May 2018 Commencement remarks

Welcome again, everyone!

It is graduation day for the Class of 2018; how does that sound to you?

I am so proud to be with you, your families and friends — all of whom cheered you on, patted your back, offered encouragement, and … oh yes, supplied an ATM card! And a Happy Mother’s Day Weekend!

I also welcome your faculty and trustee representatives, everyone beaming on your behalf, aware that you crossed the college graduation finish line, a barrier to many, but to you no longer. Your college graduation may have seemed like a mythical barrier once, long ago, but never again.

But Class of 2018, this very week, 64 years ago, one of the world’s really large barriers was broken; and sure enough, it too turned out to be only a mythical barrier.

In 1954, the same year that Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio; the year that Elvis released his first single; the year that the very first Burger King opened; and by the way, the year I was born — a barrier was broken that became a testament to what humans could achieve … I am absolutely confident that very few in this class think of it that way ... but it was in fact something that most thought would never be done; a human-being running a mile in under four minutes.

It all seems quite simple now. Simply, 1 mile, quarter-mile laps, in 4 minutes or under.

Yet, for all its simplicity, the four-minute mile was an elusive record which daunted runners for generations; indeed, for al long as runners were timed with a stopwatch.

It represented one of the great physical boundaries of human and nature. It was the athletic equivalent of scaling Mount Everest, except that Everest had been scaled one year earlier.

People could see Everest’s peak, could see a four-minute mile, but getting to it was something totally out of reach.

And then came Roger Bannister.

He was the everyman and everywoman in all of us that reaches beyond themselves to give that little extra — sometimes just a few millimeters, to achieve feats that are forever told.  

Like Thomas Edison, who failed 100 times before inventing the light bulb.

Or Michael Jordan, who was cut from his high-school basketball team before becoming the greatest basketball player of all time — that is until A’ja Wilson showed up on the scene!

But Gamecocks, that little extra, that persistence is inherent in all of you.

It’s in you, but it can be hard to find. My question is, “Will you reach down deep enough to find it?”

Roger Bannister had to dig real deep to find it. He was a medical student when he started working to find it. His studies and hospital duties left him little time for much of anything else; still, he dug deep.

When did he even find the time to pursue his quest?

Easy. Lunch.

Bannister solicited the support of two of his friends to help pace him, and from December 1953 to April 1954, running at lunchtime, he reduced his time for the quarter-mile from 66 seconds to just under 59 seconds — cutting nearly 25 seconds off his mile pace.

However, a few weeks out from the race, his training became stale, and he started to struggle. He didn’t feel like practicing any more. He dug deep but the will wasn’t there.

So, what did he do?

He cleared his mind by going hiking in Scotland with a friend. It worked. It wasn’t his body that was holding him back — it was his mind.

Suddenly, laps of 59 seconds felt easy. He was now ready.

On race day, after literally working an 8-hour shift at the hospital — after seeing patients and enjoying a ham sandwich, Bannister then caught the midday train for the 90-minute ride from London to Oxford.

I mean, can you imagine that?

Unfortunately for him, the weather was not cooperating: 15 mph crosswinds winds and light rain greeted him at the track. He considered postponing the attempt.

But, he knew he might never have the opportunity again — and he did not want to live with regret.

The 6 p.m. race was about to begin; it was now or never.

So, he slipped on a pair of thin running spikes. No, not a pair of high-tech Under Armours or Nikes– they wouldn’t be around for another generation or two!

He crammed up close to the starting line, and after a quick warm-up with his two friends, the gun sounded.

As he began, Bannister would later note that his “legs seemed to meet no resistance at all, almost impelled by an unknown force.”

He yelled “faster” at one of his pacesetters. Fortunately, they kept their head, and didn’t change the pace.

He ran the first lap in 57.5 — and rounded the halfway mark in 1 minute, 58 seconds. He was on pace for a 4-minute mile.

But at three-quarters of a mile, his time was 3 minutes, 1 second. He was off the pace.

By then the crowd was roaring; they wanted to see history made. But Bannister had to run the last lap in 59 seconds.

In hindsight, he said that the last few seconds seemed never-ending.

He crossed the tape and collapsed almost unconscious, describing the feeling like “an exploded flashbulb.”

The announcer read out the time – “3 minutes and …”

The rest was drowned out by the roar of the crowd.

The 3 was all that mattered.

The mystical 4-minute mile threshold had been broken.

The world lost the great Roger Bannister earlier this Spring at the age of 88, which is why I came upon his story.

The great irony of his life is that many define him by a feat lasting just three minutes and 59.4 seconds.

Yet, he considered his long medical career in neurology as his life’s greatest accomplishment — along with his family and 14 grandchildren.

And it’s fitting that Bannister became a neurologist, a brain doctor, because it was the human brain that was the barrier to the 4-minute mile, not the body.

That’s what I want you to remember. Once Bannister did it, others did. And this is my favorite part of the story.

There have been thousands of 4-minute miles recorded since Bannister’s run. Today, high-school students routinely run them.

His accomplishment was a breakthrough of the mind, first and foremost.

And I wanted you, the Class of 2018 to know that story because it serves as a metaphor not only for sport, but for life. You will never accomplish great things if you don’t believe that you can. Start by believing, then find your greatness by digging deep and with hard work.

So, enjoy your college graduation; this is a great accomplishment, but after a wonderful meal, likely paid for by someone watching you today, set your own 4-minute mile goal.

Set your sights high and be specific and you might do it. Don’t set them high and without specificity, and you will surely never do it.

I reached a pretty high goal in my professional career, but if I had to do it all over again, I would have set it higher.

I like the feeling of stretching as high and as far as I can. And by the way, I still have some stretch goals for myself and for USC. So, come back often to see how far we go.

And, if you’re so inclined, do let me know what your four-minute mile is. Drop me a line, I’d like to know.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s show the class of 2018 that we know they can reach their 4-minute mile, because they are about to be graduates of the University of South Carolina!

A round of applause for the Class of 2018!