Olympic Character

Jean-Dominique Bauby, Stephen Hawking, Francis Tsai—a journalist,  a theoretical physicist and an artist.

The similarities? Olympic character.

Olympic Character

In his column DNA of Champions, Joel Stein wrote about having his DNA compared with Olympic Gold Medalist Sergei Bubka’s DNA. It wasn’t surprising to read that there are certain genes that are common within Olympic athletes.

However . . . “The key Olympic success,” said Bubka, is that “you need to have character to go to your goal, to do your work, to be a hard worker.”

The Journalist

Twenty days after having a stroke, Jean-Dominique Bauby woke from a coma, able to control his mind and one part of his body—his left eyelid.

“In the past, it was known as a ‘massive stroke,’ and you simply died,” wrote Bauby in his memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

But improved resuscitation techniques have now prolonged and refined the agony. You survive, but you survive with what is so aptly known as “lock-in syndrome.” Paralyzed from head to toe, the patient, his mind intact, is imprisoned inside his own body, unable to speak or move. In my case, blinking my left eyelid is my only means of communication.

On its own, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a magnificent book (it became an international bestseller and then a Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated film of the same name), but knowing how it was written—that blink by blink Bauby “dictated” his book to Claude Mendibil, who transferred his blinks to words on paper . . .

Each reading is the release of a story that was born in a prison.

Though Bauby was “locked in,” through blinking his voice was released, to be heard within the heads of readers around the world.

In the beginning of the prologue, he described  “something like a giant invisible diving bell [holding his] whole body prisoner.”

As his day unfolds . . .

My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’ court.

You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions.

Then he starts into the actual writing of the book.

My main task now is to compose the first of these bedridden travel notes so that I shall be ready when my publisher’s emissary arrives to take my dictation, letter by letter. In my head I churn over every sentence ten times, delete a word, add an adjective, and learn my text by heart, paragraph by paragraph.

Blink by blink his voice escaped, his passion continued.

The Artist

As did Bauby, Francis Tsai uses his eyes to create.

On the portfolio page of his site, you’ll see a three-word motto appear on pieces of Tsai’s “eye gaze” art: Adapt. Survive. Prevail.

When ALS claimed control of his body, Tsai adapted how he created.

From his site:

When the disease took my arms and hands, I spent some time learning to paint on my iphone with my big toe. Eventually even this stopped being an option. With the help of an extremely technically savvy friend I was able to obtain a custom built computer setup that is controlled via eye gaze. This new system allows me to use tools such as sketchup and Photoshop to create artwork.

By adapting, his will to create survived the changes and he—and his art—prevailed.

Last fall I shared the following video of Tsai and how I was introduced to his work. It’s worth another look, or two, or three.

The Theoretical Physicist

Like Tsai, Hawking was diagnosed with ALS.  Unlike Tsai—and Bauby—it’s his cheek, rather than eyes, that he uses to create.

From Hawking’s site:

Since 1997, my computer-based communication system has been sponsored and provided by Intel® Corporation. A tablet computer mounted on the arm of my wheelchair is powered by my wheelchair batteries, although the tablets internal battery will keep the computer running if necessary.

My main interface to the computer is through a program called EZ Keys, written by Words Plus Inc. This provides a software keyboard on the screen. A cursor automatically scans across this keyboard by row or by column. I can select a character by moving my cheek to stop the cursor. My cheek movement is detected by an infrared switch that is mounted on my spectacles. This switch is my only interface with the computer. EZ Keys includes a word prediction algorithm, so I usually only have to type the first couple of characters before I can select the whole word. When I have built up a sentence, I can send it to my speech synthesizer. I use a separate hardware synthesizer, made by Speech+. It is the best I have heard, although it gives me an  accent that has been described variously as Scandinavian, American or Scottish.

Through EZ Keys I can also control the mouse in Windows. This allows me to operate my whole computer. I can check my email using the Eudora email client, surf the internet using Firefox, or write lectures using Notepad. My latest computer from Intel, based on an Intel® Core™ i7 Processor and Intel® Solid-State Drive 520 Series, also contains a webcam which I use with Skype to keep in touch with my friends. I can express a lot through my facial expressions to those who know me well.

I can also give lectures. I write the lecture beforehand and save it on disk. I can then send it to the speech synthesiser a sentence at a time using the Equalizer software written by Words Plus. It works quite well and I can try out the lecture and polish it before I give it.

I keep looking into new assistive technologies, and recently Intel® have sponsored a team of its engineers to design a new facial recognition system aimed at improving my communication speed. They also have some new ideas regarding my software interface and it will be interesting to see the results of this. It looks quite promising. I have also experimented with Brain Controlled Interfaces to communicate with my computer however as yet these don’t work as consistently as my cheek operated switch.

Hawking’s work didn’t stop. Rather, in addition to his work as a physicist, he’s helped advance technologies that have the potential to help others, such as Tsai, and perhaps could have helped Bauby.

The Connection

Early in their lives, the journalist, the artist and the physicist learned and trained within the worlds they expected to live.

When their worlds changed, they adapted—and then accomplished what many don’t have the inner strength to take one step toward accomplishing.

Going back to Bubka’s statement. Yes, there’s something to having certain genes, perhaps certain innate “gifts”—but having all the right things going for you doesn’t matter. It’s what you do with what you have, in the world in which you live.

As Tsai might say: Adapt. Survive. Prevail.

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  1. Mary Doyle on February 21, 2014 at 4:29 am

    “Adapt. Survive. Prevail.” Another beautiful and powerful piece Callie – both humbling and inspiring. “It’s what you do with what you have, in the world in which you live.” Words to remember, words to live by– as always, thank you!

    • Pheralyn on February 21, 2014 at 10:11 am

      “Adapt. Survive. Prevail.” Indeed! I so agree with Mary’s response to Callie’s beautifully written and awe inspiring post. Really gives me pause to think about applying the discipline to do my work. Because clearly, I have no idea how challenging life can be, compared to what these incredible human beings have experienced. Thanks Callie, for always providing a thought-provoking post.

  2. Brian Nelson on February 21, 2014 at 6:43 am

    When I include this site as part of my morning, I am always better for it. The human spirit, when fully engaged in a meaningful struggle, is the beauty. I also know that I must be reminded, each day–sometimes each minute–that the struggle is the beauty. Thank you Callie for my reminder.

  3. Michele Nelson on February 21, 2014 at 7:22 am

    Callie, this is one of your best columns ever, and has instantly become a favorite. Just what I needed for inspiration. Thank you!

  4. David Y.B. Kaufmann on February 21, 2014 at 7:32 am

    For another inspiring story, look up Steve Gleason. A football player who became a metaphoric levee that revived a city, then took it on a journey to the mountain of no white flags.

  5. Marcy McKay on February 21, 2014 at 9:29 am

    I’ve loved the Olympic’s inspiration for these past two weeks. The human spirit is an amazing thing. Thanks for the wonderful post, Callie.

  6. Nicole on February 21, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    Wow! Just like there is no wasted effort, there is no wasted life. Makes me think what’s my excuse for not creating/writing. Thanks Callie!

  7. Peter Socrates on February 22, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    I beg to differ on Mr. Hawking; not that his personal courage should not be commended and honored, merely that many of his beliefs, to which he is entitled, of course are not consonant with Founder of this site. To wit, this interview with his former wife Jane, in the Guardian notes:

    “Things, for her, went from bad to worse after the publication of A Brief History of Time. ‘Fame and fortune muddied the waters,’ she says, ‘and really took him way out of the orbit of our family.’ Just before their marriage broke down after 26 years she revealed to a journalist that her role with her husband no longer consisted of promoting his success but of ‘telling him that he was not God’.

    “Does she still feel it was like that?

    “‘Certainly that he felt he was omnipotent, you might say.'”


    Finally, his black holes are a “school boy howler”, division by zero. See physicist Steve Crothers here on this YouTube or Dr. Dowdye, a black American who effectively challenges Einstein below:


    “Dr. Edward Dowdye is a laser optics engineer and former NASA physicist who argues the case for classical mechanics in attempting to explain observational quandaries that had hitherto remained the province of abstract theories like Einstein’s Relativity. In his presentation this year, Dr. Dowdye will tackle one of the most widely touted predictions of General Relativity (GRT), namely the bending of light paths by massive objects. He will present compelling empirical evidence that the direct relationship between light and gravitation in vacuum space does not exist. Crucially, he will point out that when GRT was conceived, plasma was unknown, and the limb of the Sun was considered to be a boundary between the photosphere and the vacuum of space. Dr. Dowdye takes account of what is now known to be a plasma atmosphere surrounding the Sun to considerable altitude and applies Gauss’s law of gravitation and conventional optics to the problem.”



    Olympian, yes: in hubris, Ms. Oettingner…

  8. Peter Socrates on February 23, 2014 at 8:22 am

    Ms. Oettinger was kind enough to reply to my post via her Iphone late yesterday evening. Perhaps I should clarify, and not attempt to use “block quotes”. I cannot argue with the fact the Hawking perseveres. But as Paul Johnson wrote in his INTELLECTUALS in the failings of human beings, including character, courage, and moral virtue, although I acknowledge Hitchens in his review wrote, “On every page there is something low, sniggering, mean, and eavesdropped from third hand,” and I cannot agree with the late Hitchens, but I think Johnson raised valid challenges.


    As Dr. Jeremy Dunning-Davies wrote in an essay published in 2008:


    “There are those in our midst who seem to believe that, once again, man is on the thresh-hold of discovering the answers to the final secrets of the Universe. This is undoubtedly an echo from the final years of the nineteenth century but, after that period of premature claims, one might have expected a little more reticence from the modern godfathers of world science.

    “However, sensibly keeping quiet does not seem a virtue of these people, to the extent that, on two recent Monday evenings on British television, the public has been given the opportunity to participate in the life and achievements of the ‘Master of the Universe’, Stephen Hawking. While no-one can but admire his courage and tenacity in the face of extreme physical handicap, one must question the power and importance of his scientific achievements. Indeed, when it comes to discovering the secrets of the Universe, precisely what are his achievements?

    “Many will be horrified at these words and the seeming impertinence of this question, but it is a question which must be asked, and answered, not because of Hawking the man, but because of what he represents. He is, in fact, in the eyes of many, the figurehead of that largely faceless body which controls what is, and is not, contained in that body of scientific knowledge which may be termed conventional wisdom; that body of scientific knowledge which is simply not open to question. Many topics are included in this but those of immediate concern here are probably the theories of relativity (both special and general), the theory of the ‘big bang’, the theory of black holes, etc.

    “As Stephen Crothers has recently pointed out, this final topic should really be a non-starter, based as it is on an incorrect statement of Schwartzschild’s solution of the Einstein field equations. However, again as Stephen has pointed out, even the incorrectly quoted ‘solution’ is included in, and protected by, conventional wisdom. One further surprising aspect of much of conventional wisdom is that the originators of much of this body of knowledge would have welcomed discussion and even criticism, provided that criticism was constructive.

    In this day and age, however, people who disagree with conventional wisdom do not face discussion and constructive criticism; rather they are either quietly ignored or destroyed. The first of these is possibly the more destructive action occurring in modern science because if something is quietly ignored, it gains no publicity and so remains unknown, except to the favoured few…”




    I don’t believe even ‘Electric Universe’ theorists know all the answers. But their perspective, (and realize that Dr. Rupert Sheldrake was stabbed and luckily survived the attack) is hopeful for humanity:


    “So What?

    “The consequences and possibilities in an Electric Universe are far-reaching. First we must acknowledge our profound ignorance! We know nothing of the origin of the universe. There was no Big Bang. The visible universe is static and much smaller than we thought. We have no idea of the age or extent of the universe. We don’t know the ultimate source of the electrical energy or matter that forms the universe. Galaxies are shaped by electrical forces and form plasma focuses at their centers, which periodically eject quasars and jets of electrons. Quasars evolve into companion galaxies. Galaxies form families with identifiable “parents” and “children”. Stars are electrical “transformers” not thermonuclear devices.

    There are no neutron stars or Black Holes.

    We don’t know the age of stars because the thermonuclear evolution theory does not apply to them. Supernovae are totally inadequate as a source of heavy elements. We do not know the age of the Earth because radioactive clocks can be upset by powerful electric discharges.

    “The powerful electric discharges that form a stellar photosphere create the heavy elements that appear in their spectra. Stars “give birth” electrically to companion stars and gas giant planets. Life is most likely to form inside the radiant plasma envelope of a brown dwarf star! Our Sun has gained new planets, including the Earth. That accounts for the “fruit-salad” of their characteristics. It is not the most hospitable place for life since small changes in the distant Sun could freeze or sterilize the Earth. Planetary surfaces and atmospheres are deposited during their birth from a larger body and during electrical encounters with other planets. Planetary surfaces bear the electrical scars of such cosmic events. The speed of light is not a barrier. Real-time communication over galactic distances may be possible. Therefore time is universal and time travel is impossible.

    Anti-gravity is possible.

    Space has no extra dimensions in which to warp or where parallel universes may exist. There is no “zero-point” vacuum energy.

    The invisible energy source in space is electrical. Clean nuclear power is available from resonant catalytic nuclear systems. Higher energy is available from resonant catalytic chemical systems than in the usual chemical reactions.

    Biological enzymes are capable of utilizing resonant nuclear catalysis to transmute elements. Biological systems show evidence of communicating via resonant chemical systems, which may lend a physical explanation to the work of Rupert Sheldrake. DNA does not hold the key to life but is more like a blueprint for a set of components and tools in a factory. We may never be able to read the human genome and tell whether it represents a creature with two legs or six because the information that controls the assembly line is external to the DNA. There is more to life than chemistry.

    We are not hopelessly isolated in time and space on a tiny rock, orbiting an insignificant star in an insignificant galaxy. We are hopefully connected with the power and intelligence of the universe.”

    • wordle today on September 16, 2022 at 6:20 am

      Absolutely agree with you, Peter. That’s my own opinion as well.

  9. Cheryl McLaughlin on February 25, 2014 at 11:45 am

    Callie–a wonderful piece. One of our greatest challenges is fashioning a good life in the face of difficult change or losses that can often rock our world. Finding a way to live a good, positive life and be productive and put our passions and determination into an endeavor in spite of them is the key to being a Champion on or off the court.
    Thanks for writing this, and for the inspiration!

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