“You Can’t.” There are not many two-word phrases in the English language that are more powerful than this pair. How many life paths have reached a dead end after hearing this phrase? How many dreams have been denied? How many lives have been uprooted?
It was 1999. I had spent the summer learning to exercise-ride racehorses at Canterbury Park in Minnesota. I was 20 years old, turning 21. I was new to the sport, and was thrown off so many horses. But I would always dust myself off, and fearlessly (or maybe ignorantly) hop back in the saddle. I worked my tail off, and slowly improved throughout that year. Toward the end of the summer, I had an encounter that I will never forget. A cowboy hat-wearing horse trainer, Johnny R, stopped me in the track kitchen.
“You can’t make it as an exercise rider. I know you are trying, but you are not strong enough for this. You won’t make it.”
That was the fuel I needed. I pledged to do everything I could to make it as a rider. I started getting on more horses for more trainers. I started hanging out at the receiving barn (a barn where horses ship in from farms and questionable places, and there is more of a danger factor.) I continued to fall off occasionally, but I learned something new every day. And I never forgot Johnny’s words.
I did make it. I made it my career for over fifteen years. I was no super star rider, but I rode at the best tracks in America. I worked at places like Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Woodbine and Saratoga. I rode for Hall of Fame trainers. I rode graded stakes winners and Breeders Cup winners and champions. And I look back and thank that man (who passed away many years ago) for igniting that spark, and challenging me to prove him wrong.
“You can’t run. You’ll hurt yourself with those knees.”
I’ve always been knock-kneed. If you want to get scientific, I have externally rotated femurs and internally rotated tibias and it causes me to run with a swinging gait, swooping my feet out significantly (see photo.)
As a kid, I was always told not to run. Gym teachers, parents of friends, and other adults all were concerned. Even in my own family (thanks mom’s side of the family for these genetics, lol) they are referred to as Grandma Tora knees and definitely not run friendly! But again, I took it as a challenge.
I began running in grade school. I “ran” in high school. I wasn’t too serious about it. In fact, we used to take the city bus a half a mile to the running track rather than jog half a mile as a warm up! I was a 400 meter sprinter, and I wasn’t very good. I never made it to state, or even regions. But I raced every week and had a lot of fun with it.
I set running on the back burner for over a decade (doing an occasional 5k race every few years and sporadic jogs.) In 2008, I picked it up again and got serious about it. From there, I became a competitive runner and triathlete. I run 70, 80, even 90+ miles a week when marathon training, and am rarely injured. I do stay on top of strength and mobility work to keep those knees healthy, but it works. I never hung up my shoes, and don’t plan to anytime soon. I’m so glad I never listened to those voices.
The year was 1999. I had just returned to my college campus at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. I was torn between wanting to finish school, or follow my dreams of working with the racehorses. This was right after the summer I started riding them.
It was hard for me to go back to college that fall. I had changed my major a few times, and even spent a semester at another college before returning to Gustavus. This was my senior year and I knew I would probably graduate late, but I needed to strategize and figure out the right path. I was a communications major at the time, and set up an appointment with my advisor, Terry M.
“You can’t do this,” he said in a frustrated voice. He told me my credits were too varied after changing my major several times. “You’ve wasted all this time. I don’t know how you expect to graduate.”
That was the time I did listen. Maybe he was right. We were only a couple days into classes and I remember sitting on a bench outside the chapel, and letting the tears flow. I decided he knew best. I went to the office of the registrar, filled out the paperwork to terminate school and had to do the walk of shame from teacher to teacher, getting all of them to sign off on my decision. I turned it in at the end of that day, gathered my belongings, and left that school. It was one of the hardest choices I ever made.
Fast forward to about fourteen years later. I was coming to the end of my riding career. My husband and I had decided to move permanently to Kentucky, after following the circuit from NY to FL for a long time. I thought of Terry’s words often, and I had never stopped wanting to finish school. There was no time like the present.
I applied to UK. They asked for my transcript. Gustavus wouldn’t release it. They said I owed $6000 and that I hadn’t signed the paperwork in time. In their own way, they were saying “You can’t.” I was not going to pay them for their mistake, so I had to come up with another life plan.
I found one school that didn’t require a transcript. I could do a full time, 13 month program to get a degree in personal training. I jumped on it, and I ended up loving every minute of my time in that program at Lexington Healing Arts Academy. I hit the ground running as a trainer. I became a running coach and triathlon coach. I started my own business, Rocksport Training. And I never stopped educating myself. If Terry hadn’t discouraged me, I might not have found this path to happiness.
Instead of seeing the words “You can’t” in a negative light, they can be a positive. They can ignite fires. They can be the best motivation. And they can be the driving force behind the will to succeed. Never let words stop you from achieving your dreams.
Well said Erin!