The Transformation of Michael Gebhardt

In all the previous Olympics you won a medal, a Bronze and a Silver. What happened this time around?

AMERICAN WINDSURFER:  [both laughing] Did you peak early or. . . poor planning?

MICHAEL GEBHARDT: I thought before the Olympics I was going really fast, and I was just sitting back, saying, I think I’m going to win another medal again. It’s kind of funny, you watch some of the top guys just sail themselves out of it. I pretty much figured Nikolas Kaklamanakis from Greece (Gold medal winner) was going to be hard to beat. He’d been killing us for four years, just a phenomenal sailor with physical ability, mental durability and strength. I was under the assumption that he might potentially have a mini-nervous breakdown, because he’s very intense. This had happened at every Olympics that I’d been to, some of the top favorites just snapped, I mean, so much pressure is put on them.

In the United States, we don’t get as much pressure to medal as other countries.  You’re just one of eighty or so medalists. But,  some of the smaller countries, you might be the only person that can medal for your country. That’s an enormous burden.

AW: Were you burdened because you won the medals in both previous Olympic events?

MG: It was different for me because so many people were apathetic. You win a Bronze, and then Silver, it was just a given that you’re going to win a Gold, like it’s that easy! I’m telling them, Look, just to go is an incredible gift, and I’ve truly been blessed, again! The trials competition was tougher than ever. Teddy (Huang) was in great shape, Dan Kerchoff  sailed really well, there was potential for Alf (Imperato) and a few others to sail well. They were all very talented sailors. It worked out well for me at the trials.

AW: So what happened at the Olympics?

MG: I finished 6th. All I can say is that it was really crazy, wind-wise. It happened to the whole U.S. sailing team. We spent so much time in Savannah, the last four years training, that we conditioned ourselves to expect a certain weather set up. The wind comes from this direction. With this temperature, you get a certain clocking of the sea breeze. It picks up to this speed at so-and-so time. The current does this, this particular piece of water does that, etc. We literally had a grid. We knew every little piece of the water. We knew every little current. We were sailing where two rivers converged into a bay and had a very complicated current pattern. Skip White (Olympic windsurfing coach) and the rest of the U.S. sailing team support crew spent months collecting all of this incredible current data. We knew more about this place than any other team. We knew exactly where to tack when we saw a particular current line. But during the Olympics we came under an incredibly unstable weather pattern. We were not reactive enough for the conditions.

american_windsurfer_5.2_Mike-Gebhardt_spread2-s
(enlarge)

What happened was that the race committee got pinned down, time-wise. We had a few days where the wind didn’t cooperate and we didn’t race. The committee got stressed out and just had to get the races off.

Three bad races and you’re done. One race I went around the reach mark in seventh. That was the turning point of the regatta. I felt like, at that point, that I’d just had bad luck, just made the wrong decisions. The scary thing is, I would have done the same thing again. You acquire a certain level of knowledge from seeing what’s going on with the shifts, the current, and knowing the general flow of things. You do what you think is going to work. Suddenly, the wind dies on the left side of the course. The guys who were dead last end up first, and the guys who were first end up middle to dead last. That happened to me a couple of times. Wrong place, right time. I went from seventh to twenty-third on one downwind. Worse than that, I finished twenty-third. I think I went from seventh to thirty-something, in about 3 minutes, which was just absolutely incredible.

Advertisement


AW: What did Nikolas do?

MG: On that particular race, he was over early. He was dead last because he had to restart, with Carlos, (the eventual Silver Medalist)who also started prematurely. They were both over early. They both went back to restart, they were dead last. I’m talking, one or two minutes behind me, and that’s when the fleet flipped over. Nikolas ended up winning or being in the top two or three that race. Same thing with Carlos.

After the first day of racing, I was in twelfth. After the second day of racing, I was in eighth. The third day of racing, I was in fourth. I’m like, Yeah, I’m right fighting my way back in it. No problem. I was confident that I was going to win another medal. You let the people make the mistakes and sail themselves out of the regatta. I just happened to be one of the ones who sailed myself out of the regatta. [both laughing]

AW: What went through your mind?

MG: For me, my whole objective during this last Olympics was just not to be attached to the outcome. The object was to give, contribute all my actions to God, and to serve God through my Olympic campaign. And so, I was upset, but I’d go home and I’d get over it, and let it go.

AW: Could you clarify that for me?

MG: I’m trying to remember, four years ago, I’m thirty-one now, so I was twenty-seven, and that was my most successful Olympics. The amazing thing about it is that if I try to look back at what happened in ‘92, I just kind of floated through the whole thing. I totally enjoyed the whole experience.

AW: That was your second Olympics?

MG: Yeah, in Barcelona. Going into the last race, I was winning by 5.3 points. Every Olympics has been different for me. For most athletes, when they start out at a young age, the competition is about proving who you are, and you are only as good as the last event you do. That’s kind of out of a place of insecurity and that’s because your self-esteem is defined by your results. You do great in a regatta, everybody pats you on the back. You do badly in a regatta, and you’re like, Aw, that’s it, I’m just gonna go home and train, and that’s just how I was as a kid, you know?

I was trying to look for something where I could prove myself. From a young age, I was always very competitive, and I loved any kind of sport. I wanted to be a professional baseball player. But then it became obvious that I wasn’t getting (physically) big enough for that. So then I got into high school, and the coach just kind of rolled over me. I was only a hundred pounds, didn’t have a big arm and couldn’t hit it out of the park. I could hit all day long, but I couldn’t hit a home run. Then I got into sailing because catamaran sailing and surfing was what we did on the beach. There were a lot of world class catamaran regattas held in my town, so I crewed a lot for other sailors and then I got into windsurfing. I just found my niche. It was something where you could be light and athletic, and it wasn’t a team sport, because I wasn’t into team sports. I didn’t want to rely on anyone else. I wanted to do it for me. So windsurfing was my way to make myself feel whole.

It was competing from the perspective of just being self-serving. To give you an example, halfway through the regatta, I was winning, in Korea, and it was really windy. I remember waking up from a dream. My Dad was rooming with me in my hotel room. He was just there, hanging out, having a good time, eating kimchi. He’s an ex-military pilot in the Air Force and was just enjoying being back in Korea without a war going on.

american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_spread3-s
(enlarge)

So, I woke up in the middle of this dream, and the dream was about me. I saw myself winning a Gold medal, which was the position I was in at that point. I was winning the regatta with like, half the series over. And I saw myself with the medal, and there was this war between my ego and my higher self. It’s the only way to explain it. I realized if I won a Gold medal at that point in my life, I would have really gone backwards as a person spiritually. The realization was that I was not ready for all the fame and fortune that would come with it. In fact, I think it would have been very detrimental in my life.

AW: You actually had a dream?

MG: Yeah, and I woke up and I was very disturbed, because here I had spent eight years of my life training for the Olympics. I woke my Dad up and told him about it, and he said, You’re crazy! You’ve trained your whole life for this. You’ve got to go do what you’ve been wanting to do. I guess I really still question to this day if it was self-sabotage because the next day, I ended up having a couple of bad races, and I ended up dropping back to fifth place.

So going into the last race, I was in fifth, wasn’t even in a medal position. But five of us were fighting for the Silver and the Bronze. Bruce Kendall had already locked up the Gold before the last race; he had sailed such a good series that he didn’t have to race the last race. So we went out and battled for what was left. I had this incredible battle with Robert Nagy (France), Baart Vershoor (Dutch)and Jann Boersma (Curacao).

american_windsurfer_5.2_mike-gebhardt_medal-silver
.

Jann was by far, the first or second biggest guy. He was like, 170, 180 pounds. The rest of the fleet weighed in at 145, 150. We started the race and the wind picked up to just stink, man, and it just turned into survival sailing. It had done that before for three or four races, but it was good for me when it got to survival sailing. If it’s like a solid twenty, I’m slow. But if it gets so windy where it’s like, whoever falls less wins, then I‘m in good shape. You had to make your jibes, you had to make your tacks, you had to sail through the puffs and not get slammed.

The seas were a serious thirty-five feet. It was scary. It even knocked out this helicopter filming the race. Everyone got out ok but it was nasty. Anyway, going up the last beat, I had this battle with Baart Vershoor, the guy from Holland. We literally got slammed about five times going up the last beat. He came around the leeward mark right behind me and I got slammed about a hundred yards after the mark. Then he got slammed, and we passed each other back and forth like that, all the way to the finish. Then about two hundred yards from the finish, I was just barely in front of him and this puff came through. It was just one of those puffs that you saw and you knew you were going to get slammed. I mean, you’d unhook from the harness, get into the starfish stance, get ready to luff, and try not to have the board rail up. I went through this puff and I looked back, and Baart just got slammed! All I remember was his feet sticking up underneath the foot of the sail as he went over . . . [both laughing]

MG: As I crossed the finish line. I won a Bronze and it was like, Okay, I guess I didn’t need to win a Gold today. After that, I was through with this Olympic stuff and wanted to turn pro and do the World Cup.

In 1990, 1991, I started checking into the Olympic scene again. Scott was still around, but he was trying to make a living, wasn’t much into competitive sailing, but he was still doing well. Teddy Huang was the man to beat since I’d been gone. I showed up at one regatta, beat him easily, and I hadn’t been sailing with those kinds of boards, you know, the new equipment and stuff. We now had a powerful cambered sail on a Division Two board. I’d been doing world cup, and I stepped into the Olympic scene about six months before the trials. The whole thing worked. In ‘92 I won the trials easily. Didn’t have to race the last two races. The trials were right here in Fort Pierce, and that’s part of the reason I live here.

AW: So then you went to the Olympics . .

MG: Went to the Olympics in ‘92 and after the first day of racing, I was winning.

AW: Don’t tell me. . . you had another dream!

MG: No [laughing] no. The funny thing is, I just didn’t care. It’s like, Wow! What an amazing thing when you don’t care about the outcome, and get totally immersed in the event. I can remember running around every morning just helping out whoever and enjoying all the athletes from all around the world.

Sponsored Links

AW: You were winning, you missed the Gold by what, four tenths of a point?

MG: Point four, yeah, I was winning going into the last race. The last race we had three or four general calls. It was really a light air day. The sea breeze hadn’t established itself yet. Usually Barcelona had a twelve to sixteen knot sea breeze. I’d wake up every morning and get a weather report, first thing. Our weatherman’s been up since four a.m., checking the temperature, the direction. The technology that we had access to was overwhelming. Current, breeze, all this top-secret stuff, giving us the total advantage. So I’m pretty convinced the wind’s going to clock to the right. It goes right every time we see this set up.

american_windsurfer_5.2_Mike_gebhardt_spread4-s
AGE OF THE BRONZE: (right) Finishing first on the second race of the ’88 Olympics in Korea, Gebhardt was leading half way through the games until a vivid dream at night sobered his quest for the Gold. OPENING CEREMONIES: (below) With yachting team member and Silver medalist John Kostecki. (lower right) Private Olympic team tour of the U.S.S. Nimitz who was keeping a watchful eye on the games in case of “Terrorism.” With training partner Scott Steele, the 1984 Silver medalist and with local windsurfers volunteering their help at the Olympic Yachting venue. A party animal, riding back from the opening ceremonies. Resting in Pusan Hotel room. (enlarge)

I said to my coach and a couple of other team members who I had a lot of respect for, What should I do? I’m winning. And they’re like, Well, you’ve got to do what you feel good with. And I was like, Well, I’m just gonna team race him, Frank David, the guy from France. I’m going to start next to him. I have better board handling. I’m just going to go after him. I won’t try to foul him, but I’ll start right next to him and just control him from the start, immediately get into a covering situation or pin him off to the bad side of the course. I had to just finish in front of him, or one place behind him if he won the race. Two behind him if he was second or third. If he was fourth or worse, I would win. My coach Charlie says, You’re already a Silver medalist even if you drop dead now. That was the good news. [heartily laughing]. So go out there and start clean and leave Frank alone. I got talked out of my game plan. So I did not team race Frank. It cost me. We had three or four general recalls. Every start, every one of the general recalls, I had a great start. Then the last start that counted, Carlos Espinosa from Argentina, the guy who won the Silver medal in 1996, rolls me at the start.

AW: What do you mean rolled?

american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_korea-gang-s-1
.
american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_korea-group-S-1
.
american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_korea-bus-S
.

MG: He started directly to windward of me, and punched out, so that he took my air, just better acceleration. I got forced to tack and clear my air. I tacked back, and didn’t even know where Frank was at that point because of my little battle with Carlos. I wanted to get clear and go after Frank. Frank’s coming along on port tack, so I tack just below him. I gain control of him, pinch him out, and force him to tack to the left side of the course. Perfect. The favored side of the course was the right. I pin him off to the left, the unfavored side of the course, which is the thing I wanted to do tactically. And I was like, I got his butt, it’s over, man.

The whole fleet’s to the right of us, we’re the furthest left, hung out to dry. So finally I tack off to consolidate, he went through a big header, and I tack to get on the lifted tack. He goes all the way to the unfavored left layline. The guys on the right side of the course get a huge lift and all overstand the mark. The wind on the right was so far right, there was about a quarter mile difference in layline. That’s the scary thing about sailing, the playing field’s always changing. Wind can be fickle. You can predict it to a certain extent. You can at least see it, but you can’t always get to where  you need to go to get into the velocity. The guys on the right had actually screwed up. They overstood the layline and they came reaching in. Frank tacks a little bit below lay line on the left and gets a big left shift. Boom!  He rounds the top mark in first!

AW: Wow!

MG: I’m like, You gotta be kiddin’. I can’t believe this! Stuffed him to the left and the boys to the right all overstand and Frank rounds in first. My plan back fired! I round in eighth. I didn’t get excited and kept my head together. I just had to get back to second but I’d have to pass Kendall, the previous game’s Gold medalist. Problem is, I know damn well that Kendall doesn’t want me to win a Gold, because then I’ll have a Bronze and Gold just like him. So, I work all the way back into third, Kendall’s in second, and the guy behind me was from Thailand. Really sweet guy, one of those we call an Olympic Tourist. You know, the guy who shows up for the party, just enjoying the Olympics. He was having his best race, lovin’ it. We always get four or five guys like that, it’s like the Jamaican bobsled team, or Eddie the Eagle. These guys show up, and you’re like, I just hope that they don’t get in the way. You train your butt off and some tourist shows up for a cool vacation, because some federation says, Let’s send Cousin Johnny  to the Olympics! So this guy pumps past me on the first reach; this when you couldn’t pump in the Olympics, only three times to promote surfing and planing. It was the rule at the time.

So the jury boat parked right on me, ‘cause they know the scores and who to watch. They’re watching the potential medalists. This Thai guy pumps right over me, and I’m yelling at him to stop pumping. I luff him up, totally tagging him, and I’m like, Protest, man, you gotta keep clear, do your circles. And he just sails over me, he doesn’t do his penalty circles. I pass him again, and he’s on my butt again, pumping to pass me, and you know, I’m freaking ‘cause I have to stay in front of him, but I’m trying not to get busted by the jury. If I get a 720, it’s over. I’m like 100 yards behind Frank, with Kendall in between us.

So the little Thai guy passes me once again, and I luffed him up, fouled him again, and told him to do a 720, and to get off my ass! I’m like, Hey, man, please leave me alone. I’m trying to explain the rules to him. Look, you’ve broken this rule, just leave me alone. Finally, on the last downwind, he’s like, Oh, you go now. I pass him again, and he’s like You go now, I like you, you good man, I want you get Gold. And I go, Buddy, you just screwed me out of my Gold.

[both laughing]

american_windsurfer_5.2_Mike_gebhardt_spread5-s
GRACIOUS OLYMPIAN: On the awards platform in Barcelona with Frank David of France. Gebhardt missed winning the Gold by .4 of a point. (far left) Celebrating with David and Bronze medalist Lars Kleppich of Australia. (below left) Clowning with favorite fan and US Team Shipwright Karl Eickenlaub who has worked in every Olympic since 1968. (next) Fireworks that almost burned down the stadium and a pensive moment flying to Barcelona that might have foreshadowed the feeling of the event. With Roger Jurriens of Aruba and Chris Sieber of Austria during the opening ceremonies and all the medalists from the yachting team who won in every event except the women’s windsurfing. (enlarge)

MG: Meanwhile, Kendall’s between me and Frank. Kendall’s just making sure that I don’t beat him. It’s his prerogative. So the worst situation happened. Frank was first, which gave him zero points. Second place gets three points. Third gets 5.7 points. (Olympic scoring) So I had a 5.3 point lead, and Frank now has zero points, and I add 5.7 points, so I lost the Gold by less than half a point. [laughing]

AW: Oh my God!

MG: I sail into the beach kind of pissed. I mean I was happy. I had won another medal. Shit happens, you do the best you can. My coach, Charlie, comes up with a big bottle of champagne, and I ran over and hugged Frank and poured champagne all over him and congratulated him. He was that year’s World Champion. He deserved it, 100%. I was totally stoked for him. France had finally won a Gold in windsurfing. They’re by far the best windsurfing country in the world. They have an incredible passion for the sport. I’m stoked because this guy’s going to go home and be like a rock star, which will take the sport to a whole new level .

It took me about a week before I finally got really upset and realized that had I been one place higher in any other race I would have won the Gold.

american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_barcelona-roger-s
.
american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_barcelona-guys-s
.
american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_Barcelona-medals-s
.

AW: Now to your third Olympics.

MG: This time my motivation has totally changed. The sport means something different to me now. It has always been my church, my place to do my own thing, be one with nature. . . that divine intelligence of God.

If you asked me after the ‘92 Olympics if I’d do another campaign, I would of said, No way, forget it. It’s such a drain. You spend four years, sacrificing everything, relationships, family life, being home, sleeping in my own bed—everything! Every penny you make goes towards this one goal. I’ve been lucky enough to have won a couple souvenirs from the last two Olympics. No way am I going to do it again and lock myself into a pursuit of perfection which permeates every aspect of your life.

But I decided, I want to do it again. This time, I wanted to prove that it can be done with an attitude of service, which is kind of what I was moving into in life, attitude-wise, with my own personal service to other people. Just serving God in everything you do, and seeing that aspect of the Christ consciousness in every human being, in every interaction. It’s hard to do in competition.

american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_portrait-letterman-s
.

The wonderful thing about traveling is that it gives you different perspectives. One of my interests has been studying all the world’s religions, because of my own personal relationship that I’ve experimented with. I cultivate living with God, which permeates everything. So as I’m getting more and more into God, I’d sit down with some of my close  spiritual friends, and say, You know, I’m really have a lot of guilt about this Olympic campaign because it’s such a selfish, self-righteous endeavor. The whole world evolves around you, and you don’t ever get to give anything back. I was real fortunate to have friends who said the best way to serve is not by quitting, but by continuing, and showing that this is what you’re made of. In other words, serve through your sport. That had become my mantra. Then I had to start trying to live it. It’s a whole different story from saying you’re going to do it. [both laughing]

AW: When did all your spiritual transformations happen?

MG: How do you measure something like that? [laughs] As far as I can remember, I always felt that the relationship with God is the only important thing in life, really important. That’s why we are here. You know, it’s funny, I was born again at thirteen. I accepted Christ into my heart, and about a year after that, I had a spiritual nervous breakdown.  It was because of guilt. My relationship with God was out of fear and guilt. That’s what I was taught. There’s nothing wrong with fearing God, but guilt comes when you don’t know how to have a relationship with God on your own terms. There’s a collective consciousness and you can buy into the collective karma, but inevitably, you’re going to have your own spin, your own perspective, and your own experiences.

american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_Medal-Bronze
Bronze in Korea

I had a kind of falling out with God for about a year. I realized that I was a sinner, and thought I was hopelessly condemned, and it was just something I couldn’t control. And then at about fifteen or so, I tried to get back into the grace of God. Especially through all my travels, you know, not coming from a wealthy family and always struggling financially, I got stuck in so many situations around the world, in airports around the world with ten bucks. You don’t have a return ticket, and you’re like, How am I going to get home. And every time I’d get into a situation like that, I’d just pray with a confidence that is beyond explanation. I’d just say, Not my will Lord, but Thine, Lord, and just surrender it all. Give my fear and my concerns to God, and something just incredible, superhuman, would happen.

Someone would show up and give me a place to stay, and somehow I’d get a ticket to get home. I did that for ten, twelve years. I started travelling to windsurfing events alone when I was fifteen, pretty much right after I learned to sail. The great thing about windsurfing is that it’s a dynamic sport. It attracts people who are very much into living a fuller life. What I mean by that is that you see a lot of these strong-spirited people who do what they feel is best for them, not concerned with what parents or society thinks. They do what they love, what they have a passion for and what they have energy to do. Those are the people I’ve always been attracted to, and that’s how I always wanted to be. It’s just being true to yourself. And that’s been my gift to the sport, the activity given me by God.

AW: There’s a clear Divine Hand on your life!

MG: Sure.

AW: You told me years ago about a time you thought of suicide. Tell me about that.

MG: It was beyond thinking. I was eighteen, and really in love with this girl, my first true love, my first serious relationship.

She broke up with me over Christmas. It was a shock. I thought everything was going fine. We’d been going out for about a year, and I came home for Christmas. I was, of course, running around racing. She only saw me one week a month. That made things real hard on the relationship. I was so preoccupied with windsurfing. So she bailed. She wanted more security, and someone to be there. I knew she loved me. That really broke my heart.

It was interesting. I got really sick with bronchitis over it, and I remember reading a book about consciousness, about becoming more aware of your own personal relationship with self. It was like, I was talking to myself today. There are two people inside you, I and myself. I was trying to develop that observer perspective, sitting back and watching myself interact and react to things in the world. I was real sick,coughing badly. I couldn’t breath, at three in the morning, sitting in bed, and I’m like, Oh my God, just dying, coughing up blood,just hacking away. I remember the book saying, If you’re sick, and you ask yourself why, your higher self will answer. As soon as you recognize what has caused it, you can transcend that illness. So I sat up in bed. It was the first time I ever tried meditating. I went into the Lotus position on top of my covers and just started breathing. I tried to clear my mind and I asked the question, Why am I sick? It was obvious. Because of this girl, you dummy. And then I recognized it! It was easy to say, but I asked the question, then received the answer, so there was some perspective shown to me. As soon as I realized that, it was like the illness was lifted from me. Then, I had an out-of-body experience and that time, it was like Whoa! It really tripped me out!

american_windsurfer_5.2_Mike_gebhardt_spread6-s
PRESIDENTIAL TREATMENT from three presidents. (left) Self portrait after meeting President Regan in 1988. (right) President Bush in 1992 and President Clinton in 1996. (left) With Arnold Schwazenegger, Summer Sanders and Janet Evans in 1992 and on Clinton’s private putting green with Silver medalist in the 470 class, Kevin Burnham. (below) Group photo with Clinton. (enlarge)

I was viewing myself from above, kind of floating, looking down at myself meditating, just breathing, and then I went through the roof of my house. I was kind of enjoying the view of the stars, the water, the wind, seeing everything at the same time, in all-directions at the same time. I was just totally high on being, which is something I’ve read about, but had never experienced.

The next day I drove down to south Florida, to start training again. I’m driving, and I get real depressed and start crying, at like two in the morning. I’m in north Florida, the middle of nowhere, between Perry and Okala, which is back country for Florida. I don’t see a car for about a half hour. I’m feeling really miserable, and decide to kill myself. I just decided, That’s it.

I let go of the steering wheel of the car, which was on cruise control, doing about 80 mph. With big oak trees and a sweeping curve coming up, I thought, I’ll just end it. Start over. Come back again and get it right. I felt as though I had lost somebody who I’d had an intimate soul connection with, my soul mate. And really, I just broke, just gave up. I was at peace with the decision, which is a crazy thing to say from this perspective now.

american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_whitehouse-s
.
american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_janet-s
.
american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_arnold-s
.

The car started drifting off the road. The trees were coming up. Right about when I was going to run off the road, I drove right over something, and I’m like, What the hell was that?, not even remembering what I was about to do. That looked like a book . . . in the middle of the road . . a big thick book! I didn’t run it over. It went right under the center of the car. I stopped the car, and backed up, totally forgot what I was doing. I was empty. I’d cleared my mind of all concerns. I backed up to it, reached down and picked up this book. It was a hardcover book with a nice shiny cover. As soon as I picked it up and I saw A Bridge Across Forever by Richard Bach, I just had this jolt of energy. It just shocked me. You hear about people talking about feeling energy or vibration. I mean I got lit. It was like someone hooked me up to a hundred thousand volts. Every hair on my body stood up, and then I recognized what had happened. This is what really tripped me out.  I recognized that something . . . or someone . . . had intervened before I decided to end my life. And I was really angry, very, very angry. I remember just — rage! I was like, How dare you stop me! And I started yelling at this presence.

I’m in the middle of the road, middle of this dark nowhere. I shut up for a second and looked on the inside cover of the book, and it said, This is a book about A Bridge Across Foreve,…and it’s about finding your soul mate. Let me tell you, that was a shock, and I was like, Oh my God, the one thing that I’m broken over has just been handed to me, as if to say, look, you can transcend this. You’re not ready to go yet.

AW: Was the book torn up? Had it fallen off something or been thrown out?

MG: The book was just laid down. This is what’s wild because the ground was wet, moist. The book wasn’t wet, wasn’t saturated, not a scratch on it. It was as if someone had placed it there. I knew it had appeared to save my ass, and that was it. I didn’t even try to question it. It was beyond my comprehension.

Advertisement


Then I got out of my car. I was really scared, because I felt a presence, but there was no physical body. The presence, I couldn’t say it was good or bad. I didn’t know. But there was something there, or some entity, and it really scared the hell out of me. It took a lot of faith to get back in the car. I turned on the inside light, looked throughout the whole car, and finally got enough nerve to get in the car and slowly drive off.

I drove down to Jensen Beach which is a little further south from where I live now. I was living with Pat Corelli and Shawn Hass and a guy from South Africa. We were all hanging out, windsurfing and training. I must’ve gotten down there at six or seven in the morning. I’m notorious for driving all night. If I drive in the morning, I’d kill myself. I’d fall asleep. But if I drive at night, I can stay awake. I’ve come to find out that is the way my body works because I’m a Vata, which is what my dosha, my body constitution, is. I got down there, went into my room, and started reading this book. I must’ve read that thing for two days. It was a good sized book. I read that thing, and I read that thing, and I’d go to the bathroom, then right back to my room. My Dad called and he said, Hey, check on Mike, I’m worried about him. And they’re like, Yeah, he’s just been in his room, whatever. And I finally finished reading it. I came out of my cave, walked outside to check the surf and came back. There was no surf, no wind. I had laid the book down on the kitchen table.

american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_spread7-s
TRANSFORMATIONS: Just out of High School 1983 racing in Mountauk, Long Island. First trophy in 1982. Celebrating Bronze medal win in 1988 with 2000 Olympic Team Leader Hal “Hollywood” Hanel. With girlfriend Tonya whose break-up lead to a near suicide. Training on home waters in 1987 and with David Letterman after the Olympics in Korea. World Cup laughter in 1988 and out of control partying with Fred Beauchene in 1993. Goatee hair in La Sable de Onde, France. Hometown hero in 1992. (right) Present day ritual at home in Fort Pierce, FL. (enlarge)

They were eating either breakfast or lunch, I can’t remember. I came back and said, Hey guys, what happened to my book? It wasn’t there. What are you talking about? And I thought they were messing with me. I started getting a little upset, asking them a couple more times. Then I started looking around and couldn’t find the thing. They told me, Look, we didn’t see a book, we didn’t do anything with a book. And they were being sincere. I started really getting freaked out. Now the book’s gone! I drove to a bookstore, and bought the book. I had to see if this experience was real. At this point, I was going, This is too weird! Things show up, then disappear. It was definitely a transition point in my life.

AW: You seem to be living a charmed life, the mysterious book wasn’t the only time. Things like your waterskiing accident point to some remarkable happenstance.

MG: I think it was about three years ago. There was no wind, so my neighbors and I went playing behind a motor boat. A hard bottom zodiac with a nice engine. We were teaching my young neighbor Phil to wakeboard and surf. We were just having a good time.

I was behind the boat helping Phil, who was on a knee board. I was on a boogie board next to him. He was pretty young and intimidated, so I was riding along next to him. I tied the ski rope off on the middle of the boat and gave him the handled end. I took the rope end and tied a bowline knot in it, to have something to hold on to. As soon as I tied the looped knot, I thought, this is an easy way to get hurt. So I was hot-dogging around, and Phil was riding behind the boat. I pulled a bunch of slack in the rope and was kneeling on the boogie board. I went over the wake and I stuck the nose in and just kind of fell forward, no big deal. I let go of the rope. When I let go of the rope, it went back into a loop shape, and I stuck my arm through the loop.

I fell underwater, at a ninety degree angle, like diving. This rope straightens out and then torqued on my arm. It was wrapped around my back, so the first thing it did was spin me around 180 degrees underwater. Then I felt it pull on my arm. It felt like my arm was going to break in half, right in the middle of my biceps. I felt the bone flex, and then the rope broke. I came up, and a piece of the rope was actually stuck to my arm. It was polypropylene, an old piece of line, thank God. If it had not broke, it would have just peeled my arm off my body. My biceps were hanging down below the bone of my arm. You could see that it crushed the biceps down to the bone, crushed it down to the fascia. I looked at my arm, and thought, Oh great, I just ruined it for windsurfing, I’m done. And then I got a little stressed out. The funny thing was, I got really angry, and said, Lord, why’d you do this to me? As soon as I got the words out of my mouth, I thought, What are you going to learn from this? Just a quick change of perspective.

So I pulled myself up into the boat and it was like, Oh, the arm still works. It didn’t look good at all. It just started throbbing, really hurting. I’ve never felt pain like that. My friend Mulu wrapped a towel with a bunch of ice around it, and within thirty seconds, we were at a doctor friend’s dock, who lived on the water. I ran up to his house and said, Hey, man, I hurt my arm. Can you look at it?

He put a compression bandage around it, and then it really started hurting. He drove me to another doctor, who’s a very good sports injury specialist. He took me to his office. He just looked at it. I could move my arm and there didn’t seem to be any nerve damage. He said, Well, we could go in and operate, but it would be like sewing jello to jello. There’s just a bunch of crushed muscle. Come back tomorrow and we’ll check it and see what we can do. We can’t really do anything at this point. He gave me some pain pills. I went home that night, iced the hell out of it, put tiger balm on it, and arnica, and took a bunch of arnica and antioxidants orally, and . . .

AW: Arnica? What is arnica?

american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_spread8-s
HOLISTIC EXISTENCE & MEDICINE: Practicing Yoga every day has fine tuned Gebhardt’s physic and the shaved head brings resemblance to the hometown Chiropractic wall display. (enlarge)

MG: Arnica is a homeopathic remedy. It comes in a liquid form. You can rub it on externally. It also comes in little tablets you can put under your tongue and dissolve. It’s just a natural plant extract. Whatever it does, it helps injuries, like bruising or over-use. It kind of flushes the toxins out of the cells. It helps flush toxins out of muscle tissue and relieves pain. The next morning, I woke up, and one of my close friends, Dr. Leonard Smith, calls up, and says, Hey, I was just thinking about you, and I was driving through the area.

I said, Funny, I was thinking about you last night. I was going to call you because I just wiped myself out and I’m hurting pretty bad. And he said, Yeah, well I had some energy to come visit you, I don’t know why, but I thought I’d come by.

So he shows up and my arm is just wrecked. He put his arms around me and said, Well, we can pray on it and see what happens. So he put his hands on me and we prayed together for a while. We just went into a meditative-type prayer, and I had a lot of energy flowing through my arm. He, by no means, claims to do healing himself. He doesn’t take any credit. If it’s God’s will, it’s God’s will, and he just witnesses the perfection in everyone. So we prayed and when we finished, he said, I have really neat friends who live one house in front of you. I came down because tomorrow we’re going to go to this spiritual seminar with Richard Moss, down at a Unity Church in Palm Beach. And I said, Well, what’s the seminar about? He said, Awakening to a higher level of consciousness. And I was like, Great, sounds just like what I need.

Richard was renowned for working with people who had terminal illnesses, terminal cancer. Richard adamantly explains, I haven’t done a thing to anybody. You do it to yourself, through faith, and through your relationship with God. You surrender, either right before you die, and give up your spirit, or you can have that death while you’re living, and surrender your life to God. Then the healing begins. That’s what he teaches.

So the next day we went down to the seminar and Richard made us do all these different exercises that really just kind of peeled away your ego.

AW: And your arm was wrapped up . . . ?

MG: Oh, in the meantime, the physical therapist that I had gone to see basically said not to use my arm, that it should be put in a cast and not be used for at least a month. But I’d been to the grocery store and carried a jug of milk. As long as I didn’t use my biceps, it didn’t hurt. But if I used my biceps, and even did this [demonstrates], I could just feel the scar tissue ripping. It was shredded, there was nothing holding it together. So in the middle of this seminar, we were dancing to some didgeridu (Australian aborigine music), and I remember being really moved by the music and saying, Wow, I want to go visit some aborigines. I’ve always been really attracted to didgeridu music. It’s the most powerful instrument that’s played with only the human breath. It’s probably one of the most ancient instruments.

american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_spread9-s
A HANDFULL OF FRIENDS: Gebhardt at home in Ft. Pierce with roomate Mike Dahan (center) and George “Mulu” Muller father of 2 year old Luke. (enlarge)

What he was having people do is dance with total freedom, without any concern about what you look like. First we’d dance with our eyes closed, and he’d say, Whatever emotion comes through your body, don’t try to dance a certain way. Just let go. Let the energy move you. Everybody just started going nuts, it really opened everybody up.

My grandmother had died just a couple of months before, and I guess that I hadn’t really mourned her death. I was really trying to be there for the family, be up, and help everybody work through it. My grandmother just came to me in this vision, in the middle of dancing around like a complete idiot, to a bunch of didgeridu music, this incredible love, this warmth was like a white light, just came pouring into me. It came right through my arm, right through the injury. And she said, Michael, you know you’re whole right now if you choose to be whole. That’s your natural state. And she said, I am at peace, you don’t have to mourn me. I had an incredible spiritual connection with my grandma, and this just blew me away. I started crying and laughing, and had a huge release. I just had this bolt of light, blow up, expand, go out of my arm, go through my whole body, and I felt a flash go out of me and across the whole room, and I got knocked down.

From that point on, my arm stopped hurting, just two days after it had happened. The really crazy thing was that I had gone to see a physical therapist. I had US Olympic Committee insurance, so I went and found the best doctors and physical therapists I could find. I said, I would like you to do some deep mia facial massage, some crossfiber work, e-stim, very intrusive massage to break up the scar tissue, so it would regenerate in the direction the muscle fiber wants to grow. She wouldn’t even do any massage work on me.

AW: Why?

MG: She said, No, we can’t do any work on your arm, it would hurt you. I said, Look, I’ve had everybody and his brother rub on me already, twenty-four hours a day. I’ve taken ten showers a day. I’ve been icing my arm every twenty minutes. I’ve been putting on tiger balm. I’ve got arnica all over me. I’ve put every type of oil I know on it. I’ve got vitamin E oil, aloe and I’ve eaten super clean. I have to race in two weeks to qualify for the national team. I’m going to be racing fourteen days from now. She’s like, You’re crazy. You’re going to be in a cast in fourteen days if you don’t take it easy. I said, Look, what’s the problem here? I started butting heads with her. I said, If somebody wants to get better, they’re going to be better. I’ve just decided that I’m going to be better in fourteen days. [laughing]

So I came back the day after I had this healing experience, and I tried to explain what had happened. She didn’t want to hear anything about that. That’s not reality, and I’m a doctor, rational-like. So I just kind of politely walked out, and never went back to rehab. That was it for me.

AW: So you basically tore the muscles out?

MG: Crushed it. You can feel a little bit of biceps there. Squeeze it, it doesn’t hurt.

AW: Wow! Two weeks later you raced?

MG: Two weeks later, I went out sailing. It was a beautiful windy day with waves, I sailed off the beach about a hundred feet and threw a forward and landed it clean and I said, I guess I’m okay. [laughing] The regatta after, I think I finished third.

AW: Pretty heavy stuff.

MG: Yeah. [pause] Perspective, you know. Heavy to some and normal to others. It depends on what you expect, what you believe. You truly experience what you think you’re going to experience. [laughing] You have to be real careful with what you spend your time thinking about in life! The universe is like a big magnet. It just gives you what you ask for or focus on. Whatever thought you send out, it just reciprocates. It’s like, Okay, he wants abundance, he’s gonna get it. Focus on fear, we’ve gotta give him something to scare the hell out of him. [laughing]

AW: So the transformation you’ve gone through is . . .

MG: It’s not for everybody at this very moment, but that’s why we’re here.

american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_spread10-s
BALANCING THE SHIFTING FORCES: Gebhardt locked in to maximize his small frame in St. Thomas. (above right) Training at home in Ft. Pierce, FL. (right) Clowning with young fans on Lake Winnepesaukee, NH. Tacking in Aruba while jumping and shreeding in Hood River, OR. (enlarge)

AW: Aside from these two major experiences, are there other . . .?

MG: Crazy stuff? Sure, I’ve picked up somebody on the highway, kind of like a hitchhiker, and they say something profound. I drop them off, turn around and look, and they’re gone. Okay, where did that person come from who just happened to say what I needed to hear? I’ve really had some odd things happen. It’s almost beyond . . . It’s strange how, when you look back on it, after you get some distance, it doesn’t seem real anymore. So you kind of come up with this perspective that if the dream state isn’t real, what do you think the waking state is? Because, maybe you’re just having an eighty year waking dream, just like you have an eight hour dream at night, you know.

You don’t have to know everything. There is a greater plan that’s beyond your comprehension. That’s God’s grace. I remember reading a beautiful Jewish prayer. Something like— Thank you Lord, for every opening in my body opening when it should open, and not closing when it should be open. Think about it. You don’t worry about monitoring blood vessels whether they’re open or not to pump blood in. When you think about what goes on in the human body, there’s an intelligence beyond your comprehension. Just like the sun happens to be the perfect distance from the earth. The tide’s only go so high. We have the perfect temperature where you don’t freeze to death. All you’ve got to do is walk outside and look around and go, Oh my God. Lord, how do we even comprehend Your intelligence, Your creative life force permeates every atom. Everything is just Your pure love.

AW: This sense of wholeness, has it intensified in the past few years? I never remember you as being so focused on this realm.

MG: Oh, yeah, I’d say it’s intensified. Since this last Olympics, I spent more time doing what I want to do and not running around with my head cut off. If I don’t want to go to a regatta, I don’t go. My coach yells at me, Do this, you’ve got to do this for funding or. . . and I’m like, Hey, if I don’t have guidance or energy to do it, I’m not going to do it. There’s been a sense of peace. I’m not reacting as much to what other people think I am or who I should be. That brings peace. When you have peace in life, you have more clarity. And when you have more clarity, you have a better relationship with self, with the universe. Like everyone else, someone will say something derogatory and I’ll get knocked off kilter, and I’ve got to work on that. For about three months before the Olympics I got into yoga, I really got into meditation,  every morning.

AW: So you have a mixture of Christianity and Buddhist meditation?

MG: Well, you know, the great mystics, all the great saints meditated. It’s the key. All you’ve got to do is read the Bible and you’ll find Christ meditating all the time, sometimes for forty days. How many times did He pray and do His inner work? His disciples couldn’t even stay awake with him, the night when Judas came and betrayed him. The more I travel, the more I realize that many Christians say, that because other cultures have a different concept of God, that they don’t have their relationship with God, that they are condemned. This is what I had a problem with when I was young. We have a just and loving God, he/she is not someone who says, Oh, you have to believe. People who live in a jungle their whole life never have any concept of another culture, let alone Christianity, but they aren’t going to hell. A baby who’s born who’s never accepted Christ in his heart isn’t going to hell. I don’t believe that. I believe hell is the inner-torment that comes within you. It can extend further than that. I believe that you will experience it if you feel you should.

AW: What do you tell someone who’s mother, or sister, or young daughter, dies, say, by the age of two, for no reason? And the grief that goes through that family. How do you respond when they say, If there’s a God, how can God allow something like this to happen? This is the reason we don’t believe in God.

MG: Why do people think that God has to do what they want? That’s what always kind of amazes me. It’s a perspective. When you make that connection to divinity through, say meditation and prayer, and you start surrendering, you really are given insight to the fact that everything you’ve experienced in your life is good, even what you consider to be bad! You can’t comprehend what you need to experience. Because if who you truly are is an aspect of God, there is never any separation. In our culture, for example, we’re conditioned to think that death is bad, and birth is good. Death is another form of birth. It’s an endless cycle. It is becoming really clear to me that we are not the body. Death is going to happen to you, too. So die now, give up all your desires, and surrender. Just be. Like Zen, as a separate offshoot from Buddhism, they talked about just being. The Tao te Ching, is about just being. Finally stop trying and just be. In the Hindu scriptures of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says that the observer is that which you are. I am that, which that I am, or something like that. It’s kind of self-circle. Stop looking outside for God and realize that you are that.

american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_spread11-s
(enlarge)

But it’s truly beyond our comprehension to understand why things happen. Surrender yourself to God’s will and give up attachment. There’s always still attachment to someone you love, and you can’t console anyone at that point. You know, it’s almost cruel to say, Well, everybody’s got to die, and it’s going to happen to you. But, if you think about it, the person who’s dead isn’t suffering. Are we really mourning their death, or are we mourning our own personal loss? So, it’s a selfish pain that we feel, but how do you handle that with love and reverence? Because it is life, you know, life is sacred. But life is sometimes turmoil. You’re not the body, you’re the spirit, a soul. And God made man in his own image. Not a physical image, but in his spiritual image. It’s an image beyond our concepts. When people talk about psychics and seeing the etheric body or the astral body, there’s infinite layers of who you are, the real you, the Atma. It has nothing to do with your name or your culture, or what family you’re from, or wealth, or your belief in Christ or sorcerism or whatever.

AW: What do you say to somebody who doesn’t believe in faith, doesn’t believe in God?

MG: When people don’t believe, there’s nothing you can say. You have to honor that. It’s hard for me to do, you know. I get so consumed by being Christ-centered that I think everybody should just be totally high on life. If you truly love each person and see the Christ-consciousness for them, then you’ve got to accept that they’ve made that choice, and trust that they are where they need to be. It’s hard to do. It’s all God’s will anyways. Especially when someone you love is doing something that maybe you’ve done. You say, I’ve already gone through this, don’t do that. You can’t give people that perspective. It is not their reality until they experience it themselves, and it is then their truth. Truth is not something that is given to someone. It’s something that you develop from your own relationship with self.

american_windsurfer_5.2_mike_gebhardt_1yoga-s
(enlarge)

AW: When you say Christ-conscious, what do you mean?

MG: Good question! [both laughing] I have to go back to who I think Christ is. Christ is the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Keeper of the Light, someone who came to show the potential of all humans, not to say Worship Me in order to save your butt.

We are all the sons of God, that’s what He came to show. He told His disciples, All these things I have done, ye shall do greater. . . if you have but the faith of a mustard seed. He just showed what is possible when the living consciousness of God is awakened inside us. Jesus was the individual, but Christ was the consciousness that He merged into. It is a surrender of his will to God’s will, death of His own personal ego. The ultimate symbol of that is the willingness being nailed to the cross. Believe me, somebody who had done all those great miracles could’ve stopped that situation. I mean, He knew the situation well before it happened. Read John and Matthew in the Bible, and you’ll see that inner struggle that He had, surrendering, to God’s will. He kept saying, Not my will Lord, but Thine. It’s that battle between His ego, Jesus, the individual, wanting to hold on to this is who I am. He already had shown or surrendered, to that greater whole. There is no where else to go, but to merge with God. You can’t run from it.

I don’t think life is to be wasted, that’s for sure. The only thing you can do to change people is live your life as an example the best you can. Be true to yourself.


Michael Gebhardt is planning another Olympic campaign before moving on in life.


by John Chao

Publisher/Editor of American Windsurfer is a former photojournalist for GEO, National Geographic and Time-Life Magazines.

photos by Annie Leibowitz

Perhaps the biggest name in the photographic world today, Annie Leibowitz is acknowledged by many to be the greatest portrait photographer alive today.

Your Name (required)

Your Email (required)

Suggested correction

Your Name (required)

Your Email (required)

Suggest an article topic