Night Birthday Celebration in the Swiss Jura Mountains

One snowy February night, members of my department gathered at the Jura mountain pass Col de Givrine (1320 meters) connecting Switzerland and France for a “midnight balade” to celebrate one colleagues 50th and another’s 40th birthday.

In French, balade means an excursion for distraction to relax and get fresh air. One of the benefits of living in Europe is that people slow down from equally frantic lives and take time out to recharge their batteries with fun and exercise.

An eclectic group of British ladies, 3 Frenchmen, two Americans, a woman from Marseilles, a Canadian, a Swiss, and a gregarious Scotsman gathered together on a snow bank, bundled in parkas, snow pants, and snowshoes. Designated scouts wore helmets with flashlights to guide us on the trail under inky black skies.

Due to my health issues I rarely go outdoors to play, but they insisted that the dark conditions were ideal for me, so I wouldn’t have to wear my sun-blocking, movie star shades. My friends swore it was a short, flat walk; it ended up being a one-hour steady climb uphill. But I couldn’t turn back without getting lost.

I used ski poles for balance; if I veered off the path, I sunk up to my knees in snow. My Frenchman moaned the whole way because his knee hurt; I was too short-winded to moan. When I thought I couldn’t take another step, one of the birthday girls announced, “Time for the aperitif.” She pulled a bottle from her packback and stuck it the in the snow. She dug out cup holders in the snow bank and filled cups with the white wine creating an open-air mini bar. When the stragglers caught up, we toasted to the birthday girls in a clearing surrounded by white, velvet-covered evergreen.

birthday toast in the Jura mountains

birthday toast in the Jura mountains

We forged ahead around the next bend to the “restaurant,” La Vermeilley, technically, a reconverted herders shed. We parked our snowshoes on the snow-covered picnic tables at the entryway. Inside red and white tablecloths covered wooden tables lined with benches. A finger-thawing fire crackled from the fireplace. A waiter set plates of viande des grison (dried beef) and bowls of pickles on the table. Then the owner brought out steaming fondue pots filled with the special 3-cheese blend mixed with wine. We dipped chunks of thick, white, country bread into the pot and ate with gusto.

birthday girls

birthday girls

Several of my colleagues, former rugby players, chanted, engaging the participation of the other half a dozen tables filled with hearty, physically fit men and women. When we got up to leave, my head of department, a fun loving Scotsman, started singing a rendition of Patricia, the best stripper in town, so I pseudo danced tossing off my mittens and scarf to the applause of the merrymaking partiers. The ambiance all evening was exceptional with strangers joining in our shouting, “Hip, hip hurrah!”

The hike back down the mountains was equally enchanting. Snow-covered pines loomed in the foreground, while  stars twinkled overhead. I felt as if I were in another world. I stumbled down the path, savoring nature’s austere elegance. Then my Frenchman drove us back down the mountain. When we arrived home, I peeled off 5 layers of clothes and collapsed into bed. I woke up early the next morning, cloaked in warm memories and smelling of barn animals and cheese.

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Thirtieth Anniversary of My Second Life After Car Accident in France

Thirty years ago, at the peak of my pro basketball career, I fell asleep in the back of a car dreaming of driving the baseline on a fast-break. One second I was on top of the world with all-powerful high of a victorious athlete, and the next, my body careened weightlessly through air. Folded into the fetal position, I slammed into hard metal and when I regained consciousness, icy water sucked my breath away.

No normal human beings should have survived the impact or the relentless current when our car flipped off the French autoroute, sailed over a 100-foot high embankment, and crashed into the La Meuse River. But then we were not normal. As pro basketball players, our 25-year-old bodies had been honed to perfection, trained to withstand trauma.

my last game, Marburg, Germany

my last game, Marburg, Germany

Yet within seconds, years of training meant nothing; I was reduced to an invalid. If I wriggled my upper body, I could peek out over the hospital window ledge at the red rooftops of Verdun. Graveyards covered the hillside of the famous WWI look out point? Why wasn’t I buried beside yesterday’s heroes. I had lost my job, my identity, and my purpose. What was left?

Life.

I spent the past three decades trying to get my head around it. I survived…but why?

In addition to the endless support of my husband, family, and friends scattered round the globe, the one thing that has kept me going through years of pain was the drive to write.

I spent an inordinate amount of time in the reclining position due to an ultra bad back. I taught myself to type lying down with my eyes blindfolded to stop words from spinning off the page in my dizziness.

Old manuscript drafts are stacked from floor to ceiling. I could wallpaper my entire house with rejection letters. Yet, through endless transitions from athlete to coach, student to teacher, daughter to mom and through dozens of moves across two continents between four countries, I penned my existence.

coaching next generation of doctors, lawyers and businesswomen

coaching next generation of doctors, lawyers and businesswomen

Even when common sense told me to give up, I kept going. I was compelled to record the story of a lost generation, the pioneers of women’s sports that grew up as the first generation Title IXers coming of age in 1972 along with the groundbreaking law mandating equal opportunities for women in education and sport. The result is a personal testimony that echoes the voices of the past, who helped paved the way for our high-flying daughters of today.

Coming soon… our story seen through the twinkle of my blue eyes.

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Who Says Girls Can’t Get Dirty? Dad’s & Daughter’s Bond in Warrior Dash

As soon as I was old enough to walk, I was off running.  Before racing was fashionable for females, I dashed around the block of old East 19th Street neighborhood. In the winter, I ran circular laps around Jefferson, the first round school in town. In Jr. high, the coach let me run cross-country with the boys. In high school, when the law finally mandated equal opportunities for girls, I joined the track team.

Though my running days are long gone due to injuries, much to my delight my niece Marie was a runner. Though she no longer belongs to a team, she still enjoys a good race. Every July she competes in the Warrior Dash, a fun run where 600 runners lined up every half hour from 8am to 5 pm all weekend.

Her dad, Dick, a heart attack and cancer survivor, dedicated to fitness, joined her. After surgery in April to remove cancerous thyroid tumor, his goal was to run the Warrior Dash with his daughters. This type of cross-country run was fitting for his younger daughter, Hannah, a two time state championship rugby player, because it included army crawls and obstacles climbing.

Dick Carlson & John Pupkes coached daughters in team sports

Dick Carlson & John Pupkes coached daughters in team sports

The five-K run set on a ski slopes at Afton Alps Ski Resort in Minnesota was mostly uphill. Every 100 yards, an obstacle including a ten-foot high wall, had to be scaled by rope. Dick, ever the gentleman, sat on top of the wall to help women struggling to swing their bodies over the barrier. Then as soon as the contestants’ feet hit the ground, they crawled under barbed wire through mud.

“It gets tougher as you go cause your body is weighed down in muck,” Dick said, “and your feet slip and slide.”

But for Marie, a recent college graduate, the whole experience is “fun, fun, fun!”

To add to the gaiety, many competitors dressed in costume. At the end of the race, runners hosed off the mess and enjoyed a beverage, which for many was beer. Food booths sold chicken wings, turkey legs and hot dogs adding to the carnival atmosphere.

“Wear old clothes cause you’ll throw everything away,” Dick said, “except your shoes which are donated to charity.”

The entrance fee was $50 and competitors went home with T-shirts, buffalo warrior hats, participation medals, heads filled with pride and hearts bursting with joy.

“This year was better than last cause my friends ran,” Marie said, “ and so did my pops and sister!”

Thanks to Title IX dad coached daughters in soccer

Thanks to Title IX dad coached daughters in soccer

According to the fifty-six year old dad, “It takes a lot of upper body strength to climb over obstacles and the run uphill was much harder than I expected!

But Marie, insisted, “It was awesome! I can’t wait till next year!

If you love to run and roll in mud, check out this site http://www.warriordash.com/ to find the Warrior Dash in your area. Hit the treadmills and pump that iron! Work it this winter, so you can roll with the warriors next summer!

Life is not for the Fainthearted -Everyone is Gutsy

A bit unusual for me to be posting this early in the week, but I wanted to send
special thoughts to family and friends on the East coast of America in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
No matter where you are, here’s a little distraction to keep the anxiety level down and  boredom at bay.
A sneak peek at my upcoming book ?
You can find it at this address:

My Gutsy Story

Please hop on over to  Sonia Marsh’s Gutsy Living blog today to see my “My Gutsy Living ” story~ From Cornfields to City of Lights I guarantee you will enjoy it.

Every Monday, Sonia features a short story on “Gutsy Living” about something Gutsy you have done in your life that either: changed you, changed the way you think about something or made your life take a different direction.
Hope you’ll stop by and leave a comment. We all have a “Gutsy Living” story. What’s yours? Sonia would love to hear from you on her Gutsy Living website.

Basketball Lessons Transfer to Medical Career

When my daughter was born in Paris on a cool October day nearly three decades ago, I prayed for the strength to help make her resilient. No easy task as I was still enduring chronic pain from a car accident and I would be raising her in France in a cross-cultural marriage. As she grew, I dreamed of watching her run, jump and play. Like my dad once taught me, I showed her how to shoot baskets in the driveway and before long I was following her to games in the French and then later Swiss club leagues.

playing ball in apartment in Paris

playing ball in apartment in Paris

When Nat entered the international school, I coached her and her friends. Every time she came out of a game pouting about an elbow to the face or knee in the back I encouraged her to brush it off and get back in the action.

Was I pushing her too hard or not enough?

When I had her play one-on-one against a boy and he accidentally broke her ankle, I could’ve kicked myself. I always pressed the limits. Nat played with exercised induced asthma, so I subbed her out of games, insisting, “Breath, Nat, breath. But tell me as soon as you can go back in.”

In all fairness, what coach likes their 6’2” center to sit out? After all, I had been raised by get-up-and-walk-it-off father and grandfather coaches.

I never knew if what I said made sense to a girl growing up in Europe where the emphasis is less about winning and more about participating. What good were my lessons?

However after shining in the Swiss basketball league, as a freshman Nathalie moved to the States and as a college freshman played in the DIII Final Four tournament for University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point under Shirley Egner, who became the most decorated coach in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC).

mom & daughter share triumph & defeat

mom & daughter share triumph & defeat

The final game of Nat’s career ended in an upset. The athlete in her collapsed, but her fighting spirit will remain in the gym, another brick in the wall, forming the foundation of UWSP Pointer’s tradition. That athlete kicked the bleachers and cried in the shower, but the scholar in her rose early the next morning to ace the biochemistry exam.

I who once majored in “basketball,” floundered, searching for a career. So driven by my obsession with the game, I was lost when I could no longer play. My daughter knew instinctively that brains would outlast the body. Four days, after the disappointing end to her basketball career, Nat nailed her interview gaining admittance to the University of Minnesota Medical School.

But I will always remember that night when we stumbled off the purple and gold court at UWSP. I slipped my right arm around her waist as she draped her left arm over my shoulders. She leaned on me for support and I clung to her waist for balance; where my strength ended, her courage began. I drew on her calm, logical ability to see the big picture; she relied on my humor and spunk to make it through the moment. I marveled at her ability to memorize the chemical compositions of molecules, she admired my tenacity to keep fighting each day faced with debilitating pain. We are tougher, more resilient, and more compassionate because of each other.

When I was a child, women had no more chance of playing pro basketball than being CEOs, neurosurgeons or college professors. Yet during her college career, Nat guarded the superstar of Milwaukee School of Engineering, a woman whose job at NASA awaited her graduation. Nathalie became the first international player in the WIAC to receive the Scholar Athlete Award (2006-2007). She juggled the demands of academics, college basketball, and dual nationality, crossing between cultures. And in 2011 she took the Hippocratic Oath at University of Minnesota Medical School to become the first doctor in the family.

Today Dr. Lechault uses that same tenacity she learned on the basketball court to work incredibly long hours teaching adolescents good health habits, answering a pager in the middle of the night, calming distraught parents, and making tough, split second decisions in her work as a pediatrician. Happy Birthday, Nat, and hey, thanks for listening!

Med school grad

Med school grad

Salute to the Passing of Duwayne Dietz

Feb. 26, 1929-July 25, 2012

His name was synonymous with sports in Sterling. As a 1948 SHS grad, surely Sterling has never had a faster runner or a finer coach.

As an athlete, Dietz was a record-breaking runner on the track. Later as a teacher at SHS, he coached athletes to break records. Under his tutelage, the SHS track team won 26 conference titles. In addition to countless SHS Athletic Hall of Fame titles, he was also an Illinois State Track Coaches Inductee.

In high school, my dad, a defensive back playing for DeKalb, was assigned the task of guarding Sterling’s star running back.

a great athlete

a great athlete

“Our game plan was simple – tackle Dietz!” my dad recounted, “Only problem, we had to catch him first. We chased him up and down the field all night.”

My dad and Duwayne’s rivalry ended the day my dad started teaching at SHS in 1958. Every teacher who worked at SHS and every athlete who ever graduated from Sterling has his own favorite, “Dietzism,” engrained in his “thick skull.”

“For 25 years we shared the same office, so we told a lot of stories,” my dad said. “Duwayne became a colleague, a friend and a mentor.”

My dad learned the ropes of coaching freshman football as an assistant to Duwayne.

“At halftime of an away game we played so badly in the first half, Coach Dietz loaded the team back on the bus, and threatened to turn it around and drive them back home.”

Coach Dietz on SHS's track field (his home)

Coach Dietz on SHS’s track field (his home)

When Duwayne retired in 1989 after 34 years serving students and athletes, my dad roasted him royally; SHS fittingly named the track after him.

Colonel Dietz

Colonel Dietz

Coach Dietz served his community and his country. As a paratrooper during the Korean War, he made 57 jumps and remained in the Army reserves for 30 years. A decorated colonel – strong, tough, feared and respected – he dressed sharp, stood straight and remained fit. He barked orders in a gruff voice. He was a man of few words, not all of them nice. But underneath the rugged façade was a loving father, caring coach, and strong leader. Everyone at SHS wanted to do right by him.

“Good run, Patty,” he said after my 880-yard dash. “What was your time?”

After he stopped me in the hall to inquire, I worked my butt off in track because I knew the next time he asked my time better be faster.

Everyone at SHS feared and admired Coach Dietz. But his bark was louder than his bite. Like all athletes, I’d jump at his command, then he’d soften the blow with his trademark grin, so that I knew he was kidding (or was he?)

Wrapped within the sadness of his death was also a sense of celebration for a man who shaped so many lives with his hard drive and high standards. Because Coach Dietz demanded excellence, I sought it in myself.

Dwayne Dietz was a Hall of Fame Athlete and Coach who raised a Hall of Fame Family.

He coached one son, an outstanding track star, as well as his son-in-law, a SHS standout football player. He taught with still another son-in-law. He left behind his lovely wife, Ruth, and 5 children and 14 grandchildren. Respected by the community, loved by friends and family, his passing leaves a hole in the hearts of many.

I feel fortunate to have grown up listening to the legends on the breezeway of their old house. His third daughter has been my best friend since third grade. As kids on the block, we all knew Mr. Dietz had our back.

With his parting, my hometown lost a hero. Another part of my childhood slipped away.

Rest in Peace Coach Dietz

Yockway Peggy