News.

He didn’t understand why.

To be honest, at the time, and even two and a half years after, I didn’t, either. I couldn’t explain it to myself, so how could I possibly explain it to anyone else?

My life in Florida, on paper, was perfect, idyllic, damn near quixotic. I was writing for a paper I loved, in a town that I adored, for people and athletes I respected and rooted for, in the most beautiful part of the world I had ever seen, living with a wolf dog I adopted and subsequently became enamored with. I loved my boss. I loved my job. I loved my friends. I loved my life.

I was unhappy.

Well, perhaps unhappy isn’t the word. If you’ve met me you know I’d probably be happy if I were hit by a dump truck and relocated to Siberia, so long as I have my brothers, dog, and a beer.

Anxious. Unfulfilled.

Yes, those words fit the bill.

I couldn’t understand it. Just months before, I had won Sportswriter of the Year for the state of Florida for our circulation size, and shortly after was named second in the same category on a nationwide scale. I was enjoying more success and independence and freedom as a professional writer and human I had ever had.

So why was I so jittery?

Wasn’t this what I had dreamed of since I began writing? Wasn’t this exactly what I had worked for?

So why was I constantly looking for the next thing? The next mountain?

The next…what could possibly be next?

Was this it?

If you’ve read enough of my writing, you’ll know that my favorite piece of literature is Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Man in the Arena.’ A refresher of the verse you need to know: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” 

I wish I had done this introspection when I was still living in Florida, for only now do I understand why I was so restless: I was no longer in an arena. I wasn’t daring greatly.

I was coasting.

For some, this works, and I get that. My life was remarkably easy, consistent, comfortable. Enviable, even, depending on your perspective. But a line from Chip and Dan Heath in their book, The Power of Moments, kept replaying over and over and over again: “We are most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they’re not.”

I had stopped feeling truly alive. The challenges had stopped, and when challenges stop, so, too, I’ve found, does your growth and learning. That feeling you get in your veins the night before a match, or a performance, or a speech – whatever your arena is – was dormant. I hadn’t felt that electric pulse, those nervous-excitement butterflies, in quite some time.

I hadn’t felt alive.

And if I wasn’t growing, learning, feeling my pulse jump out of my neck from time to time, then what in the world was I doing?

I sent out some emails, made a few calls, and I got my answer.

I was moving to California.

But why?

I told everyone it was for writing. “Either have to move to LA or New York to make it as a sports writer!” I’d say, and everybody would believe me, because that’s partially true, though I knew that wasn’t quite it. I knew that beach volleyball played a large role in my decision to uproot my life for the second time in three years and move across the country.

And I knew that it was totally irrational, insane, ridiculous, inexplicable.

So I kept it to myself.

But in the midst of that irrational explanation, in the midst of the ridiculousness, I was, whether I knew it or not, beginning to find my why.

I had found something that made me feel truly, genuinely, wildly alive.

Travis Mewhirter-AVP-qualifying-first time
Eight grade shooting guard Travis Mewhirter poses for a sports portrait

It’s the second day of FIVB Huntington Beach. I’m on my way to interview Sarah Pavan, who just beat April Ross and Alix Klineman in three sets. John Mayer is leaving the player’s tent, having just lost to Norway’s young up-and-comers.

Tough match, I tell him.

He shrugs, smiles, says that he and Trevor Crabb actually played their best match against them. Norway simply played better.

“Can’t control the results.”

That’s why I love Mayer. The results from my match, against a different Norwegian team, were still haunting me. Skyler McCoy and I lost, 15-13, in the third set, after leading 8-5 and 12-10. I couldn’t sleep that night, replaying a line shot I hit out at 13-12 over and over and over again, replaying a lift, a missed block, a botched pass.

Can’t control the results.

But here’s what I can control: What I do with those results.

So I watched the film from that match for the hundredth time, and it was no less painful or wince-inducing. I noted what I did wrong, how to improve it. On Wednesday, the day before the Austin qualifier, I cobbled together four friends -– Kevin Villela, Joel Blocksom, Zach Perry, Travis Woloson – and bribed them into serving me hundreds of balls. We did nothing but pass, set and side out for two hours, and in my head, every pass was me getting served at 13-12 in the third set.

Every. Single. One.

I’d never felt so dialed in for two hours of monotony.

Later that night, at a cheap hotel in Austin, I slept as well as I had in months.

I had done everything I could to prepare for the qualifier. You can’t control the results. You can control your preparation.

The results take care of themselves.

And when you realize that, as I did in that creaky hotel room, you realize it’s never been about the results. It’s never been about qualifying.

It’s about so, so, so much more.

***

It’s 12-11 in the third set of the third round. We’re down to Eric Beranek and Matt Prosser. This is typically where my nerves begin to take over. Where I silently pray they serve my partner, so that if he doesn’t side out then I can, in my head, alleviate the blame for why I lost in the third round again.

The nerves don’t come.

They don’t come because I’ve done this drill before. Hundreds of times, actually. Just yesterday. I passed so many balls, sided out so many balls, in this exact scenario.

I’ve never been calmer in a high stakes situation.

I side out.

A few minutes later Raffe and I are hugging. We pulled it out, 16-14. We pulled it out despite being down in the third. Despite me blowing a 20-19 match point in the second.

We pulled it out in the exact spot where, only a week before, I had crumbled.

And then we did it again.

Down 5-2 in the third set of the final round to Dylan Maarek and Andrew Dentler, we rally. We rally despite getting smacked all over in the first set, 21-12. We rally despite me shanking one pass and doubling a set. We rally despite Maarek playing some of the finest volleyball I’ve ever seen him play.

We rally because I’ve been in this scenario before. Hundreds of times. Just yesterday at practice. The results are beginning to take care of themselves.

We push it to 11-11.

We score four straight.

We win.

We qualify.

We make a main draw.

Suddenly Raffe is jumping. He’s screaming “TRAVIS” at the top of his lungs. I check the ball mark.

It’s out?

Out.

No net?

No net.

We qualified?

We qualified.

I’m holding Raffe. Shaking hands. Hugging Dylan. Hugging Dentler. Hugging Tri Bourne. Hugging refs.

I’m hugging goddamn everything.

It’s 11 p.m. and six of us –- Tri, Raffe, Avery Bush, her incredible mother, Jill, Delaney Knudsen, and I – are piled into one stinky, sweaty car.

“Smells like victory,” Delaney says. I laugh, though I immediately regret it. My abs begin to cramp, which makes my lower back cramp, which makes my quads cramp.

I’ve never felt so happy, so alive, to be in so much pain.

The texts from the volleyball world pour in. My friend, Judd, the one who initially taught me to play this game, calls me. He’s crying. Says he loves me. Proud of me. I deserve it.

There are lots of exclamation points in every text and message I receive. Everyone is proud of me. So proud.

We arrive at the hotel and I take a quiet moment to myself outside, just to breathe for a second. I begin to see a common thread in those messages, every single one of which I screen-shotted and saved.

They’d have been proud of me whether I qualified or not.

Because it’s not about the results. It’s about what we can control. It’s about the work you put in to get those results.

I had put in my work. I had been vulnerable, exposed, open to failure. And they had seen every step of it, every shortcoming, every bounce back.

I smile. Let my head droop into my hands.

And everything –- my admiration for Mike Mussina and Brady Anderson and professional athletes, my restlessness in Florida, my masochistic habit of failing over and over and over again for reasons that were once unknown –-  slides into place.

***

Throughout the weekend, Raffe asks me close to a dozen times whether I’m stoked to qualify. I laugh every time. Yes, of course I was stoked to achieve something I’ve been working towards for three years, 11 months and two days.

But I’ve come to see life as a series of false peaks. I talked to my pastor, Graeme Cowgill, about this. Every time we think we achieved our ultimate goal, that we reach our perceived peak, there’s another one just up ahead, a taller mountain with a better view. Oftentimes, we’re so focused on getting to that next peak that we forget to take a look and enjoy the view from this one.

I knew before Thursday, before that ball landed out, before Jeff Conover shook my hand and welcomed me to the AVP Tour, that simply qualifying was a false peak. That there would be another one just beyond that, and another just beyond that.

I’ve found that my happiness resides in the space between those peaks. And though we only stop to take pictures and breathe and enjoy it from the top of those peaks, our why resides in that uphill climb, where we learn and grow and discover who we truly are.

That’s where our hearts beat the loudest, where we stumble, bleed, bruise.

Where we get back up again.

I’m immensely proud for having qualified for the AVP Tour. But I’m far prouder for stepping back into the arena after heart-wrenching losses in Manhattan, in San Francisco, in Huntington. I’m far prouder for finding myself in the exact situation I’d buckled in Huntington and instead stayed calm and put the ball away. I’m proud for turning down jobs that College Travis would have considered dream jobs, jobs to cover Florida State, Florida, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Denver Broncos, Tennessee.

I’m proud because that means I didn’t take the easy way out, that I stayed on the path that makes my heart go thump-thump. I’m proud of the discipline I’ve developed, waking up at 5:45 or 6 every morning to get in a practice or a lift. I’m proud of the vulnerability it takes to continually subject myself to losing and failing, and then digging deep into that failure to extract a learning moment, and improving from it. And I’m proud that I haven’t lost myself amidst all of that, that I remain rooted, above all, in kindness, and that I still took the time to learn every ball girl’s name and shook their hands afterwards and told them what an excellent job they did, because I know that’s exactly what would have made my day as a child.

That right there.

That’s my why.

I could have never known this as a child, but Little Travis admired Mike Mussina and Brady Anderson and his cousins and uncle and parents because he saw in them traits he wanted to develop.

They were an amalgamation of who I wanted to become.

And every day I step back into the arena, every time I take a failure and turn it into a positive, every time I accept a loss and don’t lose my sportsmanship in spite of it, every time I don’t hit the snooze button, every time I do the extra rep, I get closer to that person I’d have admired as a child.

I’ll never get there, and that’s the point.

That’s my why. That’s why I keep going, keep pushing.

As for the results?

They’ll take care of themselves.

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