What’s the worst that can happen? So much of what I imagined as a parent of an autistic child never happened. So much of what I never imaged did happen. Aaron is now twenty-one years old. He’s in college. He still runs OCR. He still has big dreams. He’s studying exercise science. We try to keep that focus in front of him as we train, compete, and recover.
For me, recovery is the most needful thing. Emotional recovery. The life of training, competition, learning, and living with autism in the family is sometimes exhausting. Last weekend at Goliathon XIII was no exception.
This event is not a race. It does have some of the most difficult obstacles in the industry. Tiered from easy to impossible, each obstacle gives you the choice. The harder the tier chosen and successfully executed, the more points you earn. Those few (probably 20 individuals out of tens of thousands who have tried) who get perfect scores earn the distinction of getting their name on the Wall of Davids.
Jamie Rahn, aka “Captain NBC” for those who follow American Ninja Warrior, is one of those rare athletes who has achieved the David status. He’s done it six times. But not every time.
Jamie explains the mission and the rules at the start line.
Goliathon XIII was my son Aaron’s third time at the event. His goal is to get more points than last time. He also wants to get more points than me. But I did not participate this time. I was the photographer, coach, and father. It ended up that Aaron needed a father more than anything this time. And I failed miserably.
When Aaron’s autism triggers trip, I struggle to figure out how to help him emerge from what is known as defense mode. He shuts down. Gets very negative about himself. He wants to quit.
I try to remind him of how far he’s come. The obstacles in life he has overcome. I try to turn his perspective from an highly emotional state to an objective reality. I tried to be very frank and honest.
“You failed that obstacle simply because you haven’t practiced. You did it last year because you were at the peak of conditioning.”
No touching yellow! That’s a fail on Balancing Act.
While that was all true, that didn’t pull him out of his own world and help him get ready for the next of twelve obstacles in the event. He made a lot of excuses. Blamed a lot of things. Felt worse and worse about himself as a person, a competitor, a man who deeply needs to prove people wrong about how they see and treat other people who are on the spectrum.
I tried a different tactic and went all DI on him. We loved watching The Selection together. It gets us all fired up for training. Aaron got to meet Logan Nagle, #19, just weeks before at the Savage Race in Maryland. I thought for sure a little badass Instructor mode would work.
Arachnophobia – a new obstacle in 2019 with slack lines.
But I never know from one episode to the next. What worked last time didn’t work this time. Sometimes however it does work and I don’t know it. He starts to emerge. But I can’t tell because he is silent. He provides no feedback. There are no signals to tell me as his father that I’m doing right or wrong. Only hours later will he recount and tell me. Too late. By then we are both emotionally exhausted in need of serious decompression.
At one point, after a failed obstacle where he has never struggled before, I told him to shake it off and get ready for the next one. He complained that his grip strength was gone. It was a rope climb coming up. He’s never failed it. He had a chance at redemption by doing the hardest tier and catch up on his points. He knew I was right. Rope climbing is all in the rope lock on the feet. Grip strength not such a big deal.
Climb a rope with a 40# chain around your neck.
And it wasn’t. He nailed it. Back on top of the world. Ready to do the next obstacle in full assault mode. It was the Leap of Faith. He’d done the hardest tier many times before – in practice. Never in competition. His confidence was high. He warmed up for a few minutes getting his legs ready for the very fast, very intense, very tricky obstacle.
He took off perfectly. Only four steps to go. On the last one, he hit the tire too short. He leapt high and forward to ring the bell. He face planted in the blue dyed water and red stained mud. He was sure he hit the bell. I had the photos to prove he did not. Meltdown.
Minutes later, Jamie Rahn was on the starting line. It was like a mirror performance of Aaron. Just short and a miss. The best athlete in the world at this kind of thing had failed. Aaron did not notice. The rationale that even the best don’t succeed every time did not matter to him. He was back in defense mode. Just moments before he was on top of the world again.
The roller coaster ride of the day made for a long, quiet ride home. We both needed to decompress. It’s hard for me to understand what he goes through. It’s impossible for him to understand my experience as a father. But together, we move on. We don’t quit. We love each other deeply. We we grow a little, understand a little better, and hope the next time out is a more positive experience.
Turns out at the end of it all, the worst that could happen at Goliathon XIII was he got a nose full of water at Leap of Faith. The sinus irritation turned into a cold. That’s something he can manage.
What’s the worst that can happen?