Wavemaker: The Plank Wave Hits Land

The Power of Gabi Ury

By Michael Schulder
May 2, 2014
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The Wave that began right here on Michael Schulder’s WaveMaker on March 27th, what I call The Plank Wave, but probably should have called The Gabi Wave, has officially crashed into shore – transferring energy over long distances – as powerful waves do.

The story of 16 year old Gabi Ury’s successful attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records for holding an abdominal plank longer than any other woman – is really more remarkable than has been reported.

This is the story of Gabi Ury that nobody has told.

I hope you will share it with your own children and that it helps inspire them to overcome obstacles that may seem insurmountable.

I hope you will share it with other parents, to help them – us — model for our children how we ourselves handle adversity.

Gabi’s achievements are a model for how to handle adversity – including an overlooked moment 35 minutes into her plank – a full 30 minutes short of the record – as she found herself losing strength and faith.  I’ll get to that shortly.  But first …

THE BACKSTORY

I first learned of Gabi Ury from her father, William Ury, the world-acclaimed negotiating expert who co-founded the Harvard Program on Negotiation, during an interview with him in February at his home in Boulder.

He was teaching me about how saying No –- a Positive No — can lead to a Wiser Yes.

More about that on another day.

After our interview, Bill Ury and I were talking about our children and he told me about Gabi, his 15 year old daughter.  Gabi was born with a rare set of serious birth anomalies called VATER syndrome.  She has undergone 14 major surgeries, on her spine, her abdomen and elsewhere.

Gabi, her father told me, had a goal for her 16th birthday in April.   She wanted to enter the Guinness Book of World Records.  Despite being “abdominally challenged” by all those surgeries, Gabi was taking on one of the most excruciating abdominal challenges there is:  the Abdominal Plank.

The women’s world record was 40 minutes and one second, held by a mother of five named Eva Bulzomi.

Gabi stumbled upon her planking potential – a story I recommend you listen to her tell in her own words in the 4 minute video below:

As Gabi approached her 16th birthday, she was confident, based on her practice rounds at home, that she would break the 40 minute mark.  “Smash it,” in her words.  And then, the goalposts suddenly moved.

THE NEW GOALPOSTS

On April 11, just one week before the date she’d set to attempt the record, Gabi received an email at school.

It was from the current world record holder Eva Bulzomi.  Eva kindly, generously, alerted Gabi that, just weeks earlier, she had smashed her own record by a staggering 25 minutes.  1 hour 5 minutes 18 seconds.  Guinness had not yet certified it.  But that was Gabi’s new target.  Eva added this motivational message:

“Don’t let this discourage you.  Let this be your new goal … you can do it Gabi.  My hopes and prayers are with you Gabi.”

Gabi called her mom, Lizanne, after receiving Eva’s email.

Lizanne’s reaction to Gabi?  “I said, wow, what are you going to do about it?”

Gabi told her mom – this makes it a little harder.  “But she brushed it off quite quickly,” said Lizanne Ury.  “It’s how she behaves in life too.  When something doesn’t work out she moves on.”

“When I got the letter from Eva,” Gabi tells me, “I was really happy that she sent it.  Because I would have been happy stopping at an hour.”  That would have been 5 minutes 18 seconds short of the record.  Gabi added that she was also frustrated.  “I liked knowing I had a cushion of time.”

Gabi’s cushion suddenly disappeared — as it often does in high stakes competition.

                                                                          Courtesy:  Barbara Colombo

We parents lucky enough to raise our children together – as a couple – each play our distinct roles.

After 14 surgeries in her young life, including at least one on her spine which could have left her paralyzed, Bill Ury, the dad, describes himself as the parent “who tells Gabi to stay in bed after surgery – to relax while I get her water.  It’s Lizanne, who encourages Gabi to get up for 10 minutes and go for a walk.”

“If my dad was the only one taking care of me,” Gabi tells me, “I’d probably stay in bed for weeks.”

THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOND

Lizanne Ury is the parent who coaches Gabi to recovery after her surgeries.

“After certain surgeries,” Lizanne Ury tells me “, Gabi gets into trauma with all the pain.  It’s hard to overcome the fear of getting up, of showering, moving.  Afraid the cut in her abdomen from the surgery will hurt, she can get paralyzed in fear.”

(I must pause here in wonder… that the girl who has experienced the fear – repeatedly – that a surgical cut in her abdomen will hurt too much to get up is now the holder of an insanely difficult abdominally challenging world record.)

And then – “She listens to me,” says Lizanne.  “She trusts a lot in what I say.  I have ways to get her to get up and do something.  Sometimes it involves bribing,” Lizanne says with a twinkle.   Sometimes with chocolate.  Sometimes … “Remember after your surgery in November,” Lizanne asks Gabi, “and I offered you 300 dollars to stand up?”

Gabi jokes that her mom usually doesn’t pay up, but adds she has confidence one day she will.

So – we parents ask – where does this resilience come from?

None of us want our children to suffer Gabi’s pain.

All of us want our children to have Gabi’s reservoir of resilience.

“Gabi’s resilience is partly innate,” says Bill Ury.  “It’s also fed by a lot of love that Gabi got from her mom and me and her family.  That has created a certain innate security in her that allows her to meet adversity.”  Love is where the parents’ distinct roles merge.

Bill Ury recalls the observation a wise physician once shared with him – that when a child is severely ill a doctor’s “biggest challenge is not treating the child.  It’s treating the parent.  Parents lose themselves in so much anxiety and fear – it transfers to the child.”

The real key, Ury remembers this doctor saying,  “is for the parents to really center themselves.  Because a child really listens to the parents to see how to respond to adversity.”

Gabi adds:  “I’m pretty stubborn too.  I know it’s gonna hurt to stand up straight.  I’m stubborn.”

LAYERS OF PAIN

Before we get to the highlight of this story – to the record breaking moment – we should pause again – to acknowledge the journey of the mother of a child who receives a diagnosis that guarantees years of pain and struggle.

That requires its own mysterious reservoir of maternal resilience.

Lizanne Ury is transparent about the work it has taken to discover this reservoir.

“When Gabi was born, the insecurity about her future was really hard.  I really wanted to be a mom and a nurse to her.  Bill dove into the medical research.  He would stay up late at night, researching all the possibilities, very dark possibilities.  I was feeling low and depressed and sad about my baby feeling so much pain.”

For Lizanne, the new mom, “it took a couple of years – to get out of this sadness and darkness and start to really accept that there are bigger reasons for all this than we are able to understand.   At some point I understood deeply – that Gabi needed these conditions — that whoever she is in her life – maybe this reason is to inspire other people.  Perhaps this was her soul’s journey.  I got to complete acceptance of Gabi’s fate and our fate.”

How did Lizanne Ury achieve this state of acceptance?

She describes a process of “going deep into the pain I was feeling with Gabi.”  She describes “mourning each layer of pain, then coming out of it,” at which point, that layer would heal.

And that is how a mother built up her core strength.

THE BIG DAY & THE BIG WALL

Gabi had to call on all her resilience at the Boulder recreation center on April 19th.  Two cameras were set up to capture the correct angles for the entire plank so that the Guinness judges could evaluate whether Gabi, if she held the plank for a record amount of time, did it with the proper form.

Remember, Gabi’s target was 1:05:18.  The first half hour or so went fine.

And then, what anyone watching the live video stream below could never have known, and what I did not know until I spoke with Gabi and her parents later that night, was that at 35 minutes, only a bit more than half way to the record, Gabi hit a wall.

“Her arms were hurting,” Lizanne tells me.  “She wasn’t able to distract herself.”

Gabi had been watching a movie on her iPhone to distract her from the physical pain of the plank.  The movie was Delivery Man, in which Vince Vaughn plays a guy who has just learned he has fathered 533 children through sperm donations he’d made years earlier.

It was a thoroughly charming movie.  The charm was not sufficient to distract Gabi from her planking pain.

Tears began falling on the screen of Gabi’s iPhone.

“She was having a very hard time,” says Lizanne.  “She was reaching her limit.  It was quite early for what she wanted to achieve.”  Gabi would have to hold her position for another half hour to break the record.  “She said, please distract me, talk to me, do something.”

And so, the mother who has had so much practice coaching Gabi through her pain, started talking to her daughter.  ”I described who was in the room.  The Director of her lower school.  Her friends.  I tried to take her mind away from it.”

Then Gabi – the girl with the will of steel, asked her mother to get her best friend Leah and Leah’s family to her side.

Leah and her sisters are good singers – as you can hear for yourself about 40 minutes into the live stream video.  Their music, their spirit, distracted Gabi and helped lift her out of her state of despair.  Vince Vaughn couldn’t do it.  Leah and her sisters could.  Can you imagine what would have happened if they couldn’t carry a tune?

And so – the still action continued.  Gabi continued to hold her plank – steady.

Most sports achieve their excitement from their movement.  I never thought stillness – extended stillness – could be so exciting to watch.  But it was.  Because one thing in the room was not still.  The clock.

As the clock moved, and the minutes moved forward, and Gabi remained still, the excitement increased.

THE CRUSHER 

In the video of Gabi near the top of this story, she talks about how she was aiming not to simply break the record, but “to crush it.”

When she surpassed 1:05:18, Gabi did not stop.  She held her plank.  Through an hour, 10 minutes.  An hour 15 minutes.  Finally at 1:20:05 – Gabi decided it was enough.

Could she have held it longer?

Perhaps.

Why did she stop at an hour 20 minutes I asked her?

Because, Gabi answered, she was ready to eat the cake she knew had been prepared for her.

That’s what you call a just dessert.

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