As I do on most holidays, I embraced the opportunity to take in the beauty of my home state and country slowly (though not too slowly…) aboard my bicycle. I donned with pride the Stars & Stripes jersey that I won in 2019 on the velodrome. But as I considered my gratitude about having the day off to ride my bike, I also thought about what America means to me. About the enormous weight of responsibility that those stars and those stripes carry. And also about the buoyancy that they provide me, most thrillingly on that day in 2011 when I hoisted them above my head on home soil in Henderson, Nevada to capture a world title not just for myself, but for my country. And I wanted to write about what America means to me. As a husband. A father. An athlete. And a citizen.
There’s been much written – especially after last week’s numerous Supreme Court rulings – about the future of our country. I lament all of the decisions that were handed down last week, in particular the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the limiting of the EPA’s ability to regulate emissions at a time when the fate of our planet seems even more gloomy than the fate of our country. Yet, as I read Darren Walker’s essay “The Founders Bequeathed Us Something Radical” in the NYTimes and also Langston Hughes’ timeless Let America Be America Again, I was moved to a hope and to an optimism that I have not felt in some time.
The veteran Jocko Willink, who is frequently pressed for his political views as various factions within the country try to claim him as “one of us,” replied eloquently and simply, I don’t like to be categorized, but if you must, please simply label me: AMERICAN. While such simple unity can at times feel increasingly fraudulent, I do think that as a nation and as people, we do still have more in common than not. That we do not fit into the puritanical boxes that social media and the news may lead us to believe. I think of the complexity of my own beliefs. And those of my friends, and I’m grateful for the variety of opinions they represent. For friendship that somehow transcends even fundamental disagreement because it is based primarily – though not only – upon what we share, and also upon what we do not.
I believe unequivocally in the a woman’s right to choose, for herself, what to do with her body. But I struggle mightily with statements like the ACLU’s about “persons who can become pregnant.” I think the language of “inclusion” can end up being both exclusionary and divisive, regardless of the “rightness” of its intent.
I wholly support the right of any two adult persons to enter in a binding – and legally recognized – covenant of marriage. But, as the father of two active and competitive daughters, I believe that biological dividing lines are an important part of keeping sport fair and healthy. Both my own experience as a professional athlete and that of my wife has left us both with a very strong sense that certain aspects of gender are inflexible and undeniable enough to strongly support the recent FINA decision on transgender athletes and hope that other International Federations follow suit.
I grew up shooting rifles – mostly at summer camp – and own a gun (a bolt-action hunting rifle). I take my 10 year old son shooting and plan to teach all of my children to effectively and safely operate a firearm. I think shooting is a remarkable sport and hunting is a hobby that encourages both a genuine understanding of where food comes from and also helps foster a love of nature and the outdoors. But I support any number of restrictions on firearm ownership including background checks, age limits, registries, specific weapon and weapon “feature” restrictions such as we have in California, and lengthy waiting periods. I believe the Second Amendment is as much a responsibility – I believe the first sentence in it is first for a reason, and that service to a greater good and something larger than yourself is an imperative – as it is any sort of individual right. Likewise, I also believe that The Constitution is and should be a living document, and that the intent of the founders for this country matters less than the beliefs of the citizenry now for the country we live in today.
I drive a plug-in hybrid and will almost certainly buy an electric vehicle whenever I buy another car. But I also think that electrification is not a panacea, and that we will not save the planet simply by changing nothing about our habits except for the powertrain in our vehicles. A luxury sedan is not a solution to global warming just because it has a battery. Batteries have their own environmental issues. And the source of the electricity that charges them is not something to simply dismiss with handwaving. Bicycles, in particular, deserve far greater focus as a tool to prevent climate change. I also don’t think that billowing black diesel fumes out of the back of a low-MPG pickup somehow makes someone “more” American just because an American flag is stuck in the back. The greatest asset we have as a nation is our rich and varied landscape, and I cannot understand how anyone claiming to be patriotic cannot wish that it should remain so. Our National Parks are treasures to be revered and cared for, not to be “used” and littered upon or to sacrifice to the insatiable desire for consumption. I believe if we love this country, we should seek to use less of it and to leave it – in all ways – better than we found it.
I knew at the end of 2016 that I was going to retire from professional triathlon. I first considered running for Congress, but ultimately abandoned the idea because the over-importance of fundraising made it clear that it simply was not for me. But I had a deep desire to work in service of my country, and in 2017, I applied to join the FBI, ultimately missing out because I was just slightly too old. In the years since, I have vacillated between a desire to fight for the country I love and to flee it for the safety and well-being of my children, in particular my daughters. But today I felt for the first time a third option – to work for it. Not to fight or to flee. But to care.
Much of me remains cynical. And convinced of the folly of such a hopeful idea. And I do believe that there remain many serious obstacles to a bright and hopeful future for America. I write this neither to dismiss those concerns nor to emphasize them. I remain proud to be an American. I unabashedly call myself a patriot. I hope that others will as well.
I write this to express my gratitude on what this country has offered me. And to my father, who grew up himself without a father and earned scholarships to every school he attended and built a life where I would not have to struggle in that same way. And to my maternal grandfather, the oldest of seven children and the first in his family to go to college, who graduated during the Great Depression and was one of only two young men in his class to get a job; he was so grateful to the General Electric Corporation that he worked there – and nowhere else – for forty-plus years until he retired. And to my mother, who went to college and in so doing fulfilled a dream that her own mother did not, and who has re-upped her role as a caregiver to help support my sister, who is a world class MD-PhD ophthalmologist and professor at NYU. This country has given so much to me and to my family, much of it earned, but also much of it the result of privilege and luck.
Their experiences and my own have shaped me in incalculable ways. Ways that make it so that I do not fit into a single box. And as I reflect on that, I also think how so many of those I know do not fit the labels or tribal affiliations that increasingly seemed forced upon us. Except for one. That we are all Americans.