Essay | The Frail Bliss Tornado Vs Gloom And Doom

A true tale and appreciation of my mighty Special Olympics’ hero.



Special-Olympics-swimming hero
© photo by Gregory Mancuso

It’s not hard to get buried in a heap of frustration in these gloom and doom days. You can be frustrated your career isn’t advancing fast enough. Or your career disappeared and you’re forced to take a job that you wouldn’t even call a career. Maybe you’re frustrated about your investments not performing well. Or your cash flow could be nonexistent and getting more nonexistenter every week for that matter.

And you can always round up the usual suspects lurking in your life even in the best of times. Creative frustration, relationship frustration, or what relationship? frustration, weight,  looks, the traffic, and the kids and on and on.

When frustration hits a fevered pitch, whether in the mundane or life altering category, it may help you to think of the woman in this picture as I do from time to time. I encountered her years ago when I was covering the Special Olympics.

I first noticed her on the other side of the pool, shivering and fearful in the water just before her race began. There was plenty of trepidation and imagined failure in her goggled eyes. I was concerned that hyperventilation might even take over before the race began.

She looked like she might even believe great whites were thrashing under those treacherous waters before her. You never know. Gulp.

But then the starting whistle screeched and they were off! She plunged ahead, gripping her kickboard like her very survival depended on it. A kicking, splashing and spitting up water frenzy ensued.

Then about midway through, the abject fear was slowly replaced by determination. A most fierce and growing fiercer determination was contorting her face. She was going to do this thing, she was going to do this thing, she might drown and die, but oh, she was going to do this thing.

She kicked and kicked. And flailed and flailed. And eventually made it across the perilous seas and across to the other side of the pool.

Reaching the finish, she was at first gasping for air, and the disbelief that it was over, and that she did it, and she was still alive.

Then she let out whoops of joyful ecstasy and accomplishment which seemed to blast the entire arena.

She was a veritable bliss tornado. Twirling and swirling, around and around. Leaping, leaping up and down. Shrieking with delight. “I did it! I did it! Did you see me do it?! I swam it! I’m so so happy. I swam it!”

Then she leapt into the arms of her guide. He had swum beside her in those shark infested waters. He’s the huggee with the wide grin that I captured in the photo.

He told her how proud he was and… That was all he could get out. His eyes started leaking. On her urgent command, he did manage to lift that boney, frail body out of the pool.

Look out. She’s unleashed upon the land!

The bliss tornado is shrieking and leaping with euphoric abandon. Uh-oh. I’m close. Whoosh. She throws her arms around me and the wet whirlwind envelopes me. “I did it, I swam it! Did you see it?”

I told her I did indeed and that maybe I got some good photos. That was a mistake. Her delight decibels hit stun level right next to my ears. But I couldn’t help but hug her back, getting myself and my gear more soaked. Getting baptized with her joy. She was an irresistible force of nature.

“I’m so happy!” She slipped and dripped away from me and enveloped someone else. Just as happy and enthusiastic with whomever she came upon. I had to wipe my leaky eyes as I watched her whirl around, determined to spread around as much joy and celebration as possible.

Everybody around the arena couldn’t help but be touched by this bliss tornado. Years have passed and the spirit she doled out still feels vivid today.

Meanwhile, back in the present day at frustration ranch, what’s all that got to do with all this? Well, what had she accomplished? She only swam to the other side of the pool, didn’t even do a lap. No grand Phelpsian achievement here. She didn’t even win the race. I think she was next to last.

But by just getting to the other side of the pool, she accomplished something that was hard and scary for her.

Secondly, she tried to spread and share the joy of that accomplishment to as many souls as possible.

I’m sure she had plenty of frustrations in her life. Hell, she could barely even walk. But she sure did relish what she could do, did do. And made the most of it.

So I’m thinking that when the frustrations pile up, maybe we should try to think of something we’ve accomplished, even if it’s just a small something. Getting a little perspective that whatever we got going on in the positive column is pretty good. And maybe we should even kick into gear the “count your blessings” deal.

And if do you manage to grab a thimbleful of joy from something or other–spreading it around will probably be appreciated. Even to someone you barely know.

Anyway, I try to keep the memory of that frail bliss tornado handy, and the perspective that maybe just getting to the other side of the damn pool is good enough for now.

Better times ahead. Splash on!

written by Los Angeles photographer & writer Gregory Mancuso

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