Cleveland-Caldwell Advancement of the Sport - George Palmer

Gary Griffin

There’s a memorable scene in the recently-released movie, Invictus. To set the stage for those of you who have not seen it or read about it, the film tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s efforts to unite the nation of S Africa behind the National Rugby Team, the Springboks, during their quest to win the 1995 World Cup. In this scene Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) has invited the Captain of the Springboks (Francois Pienaar played by Matt Damon) to his home for tea, and Mandela asks him:

What is your style of leadership? 
Pienaar: I lead by example.
Mandela: Good for you. But, there’s more to it than that. You need to make your players believe that they are better than they think they are.

And that, folks is exactly the way the recipient of the 2009 GWTC Caldwell-Cleveland Award has impacted the lives of literally hundreds – if not thousands – of runners and triathletes over the years. As a member of GWTC for over 25 years and more recently a leader in the Gulf Winds Triathletes, this individual has selflessly given an untold number of hours to both beginning and experienced runners and triathletes, sharing his knowledge of both sports, but more importantly – leading by example, encouraging, and making each and everyone one of us who have been fortunate enough to have him in our lives believe that we can be better than we otherwise could ever imagine. 

How about some specifics on what this person has done over just the last few years? For two years he led the local Arthritis Foundation Joints in Motion team that participated in the Dublin Marathon, taking a group of beginning runners and over weeks and weeks of disciplined training turning them into marathoners. I watched that group many times when a group of us would run our Sunday 10-miler from the Thomasville Rd BP and it was inspiring to witness the constant encouragement that he gave that group. The training even extended to one of the finer points in long-distance running for I recall a story about a former State Legislator (who shall remain nameless) proudly proclaiming that she “had learned how to pee in the woods!”

After our award-winner moved on to triathlon (where as a two-time Ironman finisher and student of the sport), he again took an active role in sharing his knowledge with those new to the sport and with veterans who were stepping up to the ironman distance for the first time. One of those in the latter group (Robert Palmer) told me that “he coached many of us through our first Ironman or marathon without regard for his own personal goals, times or training.” In preparation for the 2009 Ironman Florida this individual scheduled at least two training rides of the entire 112M Panama City course for the local participants, and on race weekend was there doing what he always does – sharing his wisdom and encouraging and making each and every one of them believe that they could attain their goal to become an ironman. His efforts reached fruition when 33 members of the GWTC Triathletes completed the 2009 Ironman Florida, and from what I hear most all of them will credit this individual for many of the good things that happened that November day in Panama City.

I mentioned earlier that he has taken a similar role with beginning triathletes, and it is in this sort of environment that his skills and demeanor have had a profound impact on what these folks accomplish. In 2009 and again this year, our Cleveland-Caldwell Award winner has taken on the responsibility of leading the First Timer’s Training Group for the Red Hills Triathlon, setting up training schedules and participating in the workouts with these budding triathletes. One of the members of that group (who happens to be a neighbor of mine) tells me that he takes time for each individual in the group, and shares his wisdom in areas that goes beyond the three triathlon disciplines and stresses nutrition, transition and equipment maintenance. Kathy McDaris, the Race Director of Red Hills told me “He is always willing to devote his time to help the newest triathletes. I don’t think I need to tell you about his always positive, you can do it attitude.” Kathy went on to say that “his efforts resulted in a significant increase in the number of first-time triathletes at Red Hills in 2009.” 

And finally, there’s one more aspect of this year’s recipient’ life that I believe explains what is at the heart of all that he is and does. As an active member of the Tallahassee Adult Huddle Chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes he took part in the Iron prayer service at Ironman Florida as well as at the ministry tent and prayer service at the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in San Francisco this past spring (where he finished 6th in his AG, by the way …). Robert Palmer, who heads this group, told me that our recipient “sets a wonderful example as a Christian athlete – always willing to lend a hand or coach another athlete without ever expecting anything in return”. (There’s that leading by example, again!)

I’ve been blessed to have this individual as a major part of my life for well over 20 years now, and I could go on and on in telling you how he has faced seemingly insurmountable trials and tribulations as the result of an array of major health issues – obstacles that would have led most of us to throw our running shoes in the closet and our bikes in the garage forever. And yet, day after day he does what he has done for as long as I’ve known him. He goes out into the world, leading by example and encouraging others to be better than they think they can.

I will close with a quote from Dana Stetson, for those of you who know Dana know how he has a way with words. Dana knows this individual perhaps as well as anyone, for they meet in the pre-dawn darkness twice a week at the Killearn CC at something like 5 a.m. (which is why I’ve never been there!) to run – often accompanied by the lame and the blind and the beginner – an environment that is made-to-order for our award recipient. Dana says this: “He’s incurably optimistic and probably insane.”

It is my honor to be able to announce the winner of the Cleveland-Caldwell Advancement of the Sport Award for 2009 as the “incurably optimistic and probably insane” George Palmer.