I was not much of an athlete as a teenager and waited until my mid-thirties to pick up taekwondo practice. Soon I was hooked. I would train three times a week and wake up early in the mornings to muscle up and stretch. I switched diets, replaced fries with greens, wine with water. Within months I had toned up and shaved off fifty pounds. Finally, I could breathe.
Bruises and muscle tears would mark the beat of my new life in Montreal, where I had immigrated from France with my then-wife Kathleen and our young children Nicolas and Chloé. The day Master Raymond Mourad tied up a black belt around my waist was a proud day. He later honored me with occasional invitations to teach children. A joyful and rewarding experience, as I remember it. I had become a warrior. Or so I thought.
My mentor at the time warned me that my sudden passion for sports was an escape of sorts. I objected with confidence that, in my perspective, it was a quest. I later realized that, indeed, she had a point.
Our taekwondo master was the head coach for the Canadian National Team, and amateurs like me could enjoy training alongside elite athletes. Adrenaline was running high in the Dojang. I tossed away my old sparring shoes and replaced them with a brand-new pair to develop more explosive footwork. The high-grade rubber soles had a better grip. Soon, I gained speed and reach. After a few rounds of warm-up, it felt like I could fly. I was enjoying a boost of confidence. In fights, we make the calls within milliseconds. I fired a round kick with power when a window opened for me to strike a winning point. But then, as I was about to knock down my opponent with my leg stretched up in mid-air, my supporting knee collapsed. The anterior cruciate ligament had ruptured. I crashed on the floor. Out I was on a stretcher.
There is always a weak link. The new sparring shoes had given me access to more physical power than my body could safely utilize at the time. Good mechanics go beyond checking the engine and also scrutinize the chassis. Unattended wounds of the past somehow always get in the way of our most noble ambitions. Life tried to teach me the lesson many times, but it took quite a while before I could harness the courage to face myself in a mirror.
With my frequent travels as a management consultant, I could not afford the downtime required by a year of post-surgery rehabilitation. I opted for the alternative path of aggressive physiotherapy but could never, as a consequence, return to the Taekwondo Dojang. My black belt and my pride got lost overnight in the bottom drawer of a basement cabinet.
Martial arts had been part of my life for over a decade. Deprived of my fix, I lost balance and fell onto the dangerous and slippery slope of depression. To bounce back, I joined the McGill University Triathlon Club. Running would be an obvious challenge with a weak knee, but I could start swimming and cycling.
In triathlon, one mostly competes with oneself; this makes for good ambiance and camaraderie. I tackled my first racing season in the following spring. From one epic race to the next, the season finale came in no time on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. That day Nicolas and Chloé jumped over the fence to run with me across the finish line. Those were good times. Separations can be messy. For now, as I am writing those lines, still, Chloé won't talk to me.
My colleagues at work were wondering how such an intense training regimen could sustainably fit into my schedule. In my perspective, the return on investment was clear: when the time came to wear a suit and a tie, I was focused, energized, and could show up with a sharp mind.
With Fall came a new training cycle and a plan to prepare for the Muskoka half-ironman in Ontario. The bar was high but within reach if I were to be smart, focussed, and disciplined.
We trained at the McGill University Sports Center, where the fire alarm went off one misty evening of November. All in the building had to evacuate within minutes and regroup on the sidewalk; judokas in their kimonos, runners in their cleats, and us triathletes barefoot in our speedo bathing suits.
We thought it was a safety drill and hoped to be soon back in the pool. But then came the fire brigade. Without words, rushed inside. There were no flames, no smoke, no smell. Time passed. We were not in the know. The superintendent eventually saw us to the Faculty of Dentistry a few blocks up Pine Avenue to find food and a warm shelter in the cafeteria. The clock was marking ten.
Our wallets were in the lockers back in the gym; so were our clothes, cell phones, and car keys. With no change in hand, junk food would have to wait. I borrowed a quarter from the super to give a quick call home, but the line was busy. The clock hit eleven.
My career at the time had turned for the better as Canadian CEO of a global training, coaching, and advisory firm. The following morning, I was scheduled for a meeting in the C-suite of a prominent media company to pitch a multi-year big-ticket strategic Learning & Development program. I would have to show up at my very best. But on this dark and crispy night, we had just passed midnight.
I had to regroup, reflect, reset. With no updates from the superintendent, I chose to take control of the script, wished my triathlon friends a good night, and hit the road running barefoot in my speedo bathing suit.
My attempts to borrow a phone from passers-by put my communication skills to the test: "Hello, please do not run away, yes I look like a weirdo downtown in a speedo bathing suit, but I am not going to hurt you... Maybe I could borrow your phone to call my wife?". After three refusals, finally, someone was kind – or brave - enough to let me try. But the line was busy.
When I reached Sherbrooke Avenue and the downtown traffic, I worried that the police would stop me and escort me to the nearest station. It took waving my naked arm quite a few times before a taxi dared to stop. I did not have money with me but would pay upon arriving home. The driver let me use his phone. But the line was busy.
I rang the front doorbell to no avail. Entering the building from the back being my next option, I pleaded with the taxi driver to wait and let me walk around the block and by way of the alleyway. I got no reactions to my banging. The kids would probably be asleep at this time. What was possibly going on? With little hope left in me, I climbed up the fire escape to the third floor. There was a light at the end of the stairs, a window. I escalated over the railing and onto the roof to get close enough to peep in. There I could see Kathleen through the blinds, merry and chatty on the phone, keeping the line busy. I knocked. She jumped and screamed, seeing the shape of a barefoot, naked stranger in the night looking at her. Then, together we laughed.
"Downtown, in a speedo bathing suit" became one of my favorite icebreaker stories for conferences, workshops, and off-site retreats. It was an excellent story to start conversations on resilience, resourcefulness, creative thinking, decision making, risk management, and influence. It triggered many smiles, also validated my identity at the time. But as I learned, stories have a subtext—teachings and surprises lay in wait.
Some years later, I joined a group of consultants and facilitators with expertise in collective intelligence, innovation, and self-management. In one of our weekly meetings, we shared personal anecdotes to reveal peculiar facets of ourselves. For me, an easy drill. Or so I thought.
After listening to my blockbuster story, my peers showed me laudatory feedback. I was courageous, resourceful, and a creative torchbearer in their eyes. But then came Samantha's turn to speak. She was the most experienced among us and held a mirror before me that reflected with laser-sharp accuracy. With fierce courage and empathy, she shared:
"It is a hidden aspect of Dominique's personality that I am sensing this evening. That dark and crispy night of November in the cafeteria of the Faculty of Dentistry, when it became clear to him and his friends that a positive resolution to the fire crisis was neither certain nor imminent, Dominique chose to leave the group and take matters into his own hands. When threatened, Dominique will not trust the group and will not know how to ask for help. When the going gets tough, Dominique goes alone. I suspect this is one of his vulnerabilities."
I felt cornered and rebelled with a strong rationale. As others in the room saw right through me, acute discomfort crept down and within. Vulnerability. Could I not trust even those close to me? To transform, one must first see oneself. To be trusted, shouldn't one learn to trust?
The stories we tell ourselves and choose to believe can open our hearts, but they can also obstruct them. To open our eyes and face new light, we may seek support from a friend, a loved one, a colleague, a coach, or a stranger walking in the crisp night, barefoot on the sidewalk, downtown in a speedo bathing suit.
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