Give me an athlete with grit over one with talent. Why? Because I know first hand how far an athlete with grit is willing to go beyond the athlete who chooses to only go as far as their talent will take them.
I learned a valuable lesson in a football game my senior year of high school where we were down 40 – 0 at halftime to a far superior team. Our coach, a mountain of a man, came into the locker room and challenged us to see what we are made of when confronted with adversity. He believed in us but also understood the juggernaut we were up against. After a few tear-filled emotionally driven words from myself and my fellow seniors, we went back out, held them to just one more touchdown, and actually scored one ourselves. I remember chasing down their running back as he broke into the open field for a sure touchdown. I was playing nose guard on defense (yes, nose guard at 5’9″, 155 lbs – did I mention we were a small farm town team?) and this running back was an all-state caliber athlete. He had nothing but open field to the goal line and I was scrambling from the line of scrimmage. Our fastest player on the field had conceded to the superior athlete, but not me. Something clicked. I don’t think I have ever run as fast as I did at that moment. Needless to say that sure touchdown didn’t happen. I caught him from the nose guard position, and began to understand my own potential.
I have never been the best athlete on the field, not in a single sport that I have participated in. I tried out for baseball every year in high school and never made it. In college, I wasn’t fast enough to run track, I couldn’t jump high enough or shoot well enough to even think about basketball, and forget football with my prepubescent frame. Luckily for me, my college cheerleading career didn’t pan out after making the varsity squad my freshman year.
My focus naturally shifted back to my first love, cycling. I had raced BMX as a kid and started racing mountain bikes in my teenage years. In high school, I would have a football game on Friday night, race a mountain bike race on Sunday, and then go back to football practice Monday after school. I had earned the Junior Beginner State Mountain Bike Championship title so the possibilities were endless! (That’s sarcasm.) As I got more and more into cycling I gravitated towards road racing and moved up the ranks quickly thanks to my athletic background. Going from a category 5 to a category 2 in less than 9 months, I made the USA National road team and my first and last race with the team was in Japan. I completed all of one stage before being told to get into the broom wagon, my race was over. Even then I was so new to the sport that I didn’t understand what had happened. Our race director at the time told me that bad days happen, but I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t know what bad days were just yet. Needless to say, they never called me again to race. I took this as a challenge to prove to myself and the US National team who I was – a kid that doesn’t know the word quit.
Don’t ever concede. I like to tell people that I made it in cycling because I was the only one dumb enough to not quit. My kinesiology professor in college, Dr. Barbara Bushman, needed a subject to perform the cycling VO2 test for the class and I was quick to request the position since I was completely immersed in the sport. She let me perform two or three of the painful VO2 tests during my undergrad. The test numbers didn’t lie. I had a massive VO2 max of 60. (Again, sarcasm.) I refused to let this deter my goal of succeeding in cycling. As semesters passed I would stop by her office and pull up cyclingnews.com to show her my recent results. She was beside herself at what I had achieved and she told me bluntly, “Brad, I have the data, you shouldn’t be able to be doing what you are doing.” I didn’t miss a beat and replied, “Well Dr. Bushman, I’ve got a lot of heart!”
To this day, not a workout or race goes by that I am not reminded of how much heart it takes to make it in this sport. A rider with grit will endure and suffer their way to a result far more often than a rider whose god-given talent has carried them thus far.
At the 2007 Track World Championships, I had a chance to win a medal in the inaugural Omnium event. Having just gotten over 10 days of sickness and antibiotics, my body was not in peak form but it was rested. After each of the five events, I would come off the track shaking my head in the direction of our head coach Colby Pearce (a former Olympian) and say that I just can’t. My peak fitness was gone but my body’s ability to endure wasn’t. Colby would redirect my mindset and send me back out on the track to keep proving them wrong. By the end of those five grueling events, I had won the bronze medal at the track worlds by one-tenth of a second. Tenacity and persistence had paid off. I had won bronze at THE TRACK WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS! I look back on that accomplishment as a reminder of how you never let yourself concede when times get tough.
“Give me an athlete who proves his or her grit on a daily basis and I will show you a champion.”
I have lost far more than I have won. I have never let those countless losses blur my focused pursuit to find out what I am really made of. Grit has propelled my last 20 plus years of athletics and it will continue to drive my life beyond sport.
Huff competes for Rally Cycling and Topical Edge