Penn State Altoona Commencement Speech

Posted by Darren Miller Category: Blog
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I was honored a few weeks back to give the commencement speech at the Penn State Altoona Spring graduation. I wanted to pass along the script I used because many of my family and friends have not yet had the opportunity to hear what I typically speak about. I wrote out the podium speech to make sure I kept it under the prescribed 20-minute address, since I have a tendency to go on for long periods of time! This was especially difficult, as I typically pace and interact with my audience. The speech was very special to me, as not only was my family in attendance, but the opportunity to address the collegiate level meant the world to me. It opened a lot of doors with my involvement at Penn State (my Alma Mater) as well as introducing me to plenty of young people who were eager to tell me about their hopes and dreams! I am currently mentoring a few of these young men and women and help guide them with more effective ways to get their charitable voice heard.

Please feel free to give feedback, as I love the opportunity to grow any way I can!

Cheers to living life on all cylinders. May we always do what we can to INSPIRE and MOTIVATE!!



July 10, 2012 I jumped off my escort boat into the ocean at 4:15AM for the beginning of my Tsugaru Channel attempt. The sun was starting to rise to an overcast sky in northern Japan, as my crew and I were excited for another charitable adventure to support the Forever Fund at the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Instead of touching the rock wall and pushing off for the start, I was stubborn, and chose to climb out on a large boulder just off the northern coast of Honshu. Marathon swimming rules specifically state to start out of the water, swim across, and finish out of the water without receiving any assistance outside of occasional feedings from the boat crew. I wear nothing but a speedo, cap and goggles. The blowing wind churned up the sea, and as I navigated the sketchy rock ledge, I realized I had made a poor decision. A rogue wave caught me from the left side, and caused me to slip, cutting my shins, forearm and left hand. I looked down at my legs, up to the ominous sky, to the boat and crew, and down at my legs again as they continued to bleed out on top of my feet and onto the slippery rock below. I had a choice to make. Jump into the dark, foreboding ocean while bleeding into water known to be inhabited by predatory sharks, or quit, and lose out on months of training and the possibility of not having another opportunity in the immediate future. I was told it should take about 8-hours to complete.

One of the greatest pieces of advice I ever received came from a US Navy Seal who had lost much of his platoon while engaged in conflict. He found solace through endurance running to raise money for his fallen comrades. He said, ‘do something every day that you do not want to do’. This could be as simple as waking early for a morning run when we’re tired, or maybe giving up a few hours of our busy schedule to volunteer. Imagine if we did 365 things a year which took us out of our comfort zone? We all know what it is like to hit the snooze alarm, but that comfort, at that very moment, is what we all cherish too much. When we learn to deny ourselves comfort, we begin to learn what it means to push beyond our normal boundaries. Sport psychologists call it the ‘hardening process’, as we build mental strength each and every time we are denied comfort, and push through to its completion. The first time I experienced this came with my first marathon run in 2008. I was a 250 pound weightlifter, and was about twice the size of anyone else running. Looking for a way to get back into shape, I randomly chose a marathon when I never ran a footrace in my life. On 96-degree day on a mountain range in the middle of north central Pennsylvania, I learned firsthand the definition of pain. The run taught me a lot of things, but most importantly, it taught me that I was capable of something I didn’t know was possible. It triggered something in me that day to ask, “What else am I capable of?” It was the single, greatest feeling that has ever come over me.

Since that first marathon, I completed several others before making an attempt at a 50-mile ultra-marathon in June 2009. The race came a few weeks after breaking a metatarsal bone in my right foot. Against my surgeon’s wishes, I ran the distance and once again felt the true meaning of pain. I had to wear a walking boot for several months while the bone healed. It was during that time I read the book, ‘Swimming to Antarctica’ about a young Lynne Cox and how she embarked on some incredible swims around the world – including one between the United States and Russia. That swim between the Diomede Islands eased political tension during the Cold War and was given praise by both Ronald Regan and Mikhail Gorbachev. One amazing moment in time where swimming helped change the course of history.

I loved the idea of open water swimming, yet did not have any clue on how to train for the distance and the cold. It was the challenge to figure it out that drove me. One night, my friend Cathy was looking for a way to honor her father who had passed on after open heart surgery, so I pitched to her my idea to fund the cost for me to attempt the English Channel in his honor. We started the Forever Fund, which helps families of the infant cardiothoracic ward at the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh afford the small costs involved while caring for their child at the hospital. After a long, hard road of training, on July 19, 2010 I successfully crossed 22-miles of 58-degree water from England to France in 12 hours and 4 minutes.

Upon returning from England, I once again was looking for the next challenge in my life, as I always found it vital to have a goal always in front of me. I became more inspired by reading about endurance athletes who were pushing the bar higher to help their fundraising efforts. I came across the ‘Oceans Seven’, a collection of seven marathon swims across five continents which had yet to be completed. After gaining the Trustmont Financial Group as a title sponsor, I proceeded to push through one challenge after another for the next three years of my life. I have swum some of the most difficult bodies of water on the planet, powering through the pain of fatigue and hypothermia, as well as swimming alongside threatening marine life. I became the first swimmer in the world to achieve the ‘Oceans Seven’ on all first attempts; however these accolades do not me more special than anyone else. I accomplished what I did because of hard work, dedication and perseverance to know that anything is possible when you JUST BELIEVE IN YOURSELF. Something we are all capable of. However, if I am remembered as a marathon swimmer, than I have failed. I want to be remembered as a man, who was not afraid of hard work, inspired others to volunteer and challenged everyone to answer their calling in life – no questions asked. We must learn to leverage our God-given talents to make the world a more beautiful place.

I am consistently met with individuals who ask me about the secret to living a healthy lifestyle. People expect me to give them an undisclosed ‘recipe’ on how to achieve success. Here is the recipe – hard work, dedication and sacrifice. Quit shoveling junk into your bodies for the sake of the quick fix, in the same way, quit shoveling the destructive media into your mind. Are you posting negative comments, or are you leveraging social media to inspire and motivate others? How amazing would it be to pull up your News Feed on Facebook and see nothing but healthy, positive energy? You see, people ‘want’ the feeling of being healthy and energized, but they do not want to make the sacrifice to achieve success. They will never know what it feels like to be in shape and experience the endorphin release that makes you want to take on the world. It hurts when you pull muscles, push through grueling workouts and lie broken on the playing field, but through the ‘war’ you become a more mentally tough father, mother, brother, sister or mentor. I’m not a doctor, a counselor or your life coach. What I am is a common, ordinary man who has been battle tested on more than few occasions, and came out a much stronger person. It is an honor to be here with you on this special day.

Our society has become too accustomed to hearing what we want, and not what we need to be told. There was a time when God was first, men were men and mothers were not trying to be their daughter’s best friend. They were the ‘Greatest Generation’ and were responsible for building the moral and ethical fabric of the country we love. The best reward I ever received was from a WWII veteran who stood up and saluted me after finishing a speech. I got an email the following day from the host, and he mentioned the veteran said ‘I did not know they made them like that anymore’. That meant the world to me, as I had earned the respect of one of America’s heroes who fought through more than I could ever imagine. The message sent was one of praise, but also a wake-up call to my generation who struggle to understand the values of respect and honor. For me, it is a hard pill to swallow we are viewed this way. We all need to learn what it takes to get our hands dirty, scrape our knees and teach our children to take the pain because it’s a tough world out there. When you exit the walls of dear old State, you will be going out on your own. You will meet people who are jealous of your talents they do not possess, and even though you do the right thing, they want to see you fail. They want this fix for themselves because they are not mentally strong and determined as you are. We all face these ‘sharks’ in our daily routine. Learn to dismiss them and never let them steer you from your goal.

We all have a different definition of success. If money is what drives you, sadly, you will never be successful at life. You will learn that there is more than material things. On a weekly basis, I interact with clients who have significant net worth. Some of the hardest stories are about regret for not being around their families more as their children were growing up, or spending more time with their spouse. We should focus on our careers, and become financially successful, however there has to be an equal focus on the aspects that are just as important – our families and our passions.  A recent study showed there are more than 25 million, millionaires in the world. You think by making that much will make you special? That same study showed that there are almost 2,000 billionaires in the world. Will becoming a billionaire make you special? Once again, the answer is no. Our focus and drive should be modeled after those who have truly changed the course of history. Put yourself in the shoes of Martin Luther King Jr. as he walked the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, or imagine what it was like to be Mother Theresa as she cared for the children in the slums of Calcutta, India. All the money in the world could never mold someone as historic. The possibility of you being remembered alongside their names in history is a real possibility. Success should never be driven by what is in your pocketbook, but by how you are giving back to a society that needs you more than anything right now.

Volunteerism is something each and every one of us should be incorporating into our lives. We have all been given the gift of health, and that is enough to wake up every day with a big smile and be thankful for the blessing to be alive. I’ve taken quite a beating in the oceans around the world, but I know that no matter what pain I am going through, it is nothing compared to the struggle that others go through. On my first trip through the cardiothoracic ward, I didn’t realize there were infants attached to a roomful of machinery in each room; because they were so small I couldn’t even tell they were on the table. If you want to know real pain, look into a mother’s eyes as she is holding her child that is losing their fight to congenital heart disease. Even tougher, imagine hearing the story of the same mother describe what it was like to say ‘good bye’ as the funeral director zipped her two-month old in a small body bag and pushed him away on a cart.

We all have been given a life that young man did not receive. He didn’t get a chance to grow up big and strong, go to college and tackle the world in the way we all have the ability to do. Maybe he could have become the next President, cured cancer or simply became a wonderful father. We have to go through the darkness, in order to see the light. If you do not realize what you have been given, then how will you ever appreciate life? When you volunteer, you show those who struggle that you care. You give hope to the hopeless, and strength for others to get up from their knees. You may even find a cause worthy enough to dedicate your life to. When we volunteer, we show an appreciation for life. We lend a helping hand to those who need our strength when they are at their weakest. I always find the greatest joy of life is when we are helping others.

I am often asked what I think about when I am out there all alone; swimming the miles of Keystone Lake in the early morning, or through some dark night in an ocean on the other side of the world. The truth is I am never alone. In our sport, we have the support boat, and the kayaker in the water. However, the most important to me is the ‘Third Boat’ – the one that no one else but I see. Aboard that boat are my grandparents, who lived the amazing example of why it was important to give back to others. They are, and always will be my heroes. Aside my grandparents’, manning the rowing, is my Uncle Mike. Aside from being the smartest man I’ve ever met, he taught my brother and me an amazing lesson on entrepreneurialism – “find something you love to do, and get someone to pay you to do it.” A message I am working toward every time I speak. The boat also has my friend Summer who lost her life at 23, and my friend Jimmy whose heart failed him at the same age. It even has baby Ben from the hospital, smiling as I swim alongside. When I am suffering, and do not feel like I can take another stroke, they give me a smile, and remind me how amazing it is to be alive.

The hard question we all have to ask ourselves is how do we want to be remembered? In the end, the legacy we leave behind is the single greatest testament to how we lived. Do we want to be remembered as someone who ‘just got by’, never took any risks and were too afraid of their own shadow to see what they could become? Life is a timeline drawn along a chalkboard. While we sometimes live recklessly in the belief that we are going to be here forever, the truth is that today could in fact be our last. Have we lived our lives the best way we can, or is there something out there we desire to achieve yet never seem to find the strength to take that first step? Today is a beautiful day to get started on your dreams. Maybe you’ll be taking a risk, maybe it will hurt and I’m sure it will take you out of your comfort zone.  I promise you, despite the pain, you will make it through – just never give up until the mission is complete. I take that to heart. I only have ‘Plan A’ in my life. Plan B will never exist, because Plan B means failure. The hardening process taught me to never give up despite any obstacle in my path. We fail in life because we give ourselves a Plan B in case Plan A doesn’t work out. Failure is never an option.

If you never take the chance, then you are never living the life that many of those children I’ve worked with wish they could have had. You are living a life of a coward – the single worst thing imaginable. If you want to get me fired up, come and tell me how tough your day is, because I would be glad to give a hundred examples of those who have it much worse. I have one fear – lying awake during my final hour and wishing I had done something different with my life.

I chose to jump off the rock that day into the unknown because I have always found that we tend to overanalyze our decisions in life. We need to think less, and just attack our goals with everything we have. There was not a chance I would have got out before giving the Tsugaru Channel everything I had. Once we learn to quit, it becomes a habit. It turned out to be the most difficult challenge I faced thus far, as the Sea of Japan grew angry that day, and left me in a war against the elements. After the projected 8-hours I realized I was nowhere near Hokkaido, and I was told on an hourly basis that I was still 5-miles from shore. As the time crept up, and the sun was beginning to fall, all I could control was my mental hardening to keep believing in myself that anything was possible. 13-hours into the swim, the water temperature dropped 8-degrees, and the air temperature followed suit. It was cold, getting dark and well past my expected completion time, but still, there was no way I was getting out, despite the onset of physical and mental fatigue. Around the 14th hour, I noticed a large, dark, shadowy figure swam directly underneath me. I grit down on my teeth and continued to push hard, one stroke at a time, as I knew there was nothing that could be done about it anyway. On July 10, 2012, it took me 15 hours, 55 minutes to complete the Tsugaru Channel – the hardest challenge I have yet to face. I am very thankful I never gave up the fight. The pain was there to remind me I was still alive.

I have traveled across the world, and wherever I find myself, it seems that I always run into someone who graduated from Penn State. This school is much more than an institution, it is a family. Be proud and honored, as my family and I are, to have been educated alongside some of the finest men and women in the workforce today. As a child, some of my most fond memories involve weekends spent watching football at Beaver Stadium. I will always remember how our family would gather in the fields, pitch a few tables behind our vehicle and lay out quite a spread of food. My brother and I would begin to throw the football as the faint sound of the Blue Band played in the distance. After our meal, we packed up and crowed alongside more than 110,000 of our closest friends as we cheered our beloved Lions into battle.

A legendary coach who wore striped black shoes, khaki pants, white shirts and thick glasses said it best – “Believe deep down in your heart that you are destined for great things.” Find your path to help lead the charge to bring this country back to the powerhouse it once was. It all begins with you. The opportunities we have, and what we want to achieve are right in front of us. Never be afraid to live the adventure that calls, because it just might be the greatest thing that has ever happened to you. Blaze your own path, and never let anyone tell you to not go after each and every dream you want to achieve. Share your gifts, inspire those who struggle and never be afraid of hard work.

America has enough sheep – time to wake up the Lions.

Thank you.