Drink A Beer

I’m writing this with a cold beer to my right on a Wednesday night. For the last three days, I’ve felt tears welling behind my eyes. Every moment I’m not living life to the fullest, not DOING something, I feel like I’m wasting.

My friend David is dying.

When I shared David’s story on this blog, I was still in TV. That alone feels like a lifetime ago, and that point in his journey felt life a lifetime since his diagnosis. He’s written a book. He’s travelled the world. He’s celebrated 11 years of life since doctors told him a brain tumor would kill him in five. For awhile, it was easy to say David **had cancer. Past tense. He’d beaten it. He’d laughed in it’s face, defeated it with an arsenal of positivity and sheer will, and shared his story to inspire and help others.

19400371_10154869174341799_7687905464302737130_o.jpg

Fuck you, cancer. FUCK YOU. Mom, I know you’re reading this and I’m sorry for swearing, but there is truly no other phrase that accurately fits how I feel about this disease.

It stole Cody from us. I miss his laugh, karaoke duets, how he made my husband smile, and seeing his soul-deep love for our dear friend, Darbi. Brain cancer stole Evan Sharp, a baseball-loving little boy from Omaha, robbed of school and running carefree with his friends on the field. It stole Heather Roberts, a young professional devoted to her Omaha Mavericks, who have now raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in her name.

David’s sister, Heather, emailed me and asked me to put together a video for his girls. They are so little… ask yourself what you remember from Kindergarten?? What will these three big eyed, blonde angels remember about the father who loved them with all of his heart?

For Marian, for Viola, for Etta, for Lori, for DAVID: This is for you.

***

David always had a spark. There was something MORE about him. Always the guy making jokes, the guy who wore plaid when everyone else wore black, the guy who was the ever rare ‘part of every group’ guy – active in speech, band and theater, so he was popular with the Drama Dorks, played golf and baseball and ran cross country, so he had the ‘cool’ friends right alongside us. He was the center of attention in every circle he ran in. No matter what the situation, David stood out – trying to make someone laugh, trying to be something extraordinary.

12814795_10156642994100023_2246345857438156923_n

Complete disclosure – David was my first ‘boyfriend’, keeping in mind we didn’t go on dates, hold hands in hallways, or anything else. I totally ditched my junior year Homecoming date AT THE DANCE for David (Jim, my sincere apologies – still feel super bad about this. Shade.) The cool thing was, after the high school drama (guys, he left me for a girl on POM SQUAD. Devastation! David – I hope this makes you laugh, I still remember that blonde hussy’s name!!), we were friends again by senior year.

5D9EE016-F7BB-4B3A-994F-C34F07915AB5

I remember when we ripped a microphone off of Mike Unrein’s body, taped there to stay put under his costume for ‘The Nerd’. Mike was SUPER hairy.. and his pain was hilarious.

I remember going to Mock Trial nationals in St. Louis (State Champs!!), when he and Bobby busted into Cassie and I’s hotel room and literally carried my wimpy ass to the pool and threw me in. I hadn’t wanted to get my hair messed up. Too bad.

untitled

I remember watching him play a trumpet solo in front of the entire student body at a home football game during halftime, and feeling immense pride for my friend, shining bright in that moment in time.

Baseball at Seymour Smith. Being crowned Prom Prince with Melissa. Sitting on Lauren’s steps inside her house at one of countless graduation parties in May of 1999.

Every moment was MORE. Nothing was ‘JUST’. With David, everything was the superlative – funnier, more creative, bigger, deeper, louder and memorable.

Of course, he was featured in Election, got his own trailer, and became bff’s with Matthew and Reese.

Of course, he went on to marry a supermodel wife and started to travel the world with his start-up company, fueled by his big ideas and vision.

Of course, when he decided to write a book, people from around the world would donate tens of thousands of dollars to support him and make it happen. OF COURSE.

Girls, your Daddy was NEVER ordinary. Not one day.

***

I wrote my first blog post about David in 2014. He was in the very early stages of writing his book – maybe even just outlining it at that point. I knew he had battled cancer in an unorthodox fashion – attempting every method in the book OTHER than chemo. Chinese medicine, herbs, religion, going green, saunas, etc. I knew he had been divorced but had no idea of the loneliness and desertion that had come along with it. I knew fate brought him and Lori together, but had no idea the details of how that came to be. David bravely bared his soul in his book, Thank you Kung Fu, to hopefully inspire others facing cancer, surprises in life, devastation through divorce.. WHATEVER.. he didn’t sugarcoat anything, but he also found positive in everything.

When I told my Mom last weekend that David may be entering his final weeks, she, too, focused on the positive: he had so much more time than anyone thought. My husband talked about David’s three beautiful daughters that may never have been.

I think of Lori, and this is when my tears fall. She, too, has had her own journey of challenges, heartbreak, plot turns and more. WHY. WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY. Why can’t they have the fairytale ending where POOF?!? Cancer is gone? Happily ever after? Lori deserves that. I don’t know her well but here’s what I see… the ying to David’s yang. The independent, one of a kind, unicorn light that is just SPECIAL. I praise God for bringing these two together… perhaps, no, of course.. this was always His plan.

David was given 5 years… nope.

They were both told no children… they have 3.

They found each other. THEY WERE MEANT TO BE TOGETHER. What is the meaning of life? TO LOVE. TO LOVE. Because I am in a bar and surrounded by other humans… I will only say my husband is literally, half of my soul. He is my rock, he is my partner, he was meant to be mine. We are raising two beautiful boys and someday, when they are grown and off on their own journeys, we will have each other – only each other, blessedly each other, for now and forever. To lose him… I would lose half of myself. For this, Lori, I pray for you. Sometimes more than I pray for David, because I believe he is going to Heaven without pain or fear.

<<My waitress just asked if I was ok because I am now bawling. That’s where we are at right now.>>

Girls, your Momma is a LADY BOSS. She is a fighter. She is a leader. She is kind and cool and amazing. She is strength and honor and beauty personified. Every day.

***

Westside was looking for a guest speaker to inspire our staff members to kick off the 2018-2019 school year. I pitched several ideas to my senior leadership team, including David. My high school friend who had proved doctors wrong, written an incredible book, and was now giving motivational speeches around the country; maybe he would be a good fit to come home and inspire our staff? August of 2018, David came to Westside High School to share his story. Thank you, Kung Fu – how he found how he had a hidden brain tumor through being his typical ‘class clown’ self and doing a mock kung fu move at a conference. How through the coming months/years of finding an alternative to his death sentence, his then-wife decided upon a different path. How he found Lori, and with her, they created a new, unexpected life. How throughout every hurdle and challenge, he chose positivity, humor, a smile, and gratitude. Our staff of 500+ gave him a standing ovation. Many left in tears, and approached David after thanking him for sharing his story. He told me afterwards he experienced multiple seizures on stage DURING his half hour speech. He knew beforehand it might happen… but it didn’t scare him, didn’t detract him from sharing his story. He just kept going, smiling throughout. He was just fine.

I met David and Lori for coffee after. They talked about the type of beans and coffee used at the locally owned coffee shop we were at, thinking of their coffee shop back home in Michigan. Everything was normal. Old friends catching up. It was fine – everything was just fine.

David held a book reading that evening at the Bookworm. Lauren. Gail. Jay. All of these high school friends I hadn’t seen in so long, coming to support David. His girls came at the end – two little princesses in dress up clothes; their baby sister with Grandma in Papillion, where David and I grew up. It was fine – he was fine. He was promoting his book.

The icing on the cake – surgery. David found a miracle surgeon in Texas just months later who thought she could remove the ‘inoperable brain tumor’. He stayed awake the whole surgery talking to Lori. She removed the majority of it! MIRACLE!!! Again – has this all been a dream?!? It’s gone!! David and Lori – watching their three babies grow up with their white picket fence, drinking beers on their front porch. It was fine – he was fine.

June 4.

A note from David:

Hello everyone. We have received some difficult news about my health recently. My cancer has spread into other parts of my brain and spine. At this point, the doctors have estimated I have 4-6 weeks. Last week after a brain scan they first estimated four months, but when they saw the cancer on my spine this week, they reduced it significantly. 

Now that this is all very present, I want you to know that I am not scared of death. Lori and I have full confidence in the future of our family. She will continue to be an amazing mother to our girls. I am so grateful for Marian, Viola, and Etta. ❤️❤️❤️

Marian, I see in your face – I have seen it in your Momma and Daddy’s posts from Day One – you will take no prisoners and conquer the world. You are your Father’s daughter.

Viola – you are proof of the miracle that was MEANT TO BE – the true love between your Momma and Daddy. You are unique, and everything your parents love: music, nature, poetry in word and beyond.

Etta – your Daddy was the only boy. Your Momma is the only girl. Your name means ‘ruler of the home’. Just look at your perfect face!?! Your Daddy will be smiling on you and proud of you every day of your life.

***

Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.” My question: why does God take all of the good people? Why children and teens who have so much innocence and desire to learn, why them? Why people like Cody, who just say it like it is in the midst of so much BS – who refresh us with honesty, love and goodness? I don’t wish death on anyone, but when we are surrounded by so much hate, idiocy, ill will towards others and each other… why Cody. Why Evan. Why Heather. WHY DAVID.

Baby girls – grow up knowing your Dad wanted to change the world, and he was doing it in so many places including here in Omaha, Nebraska and your home of Grand Rapids, Michigan. A lot of people TALK; very few DO. Your Dad was a doer. A lot of people BOAST; very few have what it takes. Your Mom DOES.

Lori – from one wife to another, you are in my prayers. Every day.

David – we have one life. ONE. You have lived it with zest, humor, drive, vision, flair. You wake up every day and live TO THE MAX. I am not mad at God – I am thanking him for introducing you to my life and giving you to the world. So many people are dealt a hand, and crumple and cry. They blame others. They lie down and give up. You fought – you laughed – you used your lessons to inspire others – you never lost sight of what matters, LOVE, for your wife and your girls. You have given me not only great memories, but new perspective.

Because life is short. But sweet for certain.”

David, do you still love Dave Matthews Band? My husband met him backstage once – as cool in person as he seems on stage. Dave gave the quote mentioned above. LIFE IS SHORT. But oh, how sweet. How many of us don’t see that? We focus on the negative. You have always focused on the positive.

David, you continue to inspire me every day. I am thankful for you. You have made a difference in this world to everyone you have touched, and your legacy will live on. Jump, David, Jump – from one challenge to the next, from here to your next adventure.

Cheers to you, my friend.

***

The Wenzel family is sharing updates and accepting any donations their loved ones are willing to provide, anticipating costs in the coming weeks and months. CLICK HERE to follow their CaringBridge page.

I also highly recommend anyone and everyone to buy and read David’s book, Thank you Kung Fu, available online through most mass retailers. CLICK HERE to purchase his book online.

American League

There are some things that are bigger than any one of us. Experiences we all relate to as parents, as Americans, as human beings. We share historic moments or milestones and remember ‘where were you when this happened?’

Summer of 2005… Hurricane Katrina would decimate Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Lance Armstrong retired after winning his 7th Tour De France. Lisa Duensing and her bff’s were strutting around UNL’s campus singing to the #1 song in America: ”Cause I ain’t no Hollaback girl.’

Ok, that might not have been happening, but Lisa and her girls had a lot to sing about.. her fiance, Brian, had just played in the College World Series and was picked by the Minnesota Twins in the third round of the 2005 MLB draft.

And they lived happily ever after. The end.

2015 Dozier

“You? You are WRONG. That is not what happened.”

This photo was taken in 2015 by the Minnesota Twins, 10 years after Brian was initially drafted by the club. To anyone who thinks that POOF: when a player is drafted they swim in millions dollars and live the life of celebrity royalty.. you. are. wrong. Brian and Lisa Duensing will be the first to humbly tell you they are blessed, grateful, and so very happy, but the journey from Omaha to Target Field was a long and winding road with tests and trials pushing them to the edge of quitting altogether.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11

If you ever needed proof that everything happens for a reason, I present to you: American League. This chapter two starts with a packed bag in a bachelor’s apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska.

***

“They gave me two weeks after that to be at home and recover,” remembers Brian, who had just played with his Huskers in the 2005 College World Series. “Then I had to go to short season, which was in Elizabethton, Tennessee.”

Duensing Engagement pic

Brian and Lisa had been planning their wedding, which was supposed to take place that summer. All plans were postponed so Brian could pursue an exciting – and unexpected – adventure to play Major League Baseball. But being drafted doesn’t mean you punch your ticket for a big paycheck or the games everyone sees on TV.

“People would ask, ‘oh, when are you moving to Minnesota?” remembers Lisa. “And we’d say, hopefully in 5-8 years, if we even ever make it.”

They were 20 and 22 years old. While Lisa remained in Lincoln to earn her degree at the University of Nebraska, Brian started his professional career in Low-A Baseball in Beloit, Wisconsin.

“You get signed. You then average several years before, and if, you make it to the bigs,” said Brian. “You make $600 a month, trying to rent an apartment and maybe buy furniture.”

Brian notes he was fortunate in being drafted early to earn a signing bonus. But as he quickly learned in ‘Being An Adult 101’, more than 40% of that check was deducted for taxes. With wise advice from their parents, Brian and Lisa stowed away what was left, not knowing if/when they might need it in the future. Ironically, countless baseball families across the country are facing that very unknown right now, with the 2020 Minor League season in doubt.

“Some guys without that bonus, you flirt with the poverty line in the minor leagues. It’s a gamble,” said Brian. “There’s so many guys that are good that physically could not play anymore because they couldn’t afford it. They had a family, they had kids, they were split from their significant other, wife is trying to make money for him to play, it’s insane.”

In Beloit, Brian shared a 2-bedroom apartment with five guys. His bedroom was the kitchen.

“I had two air mattresses on top of each other in the corner of the kitchen and the pantry was my closet,” said Brian.

“Literally, people would be playing video games in the living room,” said Lisa. “They’d say, ‘hey, throw me a Diet Pepsi’ and Brian would be on his double air mattress and just toss it.’

And that, Brian says, was way better than his next stop: High-A in Ft. Myers, Florida, where he lived on someone’s couch.

“I was there a month,” said Brian. “I gave up seven earned runs in three innings. I bought a six pack of Rolling Rock and listened to ‘I Had A Bad Day’ for like, six hours. Just depressed. I go to the field the next day carrying it with me, ready to fight somebody I was so mad and half embarrassed. It was hot, I was miserable. My manager pulled me aside and said ‘listen, I need you in my office after the game. We need to talk.’ That straightened me up. He told me, ‘look, you’re going to have outings like that. You can’t let it eat away at you.’ I told him, ‘yeah, you’re right, I’m better than that.’ He said ‘yeah, you’re right. You’re going to Double-A.’

“What?!? I could have given up seven earned runs like three weeks ago!” he joked. “Timing is everything. I was left handed, one, I threw strikes. They kept making moves ahead of me, guys would get hurt, and I was the next in line. If I’m in a different organization, I might never had made it to the big leagues, who knows.”

‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” Proverbs 3:5

“Things are going super well in Double-A,” remembers Lisa. “He lived in a Super 8 at this point.” It was the Summer of 2006, and the couple was once again planning for their wedding, already rescheduled once, with Brian now playing with the New Britain Rock Cats in Connecticut. Towards the end of the season, Brian was approached by the Minor League Coordinator about playing in fall league, more of an order than a request.

“I was like… ‘uhhh, ok, when does it end?’ Not like thank you or anything,” remembers Brian. “He said, ‘November 16. Why? You got plans?'”

Brian and Lisa’s second wedding date was scheduled for November 18. This time, their plans came first.

The following Spring, with Lisa nearing the end of her college career in Lincoln, Brian prepared to leave her once again for another grueling season of Minor League baseball. The night before Spring Training, Brian decided he’d had enough.

“He’s packing, because he always waits until the last day to pack,” remembers Lisa. “He just sat down on the bed in our room and was like, ‘I don’t want to go.’ Once I realized he was serious, I thought ‘this is my first test as a wife. I need to support my husband, but in my head I’m thinking this is not a good plan.’ We got in the car and drove over to his parents house. We walked in and Brian goes ‘I’m quitting baseball.’ Brian’s sisters were still young enough they lived at home. His dad turned to his sisters and said ‘GO TO YOUR ROOMS.’

Kent and Shari Duensing are Brian’s biggest supporters (along with Lisa), credited by many for instilling his solid work ethic, respect for others, and easygoing personality. In many ways then (and today) they were the guides and role models for their then 23 year old physically and emotionally exhausted son, and they remember that night well.

“I asked him why,” remembers Kent. “He said, ‘I just don’t want to go’. I reminded him, ‘Brian, you’ve put a lot of work into this. A lot of people believe you can do this. Don’t throw this away because you’re not sure. It’s not fair to you. It’s not fair to the people who think you can do it. It’s not fair to the people who supported you. You’ve got to give it another try, for the how many thousands of kids who never get this opportunity.'”

Shari flashed back to another time Brian wanted to quit.. as a young teenager. She thought of everything he might have missed; lifelong friendships, Jim Carrey impersonations on the field, teammates who constantly inspired and encouraged each other. These two proud parents wanted what every parent wants for their child; a life lived without regret.

“I didn’t want him to look back at the rest of his life thinking what might have been?” said Kent. “Sometimes, you’ve got to take that chance.”

The next morning, Nebraska was paralyzed by a huge snowstorm, and Brian’s flight to Florida was cancelled. Brian and Lisa spent the day thinking about what Kent and Shari had said.. they enjoyed time together.. they found their calm. Brian flew out the following day, giving himself a silent deadline of four years to make something big happen.

“God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.” – 1 John 3:20

***

Brian threw great in the first half of the 2007 season with New Britain. That May, Lisa graduated from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and drove with her parents to Connecticut to finally join her husband… for one weekend. After watching Brian play in a weekend series, he left for a road trip, Lisa’s parents went home, and she was alone in a new apartment in Farmington, CT.

“It was scary, definitely a rough part of town,” said Lisa. “To go for jogs, I would literally run back and forth in front of our apartment building because I was so scared. For 30 minutes, I would just run one block of sidewalk.”

Lisa cleaned their apartment top to bottom (for both Brian and their roommate… yes, the newly married couple had a roommate) to welcome Brian home at midnight after his roadtrip. The next morning, Kent, Shari and about 10 relatives and friends were flying in to Connecticut to visit and watch him play.

“The next day at Noon, he gets called up,” remembers Lisa. “At 11:30, his parents, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles had all just landed in Connecticut. Brian calls them in the airport and says ‘I’m going to New York!'”

As the Duensing clan rented a conversion clan for their impromptu 350-mile road trip, Brian and Lisa packed up their bed and clothes, so Brian could start the next day’s game in a brand new city.

“I said hello to the manager and he thought I was a young guy trying to get a bullpen catching job. He had no idea who I was,” said Brian. “He goes, ‘hello? Can I help you?’ ‘Ummm, I starting today.'”

Brian won that first game, despite a hard hit and a surprising ‘pep talk’ from his new boss.

“I was dealing my first outing and I got a line drive hit right off my ass,” describes Brian. “The manager and pitching coach come out, asking if I’m alright. ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’ The manager literally looks at me and goes, ‘welcome to Triple-A’, and walked off. I looked at the catcher and I’m like, ‘did our manager just talk shit to me?’ And he’s like, ‘yeah. He did. Let’s go.'”

And Brian did. By the end of his 2007 season, he was leading the organization in the minors for innings pitched, and was among the top pitchers in all of Triple-A baseball for the same. In less than two years, Brian and Lisa had gotten married, had slept in a kitchen, considered giving up baseball, and had jumped three levels (and three cities) of the minor leagues in an unheard of two years. They hoped that their journey up and down the East Coast might someday lead to Minneapolis.

Instead, the Duensings were headed for Beijing.

***

“We get home, and I get a call from USA Baseball,” said Brian. “They asked if I would play with them in the World Cup in Taiwan. Of course, I said yes.”

November 18, 2007, on his and Lisa’s first wedding anniversary, Brian started Team USA’s Gold Medal championship game against Cuba, going 4 2/3 innings. A few months later, while still playing Triple-A ball in Rochester, the head of USA Baseball called Brian again.

“We want you to be on the Olympic Team,” recalls Brian. “I didn’t even know what to say. Um, awesome, yeah, ok. They had already talked to Minnesota, the Twins gave me the OK. I’m going to Beijing to be in the Olympics. What’s going on?!?”

Brian’s Rochester teammate Kevin Mulvey (now Head Coach for Villanova), worked with the Red Wings General Manager and the Twins to raise enough money for Lisa to cheer Brian on at the Olympic Games. 22 family members flew to North Carolina to watch Brian play in a pre-Olympics exhibition game with Team USA versus Canada. America’s roster included Brian, Jake Arrieta, Stephen Strasburg, Taylor Teagarden, and Dexter Fowler among others; seven players were Major League Baseball players 10 years after the Games. Together, they were part of the mere 588 people representing our country at the 2008 Summer Games. 588 – out of 304 million Americans. Brian kept a blog while he was in Beijing.

“It was just insane, the amount of countries that I didn’t know existed,” said Brian. “The athletes, so many people in such good shape. We go to the gym to get a workout in, and the first thing I see is this 6’3″ chick from Slovakia, repping like 300 pounds. I’m like, ‘uhh, no, I’m out.'”

Everyday in Beijing was a new adventure. Maneuvering thousands of security guards and translators (“I learned about three words in Chinese”), exploring the world’s biggest buffet with cuisine from around the globe, and having more than a few starstruck moments. His fellow Olympians included Lebron James, Shawn Johnson, Jennie Finch, and Kerri Walsh and to name just a few.

“I sat down to eat lunch with some of the baseball guys,” says Brian. “Someone sits down with us, I look up and it’s Michael Phelps. I didn’t talk to him at all, I didn’t even say hello.”

One of Brian’s most memorable moments was being part of Opening Ceremonies, viewed by an estimated 1.5 billion people around the globe.

“The whole baseball team couldn’t sit together, so I look up and there’s a seat by our coaches,” remembers Brian. “There are two girls next to me. I asked them what sport? The blonde girl said judo. I started talking to them a little bit, asking them how the team looked, and she said America had never medalled in judo but they were hoping to change that. I told her hey, I’ll definitely keep an eye on that! Sure enough, this blonde girl wins the bronze medal, first female to ever medal in judo for the US. Fast forward like 8 years, I come to find out that was Ronda Rousey, one of the best UFC fighters of all time.”

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports

Team USA was also ready to represent on the baseball field. Brian took the mound August 16, 2008 as the United States faced Canada.

“We have a runner on first with two outs, bottom of the ninth,” remembers Brian. “We’re up by one. Somehow I completely had a brain fart, got on the mound, didn’t know what foot to step off with, I’m panicking. I tried to call time out.”

Brian balked – twice – but officials never called it.

“They had microphones in dugouts, only on the internet, as part of the ‘Olympic experience’, so everyone listening to the Canadian dugout heard every word in the book. The guy up to bat hit what I thought was a routine fly ball. I walk off and do this fist bump like ‘yeah, I got this huge win’, turn around, and the outfielder barely caught it at the wall. If that had been a homerun, I don’t think I ever would’ve played baseball again.”

Two days later, Team USA took the field again, this time playing host country China.

“We almost fought them, which would’ve been a disaster,” said Brian. “Couple of our dudes got drilled a few times, and one of our dudes <Nate Schierholtz> trucked their catcher because of it. He hit him so hard, he broke his own molar. Everyone jumped the fence and our security was trying to hold us back.”

Team USA won 9-1, and beat Chinese Taipei the following day. The team called on Brian again in their game against Japan, a victory that eventually helped the United States secure a Bronze Medal in the games, despite several major injuries. Most of Team USA returned to the states immediately to continue baseball season at home, but their Olympic journey wasn’t over yet.

“About two weeks later we got a call that Oprah Winfrey is having every Olympic medalist on her show,” remembers Brian. “Do you want to go? I was like umm, yes.”

“And I was like YESSS,” says Lisa. Brian was treated to a free, first class ticket to Chicago and a limo ride to Millennium Park. He met Oprah, President George W. Bush, and many of the fellow Olympians he hadn’t yet talked to in person.”

“Kobe Bryant talked to us for like two seconds, he was sitting right behind us,” says Brian. “Oprah has Jennie Finch stand up, and when she does, BAM, there’s my face!”

Watch for the bus ride – Brian is in the left aisle, middle seat!

“Just crazy times. I mean, I have an Olympic Bronze Medal and a World Cup Gold Medal,” said Brian. “But again, in high school I never thought I’d play college baseball. Then getting drafted. Then playing in the Olympics. I didn’t plan for any of it.”

“For so many, there is still so much pressure along the way, from the player, from his parents, from their spouse, from their friends,” said Lisa. “This is not to discount Brian’s hard work or how much he wanted it, but every step was like a surprise.”

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.– Joel 2:28

Much like Lisa and Brian themselves, when Kent and Shari are asked to recount memories from the CWS, or the MLB Draft, or the Olympics, there’s no bragging, just reliving treasured memories and moments they shared as a family. Kent and Shari were there with Lisa at Wukesong Baseball Field to watch their ‘little boy’ play that in Beijing, as they have for almost 30 years.

“I just sat with my hands gripped on the bleacher seat,” said Shari. “It was just overwhelming, like, this is really happening.”

“Who would’ve thought this little kid from Omaha is now representing the United States,” said Kent. “To see him out there in a USA uniform, playing in a foreign country, it was really pretty cool.”

Yet when you ask Lisa, Kent or Shari who Brian Duensing is… they don’t see Olympian. Or Gold Medalist. Or top draft pick. Just as some things are bigger than any one of us, so too are the things we love most about each other: humor, loyalty, kindness.

“To us, he’s just Brian,” said Kent. “If you would’ve known him in high school or college or now, he hasn’t changed at all. He still talks to his grandparents. He knows where he came from. He has the same demeanor that he had back then.”

Case in point: Shari’s favorite Olympic moment, at the USA vs Canada exhibition game in North Carolina.

“You walk in, see all of these Team USA jerseys, and it was an emotional sight for any patriot,” remembers Shari. “I walk in, my sister was with me, we’re enjoying the game and Brian pulls up his jersey and shows his nipple to us. He’s in the dugout of Team USA! We have pictures of the whole family afterwards, the boys posed like that. We all busted out laughing. That’s just Brian!”

“I’m so incredibly proud of all my kids,” says Shari. “Brian and Lisa and my girls. To know they all grew up, they all support each other, I’m blessed. My favorite times are just to be with my entire family. It’s been an amazing journey Brian and Lisa have been so gracious to let us all join in on.”

Duensing takes the mound, Part Three on deck.

***

Click here to read part 1, Major League!

Major League

Brian didn’t dream of stadiums with 30,000 fans, pitching in the playoffs with a World Series berth on the line. He wanted to marry his best friend, teach with her at their hometown high school, and coach baseball with his friend and mentor. That was the dream, and the plan.

BD Omaha Mag

Photo courtesy Omaha Magazine

“God has a plan. Trust it, live it, enjoy it.”  – unk

***

I think I’ve mentioned a time or two.. I am fascinated with stories. A good story kindles something inside my heart, and I can’t help myself but share it with someone else to see if they feel the same kind of reaction I did.

Everytime my husband and I hang out with our friends Brian, Lisa, Greg and Toni, there are stories. So many stories. Fascinating, hilarious, bookworthy stories. When I decided to kickstart this blog again, I knew that if they were willing, I wanted to write about these. I soon realized that there was no way I would be able to fit everything into one blog and do these memories any justice… so I PRESENT TO YOU: MAJOR LEAGUE.

HatsForBats.jpg

No, not that Major League. Although hats for bats DO keep bats warm.

For most of the last two decades, baseball has been constant in Brian and Lisa Duensing’s lives. Their journey has taken them through Lincoln, Beijing, the trials of minor league baseball, and through the euphoria and heartbreak of being a professional athlete. It is an incredible life, seeing and experiencing things that only a handful of people ever have the resources and opportunity for. It’s also so much more than most people realize: skirting the poverty line, packing up a van and changing homes in 12 hours, living life as an object owned by a corporation. In a world where timing is everything and sometimes, nothing makes sense (for the good or bad), the Duensings have turned to faith and each other to celebrate and survive every step of their journey.

Chapter one starts on the little league fields of Omaha, Nebraska.

***

Like how many millions of American kids before him and after, Brian Duensing started playing baseball when he was 9 years old.

“I played baseball because I was somewhat good, and because my friends played it and I enjoyed it,” said Brian. “Back then, I played select baseball for the Omaha Patriots. After my 13-year old season, I wanted to quit. Told my friends at the end of season banquet, ‘hey, I’m done.’ All I wanted to do was go on vacation. I was missing out on so much summer stuff that I thought was important – which is important. I just wanted to go camping with my family.”

He told his teammates, who physically sat on him in the parking lot after their final game of the season until Brian called mercy and said he would keep playing.

At 14, he moved up to Millard South High School and met Coach Greg Geary.

Geary

“Anyone can find the dirt in someone. Be the one who finds the gold.” – Prov 1. 11:27 

For nearly two decades, Millard South Varsity Baseball Coach Greg Geary has been one of the most respected coaches in the Omaha metro and Nebraska. Yes, he’s had big wins, but he has also consistently molded and mentored successful young men both on and off the field. In Brian Duensing, Greg found talent, promise, and exceptional character.

“Brian was a special young man,” said Greg. I had a hunch he was going to be something special at the next level. I think the reason I thought he would do big things was that he just had that “IT” factor. He had a great work ethic (coming from his parents Kent and Shari!) and respected the game. He was also the kid that came over to our house when <our daughter> Madi was born (his senior year) to visit.  He cares about people and I always appreciated that about him, probably more than he will ever know. We had a great Coach/Player relationship. He knew how to have fun, but also knew when it was time to get after it.”

Under Coach Geary’s leadership, Brian dominated on the mound and at the plate. He led the state with a 0.74 ERA and a .522 batting average. Nebraska made him an offer to play baseball, followed by Creighton. Brian decided to become a Husker.

“What alway impressed me with Brian was he was the guy who was the first one at the field, and would always carry gear or put out bases without anyone having to tell him to do it!” said Greg. “Sounds like a small thing, but for a guy who was going to NU, he never, ever acted like he was better than anyone, and that still holds true to this day.”

***

“He was majoring in baseball, whether he knew it or not,” says Lisa.

“OK, whoa, hold on, let’s back the Truth Truck up for a second,” interrupts Brian.

BD Husker

At this point in our interview, I am giggling while typing, listening to this perfect pair share memories from each perspective about their journey through college. Note: journey, singular, because this time was, from the start, an adventure of highs and lows Brian and Lisa shared together.

Brian, a year older, started at Nebraska first in Spring of 2002. Big XII All Freshman Team. Lincoln All-Regional Team. When Nebraska made it to the College World Series, Brian got the start for Game Two. In one year, he had gained 13 pounds of muscle, and increased his pitching velocity from around 83 to 91 miles per hour. What could be bigger in a young man’s life?

Love.

Duensings

​”We were best friends in high school,” said Lisa. “I was dating someone else and I told my parents that; they asked, ‘shouldn’t your boyfriend be your best friend?’ It was always Brian.”

The Duensings’ good friend and fellow Husker Mike Sillman remembers the team’s time working to recruit Brian, and relaying to the Nebraska coaching staff, “we shouldn’t be recruiting Brian. We should be recruiting Lisa. He’ll go wherever she goes.”

“The best thing was being his friend first,” said Lisa. “We knew everything about each other already.”

Within the first month of Lisa joining Brian at UNL, the two were dating. Lisa had also been a high school athlete at Millard South, and studied athletic training and science while working as a trainer with the Nebraska Gymnastics team. She understood college athletics better than most, and was part of Brian’s seemingly unstoppable journey from the beginning.

“I watched his baseball highest high and the lowest low,” said Lisa. “My freshman year, he went from being the National Pitcher of the Week, to tearing his arm the next week.”

BD MLB

Photo courtesy MLB.com

By his sophomore year in Spring 2003, Brian had increased his velocity to the 93-96 mph range, and college sportswriters were calling him and Aaron Marsden ‘the best 1-2 combo in all of college baseball.’ He had also been hurting, but each time he started to get warm and find his rhythm, the pain would subside. His trainers and coaches thought Brian had tendonitis. He started his sophomore season at Louisiana Tech, and headed back to Lincoln for the season home opener. Cue Nebraska: it snowed, and the team spent the day clearing the field to prepare for a doubleheader the next day. By gametime at 3pm, the temperature was 28-degrees; so cold, metal bats were breaking during at bats. Brian threw a fastball in the third inning that went 45 feet… and sparked a burning sensation through his elbow. He had torn his arm.

The surgical option was a then-uncommon and frequently unsuccessful procedure now dubbed ‘Tommy John surgery.’ Trainers and coaches advised rehab instead, which took Brian out of rotation for the entire 2003 season. Spring of 2004 was supposed to be his return to the mound and to college baseball.

“I drove down to New Mexico with his parents to watch his first outing the next year,” said Lisa. “We drove through the night, 20 hours, pull up, get to the field. We were watching him play catch in the outfield: boom. Tears it. Done.”

‘But you must remain strong and not become discouraged. Your actions will be rewarded.’ – 2 Chronicles 15:7

Surgery. Rehab. Hearing ‘you’ll never throw as hard again.’ Brian had two teammates who had faced the same surgery and never threw again. But instead of being distraught or depressed, Brian reflected on his plan for the future: become a teacher, and coach high school baseball. Lisa rightfully refers to this time as life-changing.. but not for the reasons you might expect.

“Tommy John was the best thing that ever happened to him” said says. “Everything just got focused.”

Brian had been struggling with his Economics major, and despite tutors and perfect attendance, he had been one course grade away from being academically ineligible for the 2002 College World Series. During his time recovering, Brian switched majors and his grades shot up. He also returned to his alma mater, Millard South, to reunite with his mentor and good friend, Greg Geary.

“He coached a couple summers with Coach <Trevor> Longe and I,” said Greg.We had a heck of good time and I think he would tell you it was cool to see the other side, the coaching side. We have remained close since then and he means more to me than he will ever know.”

Brian also deepened his relationship with Lisa, a time where both learned a lot about each other. By 2005, Brian was ready to play, and ready to make a lifelong commitment to the person who never left his side. One year to the day of his muscle tear, Brian was set to start his first game in Hawaii. His Nebraska teammates knew it would be a day to remember.

“Everybody knew that we were supposed to get engaged and literally no one told me,” said Lisa. “Over Christmas break, I had to stay for athletic training and Alex <Gordon> was from Lincoln, so he had stayed, too. We were talking to him and I mentioned ‘I can’t go to Hawaii,’ and he was like ‘you have to go. You HAVE to go.’ And I was like, ‘what, am I going to get engaged there?’ And he just looked shocked. Later I was like, ‘dude! You almost blew it!’ and he said ‘I know!! I panicked!'”

***

21687548_10159312951570023_7970604395954791093_n

I have been a Nebraska Baseball uber fan for as long as I can remember. So when Brian and Lisa say ‘Alex’ or ‘Daniel’ or ‘Jeff’ without saying ‘Alex Gordon’ or ‘Daniel Bruce’ or ‘Jeff Liese’ – full names required because hello, they’re celebrities – I still have a ‘woah’ moment. But when you ask Brian and Lisa about the success of the Nebraska Baseball teams they were a part of… it is clear they did and continue to view those teammates as family.

“Camaraderie was a lot of it,” said Brian. “We would get together every weekend. And it wasn’t like three or four guys, no, the whole team showed up. We all took care of each other. When I was a senior, they brought in all of the Nebraska recruits and there were like 18 of us. We were all homegrown. We felt like we knew where everyone was coming from. Even the guys who came from out of state fit right in.”

From 2002-2005: this was the team that Van Horn built. A perennial powerhouse with multiple prospects, future MLB stars, and coaching icons. Alex Gordon, Joba Chamberlain, Shane Komine, Tony Watson, Zach Kroenke, Dave Van Horn, Rob Childress, Curtis Ledbetter, Will Bolt.

“We didn’t even recognize Brian’s talent because everyone on the team was so ridiculously good,” said Lisa.

“There was a stretch when I got moved out of rotation, to the bullpen, and I felt like the worst pitcher ever. My ERA was a 2,” said Brian. “We played textbook, selfless baseball. Bruce had a cannon. Leise would run any guy down. Simokaitis was a magnet at short. I tell a lot of people, especially in ’05, every time we took the field, we honestly thought we were going to win. And for the most part we did. Sheer talent, we all wanted to win and we cared about each other.”

The team went 57-15, and Brian was a crucial part of the Huskers’ success. He posted an 8-0 record with a 2.6 ERA, and set records in the 2005 Big XII Tournament for number of innings pitched and number of consecutive scoreless innings. That season alone, Brian was named to the Big XII All-Tournament Team, a Collegiate Baseball National Pitcher of the Week, and named to the First-Team Academic All-Big XII.  The team, touted as arguably the best in Nebraska history, won their Super-Regional against Miami to earn a trip to Omaha and the College World Series. The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Christopherson wrote: “Joba Chamberlain and Brian Duensing looked like mischievous grade-schoolers as they ran to get a bucket of water from the dugout. Soon, in predictable fashion, the water was flooding down on Mike Anderson. The third-year head coach just smiled and the crowd cheered louder.”

RRWDKIAXUNNGWGG.20050611193604

Photo courtesy Nebraska Athletics

Nebraska didn’t win the College World Series, but they were one of the last teams to play in the iconic championship at Rosenblatt Stadium. A plaque marks Infield at the Zoo today, listing the names of the homegrown heroes who grew up on Nebraska diamonds and played in the Omaha classic, Brian Duensing among them.

18423080_10101673552210383_6202095944658046706_o

“He happens to be standing exactly where his dad did when he pitched for the Huskers in the CWS,” shared Erin Palladino, Brian’s sister. “Boston found that to be incredibly cool!”

Us, too, Boston. Us, too.

***

“Don’t worry about anything. Instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done.” – Philippians 4:6-7

As if the once-in-a-lifetime College World Series experience wasn’t enough, Brian and several of his teammates were also in the midst of a little something called ‘The MLB Draft’. Six Huskers were drafted in 2005; 16 more were selected over the next two years.

Brian had been contacted by every major league club except for his childhood favorite, the Chicago Cubs. He still had one, possibly two years of college eligibility with Nebraska on the table.

“He said to me, if I don’t go in the top 10 rounds, I’m going to come back,” remembers Lisa. “Then the White Sox called his dad, saying they knew he was engaged and wanted to know if I was on board. They told Brian’s dad they planned to take him in the fifth round.”

Lisa didn’t tell Brian, not wanting to jinx anything or raise hope for a deal that might not happen.

“I was just so nervous for him because I wanted him to be happy so badly,” said Lisa. “I just had no idea what to expect.”

A few days later, the 2005 MLB draft began as the Huskers were practicing for the College World Series.

“We were practicing, had music playing, but we all knew the draft was starting. Alex’s brother was sitting in the stands,” remembers Brian. “We’re looking at the clock, we’re taking BP. In between swings we look up at Alex’s brother and he holds up the number two with his fingers. We all freaked out, stopped practice, congratulated him, stuff like that. It was the coolest thing ever.”

Then the questions between teammates began… who would be next? Brian, are you going to be drafted?!?

“I wasn’t really expecting much,” said Brian. “Then practice is over and we have a team meeting like we do after every practice. I look up and I see our PR guy, Shamus McKnight, coming down the stairs as fast as he can. I thought Zach Kroenke got drafted. Shamus pulls Coach A off to the side. We were all kind of dispersing, and Coach A’s like ‘woah, bring it back up. We all took the time to congratulate Gordo. We have another guy to congratulate. Mr. Duensing just got drafted in the third round.’ My exact quote, I looked at him and said ‘holy shit.’ I was so dumbfounded. I did a bunch of media stuff, they were asking me questions like ‘was I excited to sign?’ and I had to stop and look at one of the reporters to say… I don’t even know who drafted me.”

The Minnesota Twins had selected Brian Duensing in the 3rd Round of the 2005 MLB Draft.

134196_651011815573_6470985_o

Lisa & Brian with Brian’s sister, Erin

“The day before the draft, Brian said to me ‘oh my goodness, can you imagine if  I went in the top 3 rounds? That would be the most amazing thing, like a dream come true’,” said Lisa. “And remember, this is when I thought I knew he was going in the fifth round. I remember just thinking ‘you’re so cute.'”

Day of, Lisa had been with a friend, monitoring the draft but still thinking an announcement was aways off. Her phone rang, and a very excited Mama Duensing was on the other end with the news.

“We literally went that day to the mall and bought Twins gear, including a hat for Brian, because he wore a Cardinals hat every single day,” said Lisa. “It got shelved that day, never to be worn again.”

“I only liked it because it was a Lids Throwback Hat!” chimed in Brian. “I had a White Sox one, too, and an Indians hat! I had hats to go with different colored shirts and stuff..”

“Ok, well we went and bought Twins stuff,” said Lisa.

New hats, new plans, a new journey.

Within the next 6 months, Brian and Lisa would officially become part of the Minnesota Twins farm club family, indoctrinated into a much misunderstood world known as Minor League Baseball. The next chapter of their lives would be challenging, trying, and exhausting. Tears, temptations to quit, and that beautiful big league carrot always dangling just out of reach. But for these two American kids in the heartland in the summer of 2005.. life was pretty damn good.

“I’ll never forget where I was when BD called me to tell me he had gotten drafted,” said Greg Geary, now Brian’s good friend as well as high school coach. “I was about to hit my second shot on hole one on Hammerhead at Tiburon Golf Club. I was so pumped for him.”

Brian and Lisa got married the following year. Madi Geary was their flower girl, and Brian’s teammates Andy Holz, Ben Bails, Darren Hoffart and Alex Gordon were all in the wedding party.

23472_382701824217_6433382_n

In sickness and in health, in good times and in bad. For better or for worse, until death parts us.

Play ball.

***

Part Two: coming soon!

Stars At Night

Well hi there.

My name is Brandi. Have we met?

ETlInK1WAAAReHM

It’s been 10 months since I’ve written. If I’m being honest with myself.. it’s been closer to two years. These days, I wear a lot of ball caps, not a lot of makeup, and I rarely take two steps without my sidekick at my heels (#Chester).

For a long time now, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought ‘wow – what an amazing story. Someone should write about that. I should write about that.’ Yet, I haven’t cracked open this blog. Why? Well, LIFE. And I’m a huge jerk for writing that, because.. really, Brandi?!? I am BLESSED beyond measure. Life is a gift.

When I write, life is even better – I appreciate more, I feel inspired, and I view things differently because of hearing the stories of others. I hope that through sharing the stories that have impacted me, I am then impacting someone else. Maybe you’ll support a person, cause or business. Maybe you’ll go about your day with a little more pep in your step, inspired or encouraged by the experiences of others. And maybe you will view the world, your neighbors, and in today’s case, the stars, a little differently.

So how ’bout that Corona?? Sh@*.. where to even start. March 6: I was sitting next to a colleague, Dr. Enid Schonewise, at an event at Westside High School. I saw the alert, “Nebraska has first confirmed COVID-19 case.” I passed my phone over to Enid to show her. Her response: “here we go.” We had already been planning for the long-shot-worst-case-scenario of schools being shut down for a few weeks. Still, I never imagined  the unprecedented magnitude of this invisible threat. Schools shut down for the remainder of the school year. All major sports cancelling seasons – the Olympic Games being postponed. Things so many of us were used to and took for granted like birthday parties, ample grocery store supplies, even playing at parks with our kids… gone within weeks.

As Enid, myself, and the rest of the Omaha area found out that Friday afternoon the virus was here, my high school friend and business owner Liz Lilla knew, at that moment, that everything in her life would change.

***

Lillas

I have been creeping on Liz’s Facebook page to find some high school pictures, but here’s the thing – SHE LOOKS EXACTLY THE SAME AS SHE DID 20 YEARS AGO. Liz was one year older than me but I think we spent every school day together (and then some) for a solid two years. We dedicated ourselves to drama, choir, and speech.. and all of the shenanigans that I remember just as much as the activities themselves. That night after ‘Grease’ rehearsal the main cast all became snowbound in my basement. Riding Ollie the Trolly for 1998 Prom. The countless times ‘a few’ of us caravaned to Liz’s house for Mrs. Hladky’s world-famous homemade french onion soup.

I’m gonna need a minute dreaming about that soup…

download

Ok, I’m back. Liz was awesome. Liz IS awesome. Kind, positive, caring, someone everyone wanted to be around. Her husband, Erik, was also a PLHS Monarch, but I didn’t know him well back then… he was the super cool soccer guy who was also BRILLIANT. I think his ACT was like 52 or something. Liz and Erik dated, got married, were attending college (Liz, to become an Occupational Therapist), and Erik popped another question… “can we open a gym?”

Liz had been a gymnast and coach. Erik was an athlete and a damn good personal trainer (I actually hired Erik a few times over the years to whip me into shape.) Still… opening a gym? Starting a new business? No easy feat. Have you ever watched gymnastics? There’s a lot of equipment. And mats. And chalk. A LOT of chalk. Where does one even begin??

In 2006, just as their family was growing, Erik and Liz rented out 1200 square feet in a Millard strip mall (right next to what is now the Corner Kick restaurant) and Metro Stars Gymnastics was born. Liz, a Nebraska Occupational Therapy Practitioner of the Year, made sure they provided opportunities for special needs children, as well as typically developing kiddos. They started with just five students.

“We bought a balance beam and mats at a high school auction,” says Liz. “We spent about $50. We were mudding walls on Christmas Eve, building a website, creating a business plan, everything.”

Liz and Erik Lilla literally made their dreams happen themselves through hard work, sweat, planning and vision. They became my go-to’s for my TV reporter needs, not just because I knew them, they were articulate and easy to work with, but they KNEW that it was a sound, strategic move to get publicity and awareness for their company, and were always willing to help. (Also, their kids were freaking cute. I feel like I still owe Katie and Juliette some kind of compensation for how often I used them in stories.)

Over the next 13 years, Metro Stars Gymnastics grew in size, client base, and reputation. Liz and Erik earned respect across the entire US gymnastics community through their incomparable work ethic, sound and smart business decisions, and a never-changing focus to support healthy, active children by inspiring a love of gymnastics. To them, it’s never been about churning out a new generation of robot children gearing up for Olympic success. Their mission is to offer families a wonderful sports environment to grow and have fun.

38819557_10156486766156163_7280034850222899200_n

Liz presenting to the USA Gymnastics National Congress in August 2018

The results? By 2019, Metro Stars had two locations with approximately 36,000 square feet, serving an estimated 3,000 families. Many Metro Stars classes had waiting lists, and in October, Liz wrote a 3-year vision statement about opening a third location. I was honored to freelance for the Lillas, becoming ‘the girl in the Open Gym videos’, relaying instructions via video for dozens of kids before each session started – one of the few times my kids have almost, ALMOST, thought I was cool. Erik founded a second business, ERK Realty, to help other entrepreneurs by sharing the knowledge he had built up over more than a decade of successful work using the success of Metro Star Gymnastics to invest in additional real estate and projects. Throughout all of their seemingly limitless success, the Lillas remained generous and thoughtful, financially and otherwise supporting countless causes, fundraisers, experiences for children and more.

It was Erik who seemed to sense early on, that this crazy virus that was spreading through Asia and Europe, could impact the businesses they spent their entire adult lives building. By the time COVID-19 reached us, Liz knew they would be hit hard.

“When I saw that first case on the news, I knew everything would change,” says Liz. “We had to really make devastating decisions for our business.”

15578381_10154663279206163_1037644437247624786_n

Social distancing. Less than 10 people in an area, more than 6 feet apart. Have you ever been to a gymnastics class? Coaches need to spot kids. Kids are touching equipment, mats, and each other. You can’t DO gymnastics without touching stuff.. and other people. Liz, with a background in healthcare, knew her gyms could not stay open. And as restaurants, bars and salons began closing their doors, the Lillas had 100 employees waiting to hear if they were losing their jobs.

“For some of our employees, this is their career. They are the breadwinners for their families,” said Liz. “We knew we couldn’t just let everyone go. That wasn’t an option. We committed to paying our staff, using our savings, as long as we could. We did some math and figured we could pay them through September, maybe November.”

This, with no revenue coming in. 

65226279_10216964140909323_9187501814323347456_n

Erik and Liz have four children. They have a mortgage. I can’t even imagine how much utilities cost for 36,000 square feet of gym, in addition to facility costs, business expenses, property taxes, you name it. Yet the Lillas committed to financially supporting their full-time employees.

Mind blown. Here’s where I would have curled up in the fetal position, after I had puked, and just cried. And cried. And prayed. And then cried some more.

“I didn’t sleep that night,” said Liz. “My brain started thinking, ‘how can we serve these kids? No school, no sports, no interaction.. how can we still offer our services?’ And my second thought, ‘how can my staff be involved so we have some sort of revenue so we can pay them longer?’ I went into my office, sat down, and said how do we make this happen.”

This crisis has affected so many businesses. As the daughter of small business owners, this has really weighed heavily on my heart. BUT… while I can support restaurants through takeout orders, and I can support my favorite stores and professionals by stocking up on products and gift cards… how can you keep a gymnastics facility running? 

Liz turned to the medium countless corporations (including my own Westside Community Schools!) are utilizing right now… THE POWER OF ONLINE COMMUNICATION.

91774259_10158118956336163_4620159117024034816_o

“If I have to teach a gymnastics class in my living room, what would it look like?” asked Liz. “I involved my children to test out my ideas. I had practice classes over video with my friends’ families. Staff jumped in and had great ideas. I then wrote a letter to all of our customers, sharing our history and what we built from nothing. We wouldn’t be charging them for the classes they agreed to, but we offered parents a week of online courses for free, asking, ‘how can we help your kids?'”

Metro Stars offered an hour of normalcy. Kids got to put on their leotards, grab their water bottles, and hear from the coaches they knew and loved. ‘Monday is gymnastics night’ – well, through this innovative plan, it still was. For children and parents, thrown this historic loop of CRAZY with school at home and never leaving the house, gymnastics came to them.

“I was really nervous,” said Liz. “I had done all of this work, stayed up late, put it all on the line. This has never been done before. This was like a start-up company that launched in three days. It was a new celebration every time someone enrolled!”

As of April 11, 130 customers (and counting!) had enrolled for online courses through Metro Stars Gymnastics. A parent left a comment on Facebook, asking if they could enroll from Indonesia (yes!). Metro Stars has developed a library for parents to access anytime their kiddo needs a gym session.. or just a wiggle break.

Was there an option to lay off our staff and allow them to collect unemployment?” said Liz. “Yes, that was actually recommended to me by quite a few colleagues. But by us getting together and solving this problem as a group, we are uniting. We feel purpose. The ingenuity that has come out of this is so exciting.”

And inspiring. Local media and the national Coaching For Leaders network have featured what Metro Stars is doing, providing business owners and entreprenuers across the country with new ideas – and hope – that they can survive this pandemic. CLICK HERE to listen!

“Necessity is the Mother of Invention,” said Liz. “We didn’t even realize these things were options. We all have so many assets we just have to tap into, areas of strength we take for granted. Then, when we are hit with a situation like this, we realize how we can build upon those strengths and use them differently.”

3eaed97de203619e06131e5272ef5ecd

I am working on focusing on the opportunities presented by this pandemic, not the challenges. I get to be home with my children everyday and watch them, really watch them, 24/7. Both my job and my husband’s jobs are secure and we have the ability to work from home. I have NO EXCUSE not to workout every day, because I’m HERE. Here I am, writing on my couch without Mom guilt because I got to spend the day with my kids AND get a lot of work done, all from the comfort of my kitchen table. How lucky am I?

The Lillas have the opposite of luck in this mess. This pandemic has dealt them one hell of a blow. But instead of lying down and giving up, instead of circling their wagons and focusing solely on their own needs, they stood even taller and have demonstrated true leadership, ingenuity and talent. They are positive. They are strong. They are inspiring. Even now, Liz is reminding herself – and everyone who hears their story – that you can always find stars in the dark if you look hard enough.

“In that October vision statement, I talked about how a third location could reach kids that never had the opportunity to experience gymnastics,” Liz said. “I had no idea I would be able to open a third location in just 6 months – a virtual location!”

Stories like this make us want to run faster and jump higher. They make us dream big, and they help us hold onto those dreams when all seems lost.

Stories like this are why I love to write. Thanks, Liz.

66606890_10217080560579742_622324234156244992_n

***

CLICK HERE to learn more about Metro Stars Gymnastics and online gymnastics classes, or CLICK HERE to follow Metro Stars on Facebook!

 

Omaha Nursing Student and ‘Smart Girl’ Competing For Miss Nebraska

Alexandria Roth and Allie Swanson are adding to their already jam-packed schedules, both hoping to be crowned Miss Nebraska 2019 this week and compete in this year’s Miss America competition live on NBC. Roth is nursing student and Nurse Tech at CHI Health Creighton University Medical Center-Bergan Mercy; Swanson is a graduate program student, state champion basketball coach, and Engagement Coordinator with Omaha based non-profit Smart Girl Society.

Alexandria Roth

Roth, a 24-year old Wall Lake, Iowa native who now lives in Omaha, studies at the College of Saint Mary and will graduate with multiple honors in July. She has participated in events across Nebraska and Iowa advocating for people with diabetes and educating others on what diabetes is and what the symptoms are. Roth, diagnosed with diabetes as a child, is the first Miss Nebraska candidate in recent years to display her insulin pump throughout all stages of competition.

“My social impact initiative, Don’t Sugarcoat It: Diabetes Awareness and Advocacy stems from my own diagnosis and struggle with diabetes. Although over 30 million Americans have diabetes, but I often run into individuals who do not know much about it,” said Roth. “As Miss Nebraska I plan to work with the Nebraska Legislature to draft a bill that would put a limit on how much diabetics are charged for their prescriptions. Ultimately, being selected as Miss Nebraska isn’t about me, it is about serving the state of Nebraska and being a good representative and role model. I hope that if chosen I can visit all parts of the state to educate everyone from children to adults and advocate for diabetics.”

Allie Swanson

Swanson, a 24-year old graduate and two time All-American athlete and Scholar All-American from Evangel University, is now pursuing her Master’s degree at Bellevue University. Swanson, who was selected to sing the national anthem at the 2018 College World Series, performs across the midwest through My City Church; she is an Assistant Girls Varsity Basketball Coach at her alma mater, Millard North High School; she is a certified barre-code instructor at The Barre Code-West Omaha; and she is the Society Engagement Coordinator at Smart Gen Society (formerly Smart Girl Society), a non-profit teaching students, parents, and educators how to safely use digital media. Swanson has been sharing that message across the state as both Miss Omaha and Miss Heartland, winning the Miss Nebraska Overall Interview Award and Community Service Award in 2018, and finishing as 3rd Runner Up. She is again nominated for the Miss Nebraska Community Service Award this year.

“I love setting big goals and pushing myself to accomplish them,” said Swanson. “I have raised over $60,000 for SGS programming and education, while also acquiring partnerships from Microsoft, the FBI, and NCMEC. In a world where 3.2 Billion people use social media every day, my social impact initiative aims is a proven model across seven states that have drastically decreased digital based anxiety, depression, sexting, and cyberbullying. My message to everyone is that your online presence affects more than just you.”

Preliminary competition at the 2019 Miss Nebraska event begins tonight, June 6 in North Platte, Nebraska, and will be streamed live online at www.MissNebraska.org. Candidates are eligible for more than $70,000 in prize packages and an estimated $1.4 million in in-kind college scholarships. Tickets are still available for the event.

Bennington Native Shines Light On Human Trafficking

Hayden Richardson, a 20-year old student from Bennington, is competing for the title of Miss Nebraska this week. If crowned, she hopes to be educate Nebraska on the signs of human trafficking and to compete at the 2020 Miss America competition live on NBC.

Hayden Richardson

Richardson has shared her message about ending modern slavery for the last two years with schools and organizations across Nebraska and Illinois, where she attends Northwestern University. She was honored with the 2018 Miss America Community Service Award, and this week, was named a finalist for the 2019 Miss Nebraska Community Service Award.

“Being involved, hands-on, in our community allows me to make critical change across our state,” said Richardson. “Human trafficking is a topic that we don’t discuss and is a culture that has to change.”

Richardson, an award-winning dancer who graduated from Bennington High School in 2017, is a member of the Northwestern University Big 10 Cheerleading Team. As a semi-finalist at the 2018 Miss Nebraska competition she has earned more than $2250 in cash scholarships competing within the Miss Nebraska Organization.

“As Miss Nebraska, I intend to visit every school district across our state to educate students and faculty on the signs of human trafficking and what they can do to prevent it,” said Richardson. “The Miss America Organization has given me so much, ranging from scholarships to incredible public speaking skills, and I am so excited to showcase all of my growth.”

The Miss Nebraska Scholarship competition will be held June 2-8 in North Platte, Nebraska, where candidates are eligible for more than $70,000 in prize packages and an estimated $1.4 million in in-kind college scholarships. Tickets are available for the event, which will also be streamed live online, at www.MissNebraska.org.

Alliance Native Hopes To Inspire Others At Miss Nebraska

Cherokee Purviance, a 19-year old native of Alliance, Nebraska, hopes to inspire children and adults alike when she competes this week at the 2019 Miss Nebraska competition. Cherokee, crowned Miss Fur Trade Days in November, suffers from dyslexia, and is on a mission to spread awareness about the disorder affecting an estimated 43.5 million Americans.

Cherokee Purviance

As Miss Fur Trade Days, Cherokee has visited schools and groups throughout Chadron for the last several months. She is also an accomplished pianist and performer, winning the Alliance Stars of Tomorrow competition and numerous awards as a contestant in the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen program. If Cherokee is crowned Miss Nebraska 2019, she will take her personal platform of service across the state and beyond, and share her message at the 2020 Miss America competition broadcast live on NBC.

The Miss Nebraska Scholarship competition will be held June 2-8 in North Platte, Nebraska, where candidates are eligible for more than $70,000 in prize packages and an estimated $1.4 million in in-kind college scholarships. Tickets are available for the event, which will also be streamed live online, at http://www.MissNebraska.org.

Former “Little Sisters” Now Competing For Miss Nebraska Title

Whitney Miller, Courtney Pelland, and Kiera Rhodes grew up watching the Miss Nebraska competition every year in North Platte and idolizing the contestants they saw on stage. Now, all three former Little Sisters will compete for the title of Miss Nebraska, hoping to represent their hometown and state at this year’s Miss America competition.

Whitney Miller

Whitney Miller, 18, is a 2019 graduate of North Platte High School. An award-winning dancer, Honors Society student, model, and Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen finalist, Miller has already earned hundreds of dollars in cash scholarships and has been offered $60,000 in college tuition to Midland University. Miller hopes to continue to speak at events across the state sharing her family’s story of hope and fire safety after losing their home in a devastating fire.

“I was inspired to become involved in the Miss America program when I was a Little Sister, and then participated in the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen program,” said Miller. “In 2017, my family and I lost all of our belongings in a house fire. While we were grateful no one was hurt, we realized the importance of fire safety. From then on I have made it my personal goal to educate Nebraska about fire safety with my social impact statement, S.P.A.R.K. – Fire Safety Starts with You. I can confidently say I have grown immensely as a person through this program and hope to continue being an active role model for young girls.”

Courtney Pelland

Courtney Pelland, 20, is a 2017 North Platte graduate and student at Midland University, where she earned an estimated $60,000 in scholarships by competing at the Miss Nebraska competition. Pelland, an award-winning dancer, was named a Top 8 Miss Nebraska finalist in 2018, and honored with a 2nd place Community Service award for her work advocating for blood donation and Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

“I have been blessed to represent my hometown of North Platte, Midland University and the towns of my local titles for three years in a row,” said Pelland. “The Miss Nebraska Organization has taught me that I can grown just as much from my failures as I do from my successes. I’m excited to get the competition started in order to gain more friendships across the state. I love my family, friends, and fans! It would be a dream come true if I could share my social impact, Be Selfless – Donate Blood, with the state of Nebraska and save lives while doing it. The absolute best part would be to receive a full ride to Midland University!”

Kiera Rhodes

Kiera Rhodes, 18, is a 2019 graduate of North Platte High School. Crowned Miss Harvest Moon Festival in November, the former Miss Nebraska Little Sister and Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen contestant has been travelling the state visiting schools, organizing donations, and arranging crafts and activities for hospitalized children. Rhodes also served as a Student Council leader, she’s an Academic letter winner, and is a previous Nebraska All State Choir member.

“This organization has not only taught me how to confidently speak in front of others and helped me gain self confidence, but it inspires all the younger generations and it always has,” said Rhodes. “As a former Miss Nebraska Little Sister, I have seen, firsthand, how the girls who compete make a positive impact on others. Even if I don’t walk away with the coveted crown I know that I still did not lose; I get to make an impact on so many kids, teens, and even adults around my community and state. That in itself is so rewarding.”

The Miss Nebraska Scholarship competition will be held June 2-8 in North Platte, Nebraska, where candidates are eligible for more than $70,000 in prize packages and an estimated $1.4 million in in-kind college scholarships. Tickets are available for the event, which will also be streamed live online, at http://www.MissNebraska.org.

Norfolk Native Ready To Shine At Miss Nebraska

Emma Groninger, Norfolk native and 2015 graduate of Norfolk High School, will compete at the 2019 Miss Nebraska competition, the official preliminary to the historic Miss America event.

Emma Groninger

Groninger, a recent graduate of the University of South Dakota with a degree in Business Management, was named Miss Twin Rivers 2019 in February. The 22-year old has since traveled parts of Nebraska and South Dakota promoting confidence and empowerment in young women through her social impact initiative ‘Beautifully You.’

“Becoming a part of the Miss Nebraska Organization has been truly amazing,” said Groninger. “Every person I’ve met has been so kind. Everyone wants each other to succeed. It’s very refreshing to meet women who want to build each other up instead of tearing them down. Through the Miss Nebraska Organization, I’ve been able to speak with various people across the state and country about what beauty means to them. I want to use my social impact initiative to help women and men to realize they true potential and to encourage them to be the most authentic version of themselves.”

Emma hopes to become the third Miss Nebraska from Norfolk; Mindee Zimmerman was crowned Miss Nebraska 1987, as was Miss Nebraska 1980 Paula Louise Mitchell, who won at Non-Finalist Talent Award at the 1981 Miss America competition.

“I would be honored to be among two very amazing women who represented Norfolk and Nebraska,” said Groninger. “Norfolk has been an amazing town to grow up in. This town has given me everything and now it’s my time to give back. At Miss Nebraska, I want to show everyone how kind and inspiring Norfolk natives can be.”

The Miss Nebraska Scholarship competition will be held June 2-8 in North Platte, Nebraska, where candidates are eligible for more than $70,000 in prize packages and an estimated $1.4 million in in-kind college scholarships. Tickets are available for the event, which will also be streamed live online, at http://www.MissNebraska.org.

Gering Women Hope To Bring Hometown 2nd Miss America Crown

miss-nebraska-teresa-scanlan

Sheridan Blanco, Makinzie Gregory and Carsyn Long were just little girls when Gering’s Teresa Scanlan made history as Nebraska’s first Miss America. Now, all three will compete for the title of Miss Nebraska, hoping to bring their hometown a second Miss America crown. Blanco, Gregory and Long, all 2018 Gering High graduates, will compete at the 2019 Miss Nebraska competition in June in North Platte.

Blanco, 19, has already won thousands of dollars in cash scholarships competing in the Miss Nebraska program, including a $2,000 scholarship to Western Nebraska Community College, where she is pursuing a degree in physical therapy. Blanco was crowned Miss Scotts Bluff County 2019 over the summer, and has since volunteered at events across Western Nebraska advocating for causes including Special Olympics, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and sharing her personal message about Arthritis Awareness.

SHERIDAN BLANCO

“The Miss Nebraska Organization has been a very rewarding program to be a part of,” said Blanco. “I have learned public speaking skills, how to promote myself, and am able to go to college for free all because of this organization.”

Gregory, 19, has won more than $7,000 in cash scholarships competing in the Miss Nebraska program. One of the youngest contestants at the 2018 state competition, she was named 2nd Runner Up, honored with a Preliminary Talent Award, and named a finalist for the Miss Nebraska Community Service Award. In addition to volunteering across Western Nebraska, Gregory is an active social media advocate for individuals with special needs, serving as Miss Kool-Aid Days 2019.

MAKINZIE GREGORY

“I am so excited to represent all that I stand for in the Miss Nebraska competition this year from my spiritual beliefs, to my hometown and state, to various social issues, organizations, and businesses that I have become involved in!” said Gregory. “I am grateful for the voice and platform that the Miss America Organization gives me to advocate for my chosen causes!”

Long, 19, is currently a student at the University of Alabama on a full-ride scholarship she earned by winning the title of Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2017. Long travelled the state performing for various events, speaking to schools and organizations, and volunteering for a variety of causes. Long, whose parents now live in Bennington, was crowned Miss Douglas County in October, and has made frequent trips back to Omaha to promote foster care and Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

CARSYN LONG

“It’s so incredible that Gering gets to be represented in this way, and it’s even more incredible to have such successful and esteemed young women representing it,” said Long. “We have seen each other’s successes throughout high school and it’s exciting that we get to continue to see each other’s success at the Miss Nebraska competition this summer. I am confident that any one of these young women would execute the job of Miss Nebraska so eloquently and beautifully! Our program truly does encourage us to be the best version of ourselves. We become advocates for causes larger than ourselves. We strive to achieve our educational goals in receiving cash scholarships. We evolve into the women that Nebraska truly needs.”

The Miss Nebraska Scholarship competition will be held June 2-8 in North Platte, Nebraska, where candidates are eligible for more than $70,000 in prize packages and an estimated $1.4 million in in-kind college scholarships. Tickets are available for the event, which will also be streamed live online, at http://www.MissNebraska.org.