Gary Hall, Jr., former Olympic swimming medalist, was the key note speaker at the California Workers' Compensation and Risk Management Conference in Dana Point, California yesterday, providing the audience with an insight into why athletes are not a good comparison to the general population when dealing with injury or disability that may affect job performance.
Hall is a type 1 diabetic and was diagnosed with the life threatening disease in 1999. Two independent doctors told Hall that his competitive swimming days were over.
You can take the athlete out of competition, but you can't take the competition out of the athlete.
Hall decided that he didn't have to accept the doctor's determinations and he sought out the assistance of a team of contrarians with the attitude that "it's possible" to continue competing.
International competitive swimming is marked by some of the closest margins of any sport, and some of the greatest odds. The chances of making the United States Olympic swimming team, said Hall, is 0.00014%. The time between first place winner in the 1996 Olympic 50m freestyle, Alexander Popov, and second place Hall was measured in the hundredths.
But these close margins cannot compare to the great odds Hall faced when diagnosed with diabetes. Imagine the devastating impact of being told by not just one, but two specialists that your competitive days are over.
Thousands of injured workers are told this every single day - that they will no longer be able to be "competitive" in the work place.
The difference between Hall and these injured workers is that Hall did not accept the prognosis. He found a way to deal with his condition and to continue competing, very successfully, becoming the oldest American Olympic swimmer in history at age 29 and winning another gold medal.
Hall had a motivation that extended beyond the financial reward of getting a pay check again. Athletes are like that - competition is a huge motivator for the athlete. It's not just about being better than the other person, it's about being better than you think you can be - pushing yourself to the body's limits so much that you throw up 13 times in an hour from over-exertion.
The average injured worker doesn't have that motivation, doesn't have that attitude, doesn't have people providing the encouragement about what CAN be done.
What the average injured worker does have, similar to Hall, are people telling him or her what can NOT be done - work restrictions, disability ratings, etc.
And like Hall, the challenge for workers' compensation is getting people to realize the possibilities, to act contrarian, and find the motivations that reward positive behavior and accomplishment. A huge challenge, no doubt, but entirely possible too.