The top 5 lessons Alexander Rossi taught us by winning the Indy 500

By John Jensen/used with permission Alexander Rossi, drenched in traditional cold milk, celebrates his Indy 500 win in the winner's circle.

By John Jensen/used with permission
Alexander Rossi, drenched in traditional cold milk, celebrates his Indy 500 win in the winner’s circle.

Alexander Rossi, the rookie winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 race, taught some lessons yesterday. Were you paying attention?

Some of the lessons were ones you likely learned at some point, but maybe have forgotten. Some of them maybe you never thought of or never learned.

Here are five lessons that we all should take to heart:

You don’t have to be the fastest.

People will debate whether the 24-year-old from California had the fastest car out there. While he had the fastest lap of the race at 225.288 miles per hour, drivers James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay led more laps than Rossi. (Hinchcliffe led 27; Hunter-Reay led 52; Rossi led 14.) Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Townsend Bell also had fast cars.

In fact, at one point in the race, Rossi was 33rd. That’s last place at Indy.

You don’t have to have the most experience.

Rossi didn’t have the most experience. In fact, he became an IndyCar driver in February. Before that, he was a rising driver in Formula One, trying to make a career of it. But he hadn’t raced on an oval track until April, just two months ago, according to USA Today.

Rossi was the ninth rookie to win the race in its 100-year history, and the first rookie to win in 15 years, according to ESPN.

You don’t have to have the most money.

Bryan Herta’s IndyCar team merged with Andretti Autosport, headed by Michael Andretti, in the offseason, and had to do that to have an IndyCar this year, according to USA Today. That partnership paid off well for both teams.

Sometimes, you have to take risks.

While all other car teams were planning when to stop one more time for “a splash” of fuel, Rossi’s team was calculating speed and distance, and trying to determine whether, with smart driving, it could get that car to the checkered flag without a pit stop.

The team also had to consider various scenarios of what would happen if the caution flag came out anytime during those last laps. A caution flag can make or break you when it comes to racing.

The team decided it would try to conserve fuel when it could and not bring the car in for even a bare-minimum pit stop. Rossi drove 36 laps without taking on fuel. No other car drove more than 31 laps without stopping for gas, according to USA Today.

Always, you have to run your race, not anyone else’s.

While other teams were trying to figure out when to come in for fuel, and wondering/worrying when everyone else was going to do that, Rossi’s team figured out a strategy and stuck with it. And it paid off. They came in first, won the historic Indy 500 and coasted across the finish line at a cool 179 miles per hour while other cars were driving the full-out 220+ miles per hour to try to win.

In fact, Rossi cut it so close that the car didn’t even have enough gas to get around the track for his victory lap. He had to be towed in.

In post-race interviews, Rossi said, “I just focused on doing the best job I could.”

Now that’s a lesson for all of us.

Titanic sinking was tragic, but USS Indianapolis survivors battled starvation and sharks

By Kat Merrill Edgar Harrell holds a model of the plane that first began rescuing USS Indianapolis survivors from the sea.

By Kat Merrill
Edgar Harrell holds a model of the plane that first began rescuing USS Indianapolis survivors from the sea.

It’s hard to imagine that many people have not heard the story of the RMS Titanic.

The largest Olympic-class ocean liner in history up to that point struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage April 15, 1912, and went down in the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Because she didn’t have nearly enough lifeboats on board for all the passengers and crew, more than 1,500 people froze to death and/or drowned that night off the coast of Newfoundland.

That was a terrible tragedy, but so was the wartime sinking of the USS Indianapolis, a story about which you may not have heard.

The heavy cruiser was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine just after midnight July 30, 1945, in the last weeks of World War II. Of the nearly 1,200 men that were on the ship, an estimated 900 survived the blasts from two missiles and went into the water. They were cold and soaked with oil from the ship, and many of them were injured.

But because the ship wasn’t given an escort by the U.S. Navy, to which it belonged, no one from the American side knew that the ship had been hit and she therefore wasn’t reported missing. For five days, the men battled the cold of the Philippine Sea, their injuries, the lack of food or drinkable water and, even more horrifying, sharks.

One by one, the men, many of them really not much more than boys, drowned, died of their injuries or were attacked by the sharks. When they were finally rescued, there were only 317 left.

I recently had the honor to meet and speak with one of those survivors, one of only 23 still alive today.

I can’t remember a time in my life when a crowd of people was as silent as they were on this night, when Edgar Harrell spent nearly two hours recounting those terrible days, one by one. I was so stunned by the story, and so mesmerized by Harrell’s retelling of it, that I didn’t take a single note. Several times during the former Marine’s talk, I realized my mouth was literally hanging open. I wasn’t the only one.

Harrell was only 20 years old at the time. He’s 91 now. Hearing him speak about the experience, shaking his hand and thanking him for his service were among the best moments of my life. I bought his book, “Out of The Depths: An Unforgettable WWII Story of Survival, Courage, and the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis,” and he signed it for me, saying, “God’s best to you. Semper Fi.”

U.S. Naval Institute Alfred Sedivi, the USS Indianapolis' photographer, died in the disaster.

U.S. Naval Institute
Alfred Sedivi, the USS Indianapolis’ photographer, died in the disaster.

Harrell’s appearance was part of the opening of a traveling exhibit of photos from the ship’s photographer, Alfred Sedivi, who took photos of the sailors and Marines during their time on the ship. He also “captured the aftermath of the battles on Tinian, Saipan, Guam, Tarawa and Iwo Jima,” according to the U.S. Naval Institute. “His photos survived the war because he secretly sent them home to his family until the days before his ship’s fatal mission.”

He also gave them to his buddies, who also often sent them home.

The photos are moving and poignant, and I was brought to tears several times while viewing them, thinking about the fact that most of the men in them didn’t survive the ordeal.

A treat that night was that the people in the audience were the first to see the trailer of the coming film “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage,” starring Nicolas Cage. I will definitely be at the theater to see it.

You can learn more about the exhibit and the ship here.

And you can learn about and purchase Harrell’s book here.

U.S. Naval Institute The USS Indianapolis

U.S. Naval Institute
The USS Indianapolis

Mother’s Day lessons had to be learned the hard way

Lola still looking down and sad on her second day after her emergency.

Here is Lola still looking down and sad on the second day after her emergency.

As a Motherless Daughter, I dread Mother’s Day and I try to lay low and let the day pass by. However, this year, I had some lessons to learn.

I went out of town Saturday night and while away, I got a call saying my German Shepherd, who was staying with my dad, was not well. After many questions, I was reassured she would be OK until I got back. I certainly didn’t think it was something serious.

The next morning, as I and a friend traveled home, I called my dad to see how Lola was doing. The news was not good. She had been down and in the same place all night, unwilling to even lift her head, and certainly not eating or drinking.

I know some people don’t think of pets as anything but animals and they don’t see what the big deal is about having them. But Lola is my daughter in every sense of the word. I am responsible for her health and welfare, I have taught her nearly everything she knows, I spend time and money on taking care of her and making sure she’s happy and well-adjusted, and I have built some part of my life around her.

My mom was my champion, my cheerleader, my best friend and a huge part of my support system. When I was little, she was my protector and my provider. I am now all of those things to my dog. I have become a mom.

I raced home to my little girl thinking how cruel it would be if my daughter died on Mother’s Day. I was already missing my mom, who died two years ago. Could the day get any worse? Indeed, it could.

Lola’s fever was high. She couldn’t even stand to greet me. She barely lifted part of her head, just enough so one eye could meet mine, and just the tip of her tail tapped the floor twice. My dad had called two strong men to carry her 95-pound body to my SUV. They carried her in a blanket and laid her down gently. (I’ll never forget the sight of those three grown men standing at the end of the driveway crying as I pulled away.)

Road construction and traffic hampered my drive to get Lola to the emergency animal hospital as soon as possible. But although I felt like I was dying inside, I handled the crisis with clarity and some sense of calm. My mom had always done the same when, as my dad likes to say, sh*t hit the fan. She was cool under pressure, doing her best to push off her feelings until the storm passed. I now did the same during the two-hour drive to my dad’s house and another nearly hour to the hospital.

But I have to confess that as a doctor and a tech put Lola onto a cart and rushed her through the double doors that said “No unauthorized entry,” I did not think I would get to bring my daughter home again. I had been at this point three times before in my life, with a shepherd in crisis that would not get to return home. There are few things I can think of that are as terrible as heading to the vet with a sick dog, hoping they will make it better, but instead coming home with just a collar and leash.

Five days later, I am sitting in my chair with my beloved child at my feet, writing this column. Every day and night, I have kept her quiet and safe and as comfortable as possible. I have slept little, waking every three to four hours each night to make sure she has her various medicines and that she’s resting comfortably. I have eaten smartly, so I can keep my strength up and not get sick while my daughter is counting on me not to fail.

Lola has two days of mandatory bed rest to go, and she’s getting better every day. I feel relieved that we’re at this point today. I feel thankful for my mom teaching me how to do the hardest job in the world. And I think she would be proud of the mother I’ve become. Here’s to a better Mother’s Day next year!

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom, wherever you may be


Do you ever wish a holiday would just drop off the map?

I do, because it’s that time of year again when I’m getting emails in my inbox reminding me to buy flowers or candy or some other type of present for my mom for Mother’s Day.

Is it just me or is Mother’s Day on steroids this year? It’s everywhere I turn – in the stores, in the newspaper, on the radio, on the Internet. Maybe it’s that way every year. Maybe it just seems so in my face because I miss her so much.

I recently moved near where my dad lives, and my mom didn’t live too far from him. For many years, when I came “home” to visit, I spent time with each of them. And now, she should be here. But she isn’t.

People ask other people, and people have asked me, “What are you doing for Mother’s Day?” Well, my mom died two and a half years ago. What are you supposed to do with Mother’s Day when you’re not a mother and your mother is no more? What do you do when you’re one of the Motherless Daughters?

Unbelievably, a distant family member swooped in and stole my mother’s ashes from the place that handled her arrangements after she “graduated” from medical school. (I had to fight distant family members to even make sure her body was donated to a medical school like she wanted, but that’s another story.) I still remember my shock when the guy said, “I’m sorry, we sent her to so and so.” Of course, they never contacted me to see if that was what I wanted, but instead just assumed that person was telling the truth when he requested it behind my back.

I felt horrible about that for about a week, until a good friend came to my house for a visit. When I tearfully told him what happened, he said one of the greatest things anyone has ever said to me: “Well, think about it this way. You got all of those years with her, and all of her love and all of those memories, and all he got was a box of ash.”

An overwhelming feeling of peace immediately came over me and I haven’t been upset about the theft since, because he was right: I got all the best of my mom during all of the years we had together. He also pointed out something else to me: She isn’t gone from me.

Throughout the week after that conversation, I really thought about what he said about her not being gone and then I realized he was right. She is with me every day.

I can hear her in my voice when I get excited or silly, or when I talk to my animals. I do the same higher pitch then.

I can see her in my hand whenever I sign my name. I worked hard when I was a teen to mimic her elegant cursive, and if you looked at our signatures, you would immediately see the resemblance.

I can feel her in my smile whenever I pose for a “good” photo. (My mom was a teenage beauty queen who taught me how to smile for “good” photos.)

I can hear her in the advice I give to friends – be kind, to yourself and others; do the right thing; love everyone, always.

I guess for Mother’s Day, I will remember my mom and wish she was still here. I’ll ache about feeling like an orphan. And I’ll hug my dad a little tighter, because he’s the only parent I have left.

Do you still have your mom? If not, what do you do for Mother’s Day? If this post spoke to you, please share it.