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On the Brink

A trip over the edge of the Crowne Plaza for Special Olympics New York raises funds and spirits

By Kathryn Geurin

 

A call comes into our office and an e-mail goes out. “Anyone want to jump off a building?”

The presumed response to this inquiry is probably “Ha ha. No,” but for one reason or another—let’s go with sense of adventure over the other obvious alternative—I said sure.

The offer was from Special Olympics New York, who had eschewed the tired 5K run for a more extreme fundraising opportunity: Raise a grand for SONY and earn yourself the opportunity to rappel 18 stories off Albany’s Crowne Plaza hotel. A stunt sure to get the media’s attention. But SONY went beyond a photo-op pitch, offering us press types a chance to actually make the leap.

The “exclusive once-in-a-lifetime” event was organized through Over the Edge, a Canadian special-events company that offers a single remarkable service. Launched in the U.S. in 2008, the Over the Edge team travels the country running rappelling fundraisers for local charities.

So, on Aug. 20, I broke from my normal Friday routine of paperwork and press releases, dragged my daughter (too young to really care) and my folks downtown for the spectacle, signed in and waited over coffee while the baby ogled the flamboyant hotel carpet and noshed on sweet-potato puffs.

My name was called and I was led to the gear room by a warmly chatty volunteer, where climbing gear was splayed, incongruously, over a similarly ornate gold-and-burgundy carpet. A team of volunteers strapped me in, checked and double-checked the carabineers, and my charming guide led me upstairs, this time clanking absurdly, harnessed and helmeted, through the elegant halls to the roof of the towering hotel.

My timeslot companions exhibited exquisitely polar reactions to the sudden reality of the challenge. One, a waitress, was nearly paralyzed by fear, squeaking, “I was wrong. I don’t want to do this,” white-knuckled at the edge. The other, a young EMT, who had raised the bulk of his more than $1,000 donations through a boot drive at his firehouse (and invited everyone he knew so he wouldn’t “wuss out at the last minute”), leapt and whooped in adrenaline-fueled exhilaration. “I am so PUMPED!!!”

The SONY volunteers and Over the Edge crew, expert climbers all, their experience ranging from work on oil rigs to cave rescue teams, played multifaceted roll of counselor, coach, and rope technician, talking participants calmly through their fears, focus and equipment. I was, admittedly, distracted by the spectacular view of Albany the roof afforded, and the barely recognizable specks of family and colleagues who had gathered on State Street to watch this peculiar adventure.

When it was time for me to hitch up and tip off the edge, my quiet was mistaken for nerves. But, while far from fearless—I panic at bumper cars and dodgeball and pantry moths—I find an odd serenity in heights and small spaces. The rim of the roof, 18 stories above the city, was a calm panorama to me, and stepping from the edge was effortless. Back on the ground a small crowd snapped pictures, applauded me and high-fived. Friends and family e-mailed and texted kudos, buzzed about the feat for a week. It was fun, sure. But it didn’t feel deserved. Heights isn’t on my list of fears, so this wasn’t on my list of accomplishments.

For those who worked for months to raise money, their win was clear. The event raised $67,500 to support the athletes and programs of Special Olympics New York.

And for those who got woozy at the edge, whose stomachs flipped and hearts fluttered, for those who clung to the lip of the world for dear life, trembling and muttering “I can’t do it,” and finally, in a burst of bravery tipped back into the void and, grinned, either in triumph or trepidation? Well, that’s what the Special Olympics is all about—rejecting “I can’t” and proving you can. About unfaltering encouragement and inspiring successes and the hard-won victories that are infinitely more significant than easy wins. Victories that blossom from willpower, perseverance and spirit.

When I got home, “I Survived Over the Edge” T-shirt in hand, I was, well, a little disappointed. I didn’t feel like I’d survived anything. But once I started dicing up dinner, surviving my ordinary life quickly became a different story. Husband still at work, something gross (we’ll leave it at that) we’d been instructed to “keep an eye on,” ruptured on the dog. I called for an emergency vet appointment and was told they could squeak me in if I could be there in half an hour. Thus began the race to pack away foodstuffs, corral one frenzied pup to her home-alone territory in the back of the house, the bloodied dog to the front, strap on his collar and leash, grab the baby and her satchel of infant-accoutrements, get the whole mess of us into the car and drive to the vet’s office before they closed up.

It did not go well. There was dripping and staining and madcap chaos. The baby (who mistakenly thinks she can stand on her own) faceplanted onto the hardwood floor and came up shrieking with a bruise blooming across the bridge of her button nose.

And, near tears, woozy and stomach-flipping, I heard myself mutter, “I can’t.”

There were no crowds in that moment, no cameras, no coaches. But there I was, overwhelmed and intimidated and ready to pack it in. But I didn’t. It was such a modest feat, compared to the impressive show of zipping down 18 stories unphased. There would be no “I soothed my crying daughter and made it to the vet,” shirt. But it was my hurdle, and at the end of the day it was the victory I was proud of.

For me, stepping from the edge wasn’t a challenge. It was, however, a call to cheer just as loud for life’s more subtle achievements, to lend people the same encouragement and support during their everyday trials. And to remember that real pride and satisfaction comes from being brave enough to overcome your unique fears and individual obstacles. Not from breezing through someone else’s.

Of course, the extreme moments and easy wins do manage to infuse the ego with a shot of strength. When I finally reached my breaking point, wrangling a bleeding dog and a bruised, wailing baby into the backseat, I caught my breath and laughed at myself. If I could rappel off the Crowne Plaza, I could handle this.


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