In this episode, former USA National Swim Team member, Olympic trials finalist, and co-founder Byron Davis shares his origin story. Byron opens up about his dad's murder, how it impacted his upbringing, and how his biggest mistakes have powerfully helped define the man he is today.
Byron's story is one of redemption, ownership and achievement.
1. Grappling with the idea of what it is that makes us the men that we are.
2. Byron’s story of how the hardships in his life were opportunities for him to grow into the man God wanted him to be.
3. Byron hopes to really challenge and inspire people to live their best life.
[02:58] Byron’s Beginning: I’m from Cleveland, Ohio and everyone I know in LA from Cleveland always feel like they have to defend the mistake by the lake (the lake caught on fire because of how polluted it was).
[4:05] Loving how we are launching this podcast with our three unique origin stories. As men we are craving to be challenged, and we hope the stories resonate with you.
[5:13] I grew up in inner city Ohio raised by a single mom and my dad was a drug dealer. I was around 5 or 6 years old, but I vividly remember different snapshots of my dad. He was in and out of my life. One time, it was pretty heated with my dad dealing with some guys near the house. About two weeks later my mom sits me down and tells me that my dad is never coming back. Looking back in retrospect, in that moment I realized life would never be the same. The police had found him two blocks away in his apartment, shot six times in the head.
[8:42] What is it about that moment that you will never forget? It was scary. I knew that I would never get to feed the fish with my dad or go driving with him again. When I went to school, I went to a private school for troubled kids. My mom saw how my stutter that I had was getting worse, that I was getting mad a lot, and also I was [mis]diagnosed with a learning disability.
[11:11] One thing my mom did was to “kidnap” me and my best friends on Saturdays and take us out of the hood to the museum and to play sports. My mom never fit the stereotype of a black woman. She went back to school to become a registered nurse and has always had a desire to do even more than she was able to do. She instilled in my sister and to dream big and do more. She never had a victim-mentality and never allowed my sister or me to have that. My sister was six years older, so we never had much in common and she was kind of mean to me then, though we are good friends now.
[17:30] My mom got me involved in an untraditional sport in Cleveland: Swimming. The YMCA had a Gray-Y program that combined East Cleveland and all the black kids and Westside and all the white kids. My mom dropped us up to sign up for bowling, but me and my friends Eric and Lamar fooled around and missed the bowling sign-ups. We keep playing, I hit Lamar too hard, ran away and ended up through the doors of the swimming pool. I was running and fell into the pool, and the coach came up to me, sat me down, and started to recruit me. When my mom came in ready to kill me, the coach, Jeff Armstrong, spoke to her, and before I knew it I was on the swim team.
[22:17] Even though I didn’t have my biological father, I can look back and see God placing men in my life to build into areas of my character. One of these guys was Jeff Armstrong. I’ll never forget when one day my mom said, “Why don’t we take a rest at the end of this season.” My mom, at that point was working a lot and was tired. That day at practice, my coach noticed my goggles were filling up, because I was crying. When I told him why, he went and talked to my mom and offered to pick me up and take me to practice, and she could pick me up when it was done. He was supposed to do that just for a season, but Jeff did that for three and half years. The time in his volkswagen bug, that reeked of beer and cigarettes, I will never forget. He had a real heart for young kids, and he saw something in me. Later on in life, he told me that the impact I had on him in high school, inspired him to go back to college, then he became a public official, and at the time he was running for mayor.
[26:24] I remember when Jeff took me to a swim meet in Kentucky. The meet was half an hour late because they didn’t believe that my times were as good as they were. I was the only black kid in a group of all white kids. They weren’t going to let me swim, but Jeff threw a fit as did everyone who knew me, telling the official to just let me swim, and I would prove my times. By the end of that weekend, I won the high point trophy winning all five of my events. I felt how the community rallied around me, but that wouldn’t have happened if Jeff didn’t fight for me.
[27:45] All my life, I was always the black swimmer. I always felt imposed on me that I had to represent, when I just wanted to be known as a great swimmer. When I went into the Olympic trials after a two year retirement, I wanted take a leap of faith and it to be a personal mission to the best that I could. I didn’t want to do that for someone else.
[30:30] Scott: In the movie Race (2016), when the NAACP is just starting out, Jesse Owens was pressured not to go the 1936 Olympics, since they were being held in Nazi Germany. In the end, Jesse decided that he wanted to run because that is who God made him to be, and he ended up having a strong impact on his whole society. That reminds me of what you said, Byron, in how you wanted to take a leap of faith and run as a personal mission.
[31:52] Byron: I love being black, African-American. At the same time, I want to challenge society to advance and not be pigeon-holed into a label. I had a white friend on the team who didn’t see me for being black, we were just friends. One time at a meet, I beat him by half a lap, and his dad walked over to his son, grabbed him out of the pool by his head and said, “Don’t ever let a nigger beat you again.” I was hurt for my friend, because he didn’t see me that way. You could tell from that day forward that he was embarrassed about his dad and our relationship was never the same after that.
[35:03] Scott: It speaks volumes about your character for you to process that experience and to say that you had empathy for your friend.
[36:36] Byron: I never thought that my speech impediment was a big deal, because I love to talk. My mom would sit me down in the living room and ask me to please not talk too much at swim. In ignorance, I was never embarrassed by my speech impediment. I just always thought it was something I had to deal with; I found tools to deal with it. My mom felt it was important for me to get on stage and speak at church. I was always in front of people speaking and sharing, and pretty soon in high school I hit a stride and was able to not look back.
[40:45] When did the fighting and anger stop for you? I fought more in the hood than anything. My grandad used to call me Boom-Boom, because I would get into fights. The cool thing about it, was that when I was in the newspapers, the same people who used to ridicule and scorn me would then give me admiration and praise. The last time I fought was in the 8th grade, and by the time I got into high school, I never fought again. However, I still had a chip on my shoulder from the insecurities I had from my supposed “inadequacies.” Even in applying to get into high schools I was told I didn’t have what it took to make it at one high school, before getting into their rival high school.
[44:52] Tell us about being recruited after you won State in high school. High school kicked my butt. There were days I didn’t see daylight at my house between 6am practices, after school practices, and going home to do homework until bed. I was still in the hood, and people were proud of me. Men who were friends of my dad saw what I could do, and one said if he ever caught me selling drugs, he would personally take care of me himself. I committed to UCLA, and Ron Ballatore, who had the gift of gab was my swimming coach. UCLA was known at the time to be the bad boys of swimming. But my best swimming on happened only after I graduated, even though I was one of the top three recruits in the country coming out of high school. It was a let down that I didn’t swim my best in college, and so I was done, I quit the sport.
[50:43] So where were you at this point after graduating UCLA? Academically, the prep I had in high school helped me way out in college. I wanted to go to law school, even though my passion was still to be an athlete. I struggled with that for two years. I got my teaching credential and was a substitute teacher in Compton during that time.
[53:20] Finally a friend of my told me that I needed to decide to get serious about swimming. He told me there was a new resident national team for those who wanted to train full time for the Olympics. He told me to reach out to the head coach, Jonty Skinner, who I didn’t think even knew who I was. Jonty called me, and said if I was really committed, he would see me in 5 days for training. So I decided to travel out for training. One guy on the team, though I was pretty terrible. One time at practice, one guy named Jon Olsen, came over to me and told me that I deserved to be there. It gave me enough confidence to work hard enough until I got good. I went from never being ranked in the world butterfly, to being ranked 10th and being 3/10ths of a second away from making the Olympic team. It was awesome working with my coach, Jonty. I trusted him and did everything he told me to. It was a journey of submission and surrender that lead to power and sacrifice and legacy.
[1:00:46] Scott: I have this saying, “I’m no more responsible for who I am than how tall I am.” When I look back on my life, I feel like a passenger. Sometimes there were things that were always important to me, though I didn’t have them modeled for me, like sitting down with my family for dinner.
[1:02:00] Where did you learn all these things that have brought you to this point? Earlier, I think strategically God had placed men into my life that made deposits into my character at strategic moments in my life, like all of my coaches, and even my girlfriend’s dad in high school. God didn’t make a mistake when he made us. He has a vested interest in us, and we have to run with that opportunity we’ve been given and take advantage of that.
[1:04:47] How did all of these men sewing these pieces into life, how did that bring you to where you are at this point? After getting married to my wife, who is an olympic athlete I dated while at UCLA, I would seek out men to find out how to be a husband and how to be the dad that I wish that I had. The first ten years of my marriage, I would reach out to men in my church with these real questions and I got shallow, superficial answers that didn’t satisfy. I started to say, “God if you ever bless me to be in a situation where I can be open and transparent to other men, I’m going to do it.” Hopefully there will be men out there that will resonate with our stories and want the rest of their life to be the best of their life, no matter where they come from.
[1:08:39] What does Grow or Die mean to you? If we look at our lives, we are either growing or dying, we are not staying the same. Life is still moving forward, and if we just decide to stay the same, we will become obsolete in all four pillars: faith, family, fitness and finances. In Antifragile by Nassim Taleb, he talks about how when we put china in a box, we put “Fragile” on the box. What is the opposite of fragile? We think it is tough, rigid, resilient, rugged. Taleb says that’s not it. The opposite of fragile is not something that just stays the same when it gets kicked around, but something that actually gets stronger.
[1:11:34] Jade: Remember not to always intervene on your kid’s behalf, because we want kids to get stronger.
Byron: Resistance is our friend, since it triggers our body’s natural ability to get stronger.
Scott: Well, Byron, your whole life is a testimony to that where you got stronger in the obstacles of speech and swimming.
Byron: The idea that “it comes easy” is crazy. We need to embrace the idea of “what’s so bad about hard?”
Jade: Embrace the suck.
Scott: The only good day is yesterday.[1:13:32] Byron, what do you want your legacy to be? When all's said and done, I hope people say that I really challenged and inspired people to live their best life.
Race (2016): A film about an African-American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens, who is pressured not to go the 1936 Olympics, since they are being held in Nazi Germany. Jesse decides that he wants to run because that is who God made him to be, and he ends up having a strong impact on his whole society.
In his landmark Incerto series, Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about how when we put china in a box, we put “Fragile” on the box. What is the opposite of fragile? We think it is tough, rigid, resilient, rugged. Taleb says that’s not it. The opposite of fragile is not something that just stays the same when it gets kicked around, but something that actually gets stronger.