Bill “Bison” Snape

U.S. Head Swim Coach, 2011; Board Member, United States Deaf Swimming, 2006-present; Gallaudet University Head Swim Coach, 2004-2012; Conference Coach of Year, 2007, 2011, and 2012

No one gave us a shot. Heck, I’m not even sure we gave us a shot. But we—nineteen swimmers and this crazy coach—knew something central to all significant human endeavors: we had assembled a team that was both talented and tough, we had prepared as well as we could, and we were going to have focused fun while letting it rip. [pullquote]Respect for life and the concept of hope are fundamental tenets of our own species’ condition.[/pullquote]

The venue was the Olympic swimming complex in scenic Coimbra, Portugal. The event was the 2011 World Deaf Swim Championships. The challenge was to end a multi-year drought for the United States’. competitiveness in international deaf swimming. Just two years earlier, at the Deaflympics in Taiwan, the American swim team had brought home exactly one medal—a bronze.

At first blush, there is little if any relationship between a swim competition and the quest to prevent endangered and threatened species from plunging into extinction. We may argue about the rules, some might unfortunately cheat, yet in the end, we all inevitably acknowledge the importance of fair play in all forms of competition. Sports are a microcosm of our larger struggles. Respect for life and the concept of hope are fundamental tenets of our own species’ condition.

Of course, the larger struggle of life is also the stuff of religion, fables, and fears. When you add in all the other spectacular life forms of this planet—bears and dolphins, ferns and flowers, bugs and birds, viruses and bacteria—the result is an incredible tapestry of seeming chaos. Beautiful but sometimes scary; tangible but still largely unknown.

This leads to a bottom line, namely that we are losing a species in the wild roughly every twenty minutes. Mind boggling! Species are disappearing at a rate thousands of times faster than at any other point in history, largely due to human activity. We have created a social structure that demands residential, industrial and agricultural development, but with that comes the price of habitat destruction. We spew pollutants into the air and water because we “must” grow and be prosperous.

Certainly we can do better. Certainly we can each spend twenty minutes a day contributing to a brighter future for imperiled animal and plant species. Write a letter. Make a call. Support a species petition. Go to a meeting and speak out. Think about our ecological footprints.

So here’s how the 2011 U.S. Deaf Swim Team utilized their twenty minutes on the penultimate day of the World Championships, reinforcing the notion that anything is possible. The Americans and the Russians were locked in an epic battle for overall medal count and team victory. During the course of the meet, superstar Marcus Titus – who would be a finalist for the U.S. Olympic Team one year later – and a slew of talented swimmers had been amassing medals and personal best times. What had started as a naïve journey in search for mere respectability had turned into a serious test of nerves and resolve. “Try your best, just be yourself, embrace the positive” was the maxim. The last event that evening was the grueling 4 x 200 relay, for both men and women.

The men were up first. Anchoring the U.S. relay was the herculean Titus, who entered the water ten seconds and almost a half-pool length behind the British anchorman, a distance virtually impossible to make up. With fifty meters to go, however, Titus made his move—he was inching forward as the crowd noisily rose to its feet. With about five meters to go, Titus finally passed his competitor, who then promptly re-passed Titus. Summoning an inner strength, Titus put his head down, dug hard, and out-touched his opponent by a miniscule 0.05 seconds. The crowd went nuts!

The pool was readied for the women’s relay. The defending world champion team from Russia was seeded first, and the upstart American women were seeded third. Feeding off Titus’ unbelievable performance, the U.S. squad led from start to finish. It was glorious—a gold medal and a new world record. The entire American team, with parents and friends in the audience, proudly waved flags and cried tears of joy.

In roughly twenty minutes, twenty modest Americans had made a pronouncement that the rest of the world could not deny. We felt like champions and acted that way. Such is the challenge of making a difference.

The Endangered Species Act makes champions of us all. As Americans, we lead the world in the lengths that we’re willing to go to protect our imperiled wildlife, plants, fish and birds. There is virtually no other nation in the world that has a law as sturdy and as enforceable as ours. And we need to keep our Act strong.

So, I ask you. How will you use your twenty minutes?

Bill Snape also submitted a poetic essay that you can see here.

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