My Best Athlete

Over the course of my career, someone has occasionally inquired as to who is the best athlete I’ve ever coached.  For years I dreaded this question coming up, as it is extraordinarily difficult to answer.  First, I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great athletes.  Secondly, and more critically, how do you define best athlete?  Those that reached the highest competitive level?  Lizzie Bird, Marisa Howard.  The biggest genetic freaks?  Austin Basterrechea, Sadi Henderson, Megan Rolland.  The most powerful and explosive?  Jasmine Hurd, Diamond Mitchell.  The most versatile?  Tiana Thomas, Dominic Bolin.  The best competitor?  Greg Montgomery, Tyler Hopper, Hillary Holt, Alycia Butterworth, Tiana Thomas again.  Best mindset?  Dana Klein, Marisa Howard again.  So even when narrowing in on one trait, I can’t answer just one athlete.  This conundrum no longer brings me angst though, as years ago I figured out a flaw in the question that gave me an easy out……and is still straight truth.  You see nobody has ever thought to specify who is the best human athlete I’ve ever coached.  The best athlete I’ve ever worked with by a wide margin was my dog Drake, and I buried him last week after his long run came to an end.

Drake lived over thirteen years as a ninety-pound Weimaraner.  He survived early bouts with cancer, stomach bloat and subsequent emergency surgery, heat exhaustion, and plenty of injuries sustained while upland game hunting.  The pads of his paws were like steel, tempered on the sharp rocks of the Owyhee mountains.  He flew up and down steep terrain at such a rate it looked like computer animation at times.  He hunted with a commitment to the task foreign to humans.  He’d come out of creek bottoms hunting quail with his velvety ears dripping blood from the thorns and brambles.  He frostbit his entire chest in deep snow once when I forgot to put his vest on him.  He tore the tendons and ligaments in his front lower leg and hunted on without a peep until the joint swelled to a point that the leg didn’t work, even then he tried to go on three legged.  He had scars all over, and in the end he had tumors and growths all over.  He was still so handsome he turned heads on every walk right to his last day.  He stood with a noble posture until his back end could no longer hold him up, and then still stood with a noble spirit.  His eyes had an authenticity that cut straight to your soul, and a fire that burned white hot if anyone dared to utter bird or squirrel

Drake and I spent a ton of time together afoot in the mountains and high desert of Idaho.  We hunted solo, just he and I.  I was never even tempted to go upland hunting with a buddy over his years, that time was just for Drake and I and it was sacred.  We ran up and down mountains chasing chukars and huns, beat the brush in creek bottoms for quail, and worked over endless rock patches for cottontails. We watched sunsets, we stood on mountain tops, we weathered storms, we survived and thrived out there together.  We had long valuable conversations, he was a great listener.  He was equally powerful and graceful, and a hundred-fold more of both of those than me.  I did carry him at times…..after his surgeries, over half frozen creeks that worried me a bit too much, and late in his life in and out of the truck.  He carried me through much, much more.

Years ago, when Drake was about six or seven, the Owyhees almost claimed him early.  It was stupid, and entirely my fault.  My good friend Sean Williams and I waited a little too long into a September Sunday to go for our run, and by the time we hit the trail out there the sun was directly over head with no water in sight.  Twenty minutes out I noticed Drake was in a bad way, his breathing was really rapid and he was struggling to keep up.  I told Sean we should turn around early and get him back.  A few minutes later things turned much more dire.  Drake stopped, tried to crawl under a sagebrush and lay down.  I couldn’t get him up.  I told Sean to run back to the truck, put it in four-wheel drive and do what he had to do to get to us.  We were on some old two tracks but they were drivable in only the loosest sense. Fortunately, Sean is fast as hell, was still in pretty good shape, a loyal friend, and also loved Drake.  He made short work of the run, and shorter of the drive.

I stayed with Drake and looked around for any place that could provide relief from the sun and heat.  I finally spied a rock patch that looked like it might offer something.  I picked Drake up and made for the rocks, his head hanging, respirations frantic.  We made it to the rocks and I found a little spot of shade next to the biggest one.  I scraped loose rock and soil away with my hands to expose some more cool earth.  I shoved Drake up against the rock in that spot.  His tongue rested on the ground, his eyes were closed, his breathing got slower but labored on inhales.  I thought he was leaving me. I talked to him, I bawled like a baby, and then I just started praying out loud.  I begged God to not take him yet, I begged the Owyhees not to take him yet.  I was not ready, and I didn’t think he was either.  I had my forehead on his ribs when I heard the hum of my truck engine and rock flying under tires.  I looked up to see my Dodge Ram 1500 catch a little air as Sean brought it over the crest of the nearest rise.  I picked up Drake and got him to the pickup.  I knew he wouldn’t take any water so we just put him in the back seat and cranked the AC.  Back at the trailhead he made a feeble attempt at drinking.  When we got home I carried him into the house, and brought water to his bed.  With encouragement he did drink, and slept a lot.  He was down for a few days, and was never the same with heat.  I was never the same with him and heat either, thankfully, never taking him out without water again.  But that day I felt like the Owyhees made a deal with me, if they gave him back then I’d return him at some point.

Last Thursday, I finally let the Owyhees have Drake.  I laid him to rest in the exact spot we got our first bird together all those years ago.  When the work was done, I sat there for a long while.  Talking to him, crying, laughing, praying.  I could not bring myself to leave.  It was windy and gray but I didn’t care.  I don’t know what I was waiting for, but I knew it when it happened.  First the wind calmed, and then the sun broke though.  It grew quiet without the constant wind in my ears.  Everything was still.  And then, I heard some chukars on the ridge above us.  A pause, and then more.  And it grew into a chorus as these chukars started serenading Drake.  It was perfect, and I knew I had to go.  For a second I even thought it might be easy to walk away now, a foolish hope.  My chest ached and my stomach turned as I took those first steps away from him feeling the finality of it in every sense. 

Yes, he was my greatest athlete but that doesn’t begin to do him justice.  Drake was the king of dogs, and any argument otherwise will fall on deaf ears.