He spreads his long arms wide so quickly, the audience startles. “Three! Am I really about to bungee jump?” He throws out the question …
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He spreads his long arms wide so quickly, the audience startles. “Three! Am I really about to bungee jump?” He throws out the question emphatically. “Two! Wait! Wait! I am not ready for this! One! Why do I listen to Grandma-a-a?”
His voice rises and his 6-foot-4 lanky frame pitches forward. He straightens and peers seriously through dark-rimmed glasses. “Push past it — advice that will stick in my mind till the end of my time.”
Push past it.
Those three words have defined milestones in Ryan Avery's life, so much so that they recently led him to an extraordinary achievement. He learned them from his fiery but sweet, independent grandmother, who always gave it to him straight.
So, listen to this story. It's about dreaming big, working hard, believing in oneself. But, mostly, this is a story about a boy and his grandmother.
“Last summer, I willingly attached myself to an industrial-sized rubber band, h-u-u-rled my body off the tallest bridge in North America, and almost wet myself. Bungee jumping for me was the equivalent of someone being scared of spiders bathing in a tub of tarantulas. Ugh! Why would I do something so scary? Because,” he gazes toward the audience, “Grandma's famous words.” His voice rises. “Ryan, we all experience fear. Push.” His hands flick outward. “Past it.” His hands flick again.
Ryan, 25, grew up in a small Texas town near Houston. In high school, he trained unflaggingly to break the record in the 400-meter freestyle swim relay. One day before the meet, the coach told him a faster teammate would replace him. As he opened the front door, his grandmother handed him a much-awaited letter.
“Dear Ryan: Thank you for submitting your application to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We regret to inform you that blah, blah, blah.” Ryan pauses. “Grandma grabbed my wrist, leaned in.” His voice climbs higher. “Ryan, we all get rejected. Push past it. Besides, who really wants to live in North Carolina anyways?”
Five years later, in 2009, he graduated from Colorado State University with degrees in journalism and anthropology. He moved to Portland with his new wife, Chelsea, a CSU graduate studying for a master's in social work at Portland State University. He scanned Craigslist for any job he could find to pay the bills — teaching an older man to use the computer; dressing up as Lord Voldemort for a Harry Potter midnight premiere; month-long marketing contracts with Nike, Toyota, Safeway.
“I was scary broke and I called Grandma for help. Ryan, you need money? Well, you and me both! Push,” his hands flick, “past it.”
In January 2011, 75 applications later, Ryan landed a job with Special Olympics Oregon. As manager of marketing and communications, he did TV and radio interviews, but didn't like what he heard. He was part of the “like” generation — the word peppered his speech. His dad, a Toastmasters Club member, suggested he join the public-speaking organization. So he did.
One Saturday morning last January, he came across a YouTube video of a competitor in the Toastmaster World Championship of Public Speaking. An idea crystallized: If he didn't do something big right then, he never would.
Chelsea sat on the sofa completing a paint-by-number mountain scene as he announced his goal — to be the world champion in public speaking. Chelsea looked at him. OK, she said.
They drove to Home Depot and bought huge whiteboards they nailed to the living room wall on which he could craft speeches. In the middle, he wrote “Ryan Avery — 2012 World Champion of Public Speaking.”
The goal, Chelsea knew, was daunting. The 2011 winner had entered the contest 35 times before winning, and some 30,000 members start the competition each year. But Ryan dreamed big.
The training began: Ryan woke at 5 every morning, worked on speeches until 8, ate breakfast and went to work. At 6 p.m., he returned home and continued practicing. At one point, he was giving 11 speeches a week at various clubs. Chelsea suggested if he could speak in uncomfortable situations, he'd give great speeches in comfortable ones. So he spiked his hair, hiked his jeans above his belly, threw on a ratty green T-shirt and headed to Pioneer Square, a downtown area where he would spontaneously rehearse among strangers. He spoke in gyms, saunas and prisons. He spoke underwater to figure out where to breathe and pause. He spoke in an airplane bathroom, anywhere that felt awkward.
Finally, it was time. Contestants from 116 countries descended on Orlando in August for the 2012 World Championship of Public Speaking. In the fifth round, there was Ryan among nine semi-finalists.
“Every stage of our lives we face fears and obstacles we have to push past, starting young with that la-a-rge hairy monster living under our bed, building up courage to walk into that first Toastmasters meeting, or to face the day when we lose someone that we love.” Ryan pauses as he looks across the audience. “Grandma's not the same person she once was.” Pause. “The woman who has always been there for me, who comforts me in that familiar perfume” — his hands fold toward his chest — “sl-i-i-ide me a cookie before dinner — will look right at me, forget who I am. Grandma is still here, but she's already gone.”
This speech, which he recently repeated at CSU's annual high school Journalism Day before more than 1,500 students, propelled him into the final round. The speech he gave in the finals was about trust and, ultimately, his love for Chelsea. In the end, eight months after deciding he would become the World Champion of Public Speaking, he won.
Every day at 5:45 p.m., a reminder rings on Ryan's cell phone as it has for the past two years, and he calls his grandma, now 86 and living in Tampa with her daughter. The brief conversations are filled with ordinary questions — How was your day? What are you having for dinner? They keep a young heart connected with an old, beloved one.
“Every bridge of fear we're on starts that same mental countdown. Three! Am I really about to do this?” Ryan spreads his arms wide. “Yes.”
“Two! Wait! Wait! I am not ready for this!
“If not now, when?
“One! Why do I listen to Grandma?
“Because life is limited.” He looks at the audience.
“Push past it.”
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at email@example.com or 303-566-4110.
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