Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gary Hall, Jr. - Don't Accept What Can't Be Done

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.


  1. Excellent insights. Our workers compensation systems have serious design flaws and incentives that create needless human and financial costs. Many lessons to be learned comparing challenged athletes and the needlessly disabled. Should the focus be on potential and empowerment and not on what we deal with daily- false labelling and attribution, unneeded and risky treatments and impairments and removing people from work. Certain stakeholders profit from these self serving actions ultimately at the cost of the worker and society. Agree? What are the solutions? What actions should we each take?

  2. David,

    I had the privilege of coaching world record holders and elite swimmers like Gary from the mid-1970’s to the early 1980s. These individuals are, down to their very core and essence, uncommon in their mental outlook as well as their physical talents. The most successful work uncommonly hard with a focus that many lack.

    The differences between most of us and those of Gary’s talent and drive are sometimes dramatic. Comparisons to you, the general population and me are actually unfair in some respects. Nevertheless, I believe Gary’s message is that we all can experience the benefits of his positive mindset, his type of inner drive and the support he described. I know it is true. I have witnessed it. It requires a focused system that will not take “no” for an answer. One that draws together whatever is necessary to get the job done.

    Does that sound like any comp system you know of?

    Gary, and other elite athletes often have uncommon resources available to them - and they should. However, these are resources most comp systems are loath to provide, except maybe begrudgingly, by court order, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that even court settlements are not enough. An industry-wide epiphany is required to bring about the “to-the-core” change that might even begin to provide a system that could give the average injured worker the kind of care and support that Gary and other elite athletes are lucky enough to have available.

    Unfortunately, even at the level at which elite and pro athletes operate, the health care and allied support systems seem to drop off dramatically and in many respects completely fails when the athlete can no longer produce.

    Chris is right, the support system needs to actually be supportive and the medical care absolutely first class for the long haul, before most injured workers could even approach experiencing the kind of care and potentially the kind of results, that elite athletes receive. I also agree it certainly can be done. An important question is who is willing to pay the price? Where will the investment come from? Right now, it seems employers and injured workers are paying dearly and getting far too little in return.

    Steve Cattolica

  3. Thank you for the comments both Chris and Steve - we have a challenge in changing the culture, the mindset, of not only recipients of medical care, but providers and payers as well. There is a global aspect of this issue. Perhaps with enough discussion, awareness and education we can effect positive change and create a culture that the US Navy Seabees call, "Can Do".

  4. Steve:
    I must take exception. Gary had two “first class practitioners” who said he could never compete again. He did not take their word as gospel and proceeded to find someone who would work with him for his goals. The average injured worker does not have the ability to do the research and find the appropriate provider.
    I’m giving a talk at URAC in Chicago next week about empowering the injured worker in advocating their treatment. I wish I were speaking to a group of injured workers.
    As to “paying the price” – my mantra is the appropriate treatment, at the appropriate time, from the appropriate provider, may cost more at first, but in the long run saves money. This has been proven by our clients over and over again, with their numbers, not ours.
    Last week, we (the Evil UR Firm), told a general surgeon that the patient needed a cardiology clearance prior to surgery. The doctor agreed, but proceeded with the surgery the day before the cardiologist’s appointment. This patient had two cardiac stents, hypertension and elevated bad cholesterol. The heart was not an accepted body part, but the employer wanted the patient to get the best care. So who is the bad guy here?

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