Date Published: January 30, 2019
Paralympian Deb Gruen exemplifies the power of optimism. Born with spina bifida, Gruen stayed positive, focused on her strengths, and through hard work became a two-time Paralympic medalist. A graduate of Yale and Georgetown, Gruen is now a successful lawyer in New York City. She explains how setting realistic expectations and the power of positivity can help you overcome life’s toughest challenges.
Optimism ignites resilience, providing energy to power the other resilience factors that can help anyone become stronger. It facilitates an active and creative approach to coping with challenging situations.
How do you stay optimistic during the most stressful and difficult times? Some may think it's impossible based on their circumstances, but if you train yourself to think positively, this can help you get past any challenges that come your way. Now you may remember we mentioned Dr. Stephen Southwick, a world expert in resilience was going to join us this month and talk about this. But then he recommended someone who truly exemplifies the power of optimism. Her name is Deb Gruen and you will be amazed with what she's accomplished. This 31 year old has overcome so many obstacles in her life, but what's so incredible is that she doesn't see things that way. To her, positivity and resilience is second nature, and we can all learn something from her story.
Welcome Deb, thank you so much for being with us for this podcast.
Deb Gruen: 00:44
Sure, my pleasure. Thank you.
Let's start from the beginning. You were born with spina bifida, a severe disability. Some may not know what that is. So I'm going to let you explain.
Deb Gruen: 00:54
Sure. So I have spina bifida, and it means that the signal from my brain doesn't quite get to my legs. It's a physical disability. The way it manifests in me is that it affects predominantly the way I walk and the way I move my legs. I walk with two canes which assist me and I wear braces to help me pick up my legs. And so I walk slower than the average person, it's harder for me to get up and down the steps and again, my gate is not quite normal the way it would be for someone else.
You had a surgery the day after you were born?
Deb Gruen: 01:22
And a total of five surgeries before you were even five years old. What kind of an impact did this have on you and your family?
Deb Gruen: 01:31
I just remember waking up having to learn to walk after that. I had pink crutches that I could use and it was really important to my dad that I get off of the crutches and I start walking with canes because he wanted me to be as functional as possible and to have the least amount of dependence on crutches or canes as possible in my life. So the physical therapy after that final surgery was quite intense and it just meant that I had to devote everything I knew, all my time and my energy to learn how to walk the best I could, it was just delayed. My dad was very influential in making sure that I walked. It was incredibly important to him that I never be dependent on anyone-- that I could live in New York City, that I could walk up and down the stairs, that I would never be in a building that was on fire and couldn't get out. And so he every day forced me to go out and to practice walking. And it's probably where I get the idea now that to be good at something, you just have to practice by rote force.
That really laid the groundwork for your life?
Deb Gruen: 02:39
Yes, exactly. I mean, to this day even in my work, I just think that the way to become good at something is to continue to practice.
Tell us about what it was like growing up with spina bifida? I'm sure you faced a number of challenges.
Deb Gruen: 02:53
Yeah. Like I said before, it affects how I walk. I can't run. So you know, in elementary school we would have gym class and we would play kickball and we would play tag and we would play all that stuff. So they had to have special rules. Or I had special accommodations because I couldn't play with the other kids.
Is there a certain instance that stands out for you that really took a mental toll?
Deb Gruen: 03:17
When I was in middle school, we had an annual field trip to Washington, D.C. and it's a lot of walking. And at first the school was resistant about my going and initially said, no, the only way for you to go is to use a wheelchair. Which made me very upset because I fought my entire life to be out of a wheelchair and then I decided that I was just going to prove them wrong and walked up to the top of the Lincoln Memorial with the other kids and back down again. And that was the last time the school ever told me I wasn't going to be able to do anything again.
You weren't willing to give up and your parents weren't going to let you give up either?
Deb Gruen: 03:51
Right, exactly. Like saying, "No, I can't do this," was just not an option in my house, and it's not an option in today's world, either. I always knew I would be successful, but I don't think I would have imagined what I've accomplished.
Do you think that in a way your disability has helped you become successful?
Deb Gruen: 04:07
It certainly shaped who I am as an individual. It taught me to work hard. It taught me to move on. It taught me that, you know, you're going to encounter some challenges in your life and you're going to have to figure out how to deal with them. But it's just kind of part of who I am.
How did you get involved in athletics? Who pushed you in that direction?
Deb Gruen: 04:26
So I started swimming because my sister was swimming and then I went in the water and was like, wow, I don't need any support in the water. And then I would start playing tag with other kids like sharks and minnows and was like, I'm quite good. And then I started practicing more and more. And then once I started swimming year round, so everyone had to try out for the team. And there was a coach there, his name was Rick Lucan. And I tried out and he would be like dead, like, can you do a 25 fly? And I was like, of course I can do a 25 fly. So I did that. Can you do backstroke? Of course I can do backstroke. So I just, I did that. And then he said, well, I see no problem with you on this team. Like, you can keep up, it's fine. You're not in any pain. Like this is good for you and you should. And Rick was really my first coach and he pushed me very hard too, and I think he enjoyed, too, the fact that I had a disability because it, it's a challenge for a coach, too. So I started swimming competitively when I was seven or eight years old, but it wasn't until I was like 11 or 12 that I found out about Paralympics swimming.
So the Paralympics refers to the Olympics for people with disabilities. And when I found out about it and I looked at the times, I was like, "Oh, I qualify for nationals, I'm good." So I went to my first disabled swim meet and was very successful. And then I went to Paralympic trials that year in 2000. So I was 12 years old at the time and it was in Indianapolis and they were the Sydney trials. And I got there and I did well, but I didn't make the team. And I was shocked because I was like, oh, I set like an American record. I won all my events. Why didn't I get picked for the team? You know, like what happened? And I didn't know at the time, but Paralympic swimming is very fast. And what I didn't realize is that, okay, it's great that I'm good in the United States, but in order to qualify for an international meet means I need to be very fast in the world. And this was the first time it dawned on me that like Paralympic swimming is really serious, so me swimming six times a week just wasn't gonna cut it. So I got back from this meet and was like okay, I need to start doing doubles and I need to start cross training and I need to devote my life to qualifying for the Athens team. And for me too, it wasn't enough to just get selected for the team, I wanted to metal. It's great because you have this goal and that's all you think about and it's worth it.
And because of that mindset, Deb earned a bronze medal in the Athens Paralympic Games at the age of 16. She then set a number of national and world swimming records and became a bronze medalist again at the next Paralympics in Beijing.
Deb Gruen: 07:08
That was incredible to me. Like, wow. Like I just had the race of my life. Like it doesn't get any better than this. It was like the true example of your hard work pays off. I hate to use cliches, but that was kind of it. I mean, I dedicated myself after Athens to doing as well as I possibly could. When I looked at colleges, the first thing I said to the coach when I was meeting with them was like, I want a medal in Beijing. I knew I was not going to win the 100-meter breaststroke, just the given the classification system. So it was important to me to know, I'm not going to win a gold medal, but I do think I can metal.
How did optimism contribute to your athletic success?
Deb Gruen: 07:49
I mean, I always just wanted to do better. I wanted to go faster, right, I just wanted to beat the person next to me. I wanted to be on the metal stand.
When it came to academics for you, you had the same mindset as you did in swimming.
Deb Gruen: 08:04
Oh, for sure.
You wanted to push yourself.
Deb Gruen: 08:07
And set tremendous goals.
Deb Gruen: 08:09
Yeah. And I don't sit there and think about goals like, okay, I have to get "X" on the SAT in order to do this. You tend to be good at the things you like. So I, if I liked the class, I just pushed myself in it because I liked it. You know, I wanted to do well. I was interested in it. My goal in high school was to do well that that was it. Point blank to do well. And when they told me you should consider Yale, you should consider Harvard, you should consider MIT. I was shocked. Like, are you really talking to me? Is this, are you serious? I never thought of myself as that good. Like as bringing something to the table that Yale would want.
You really did have an amazing track record though. Valedictorian of your class, you had the highest GPA in your class, went on to Yale University and Ivy League school. What kept you going?
Deb Gruen: 09:00
I liked what I was doing. In fact, I loved it. I liked my classes and I liked my friends, I loved my swim team.
And you went on to achieve even more success after Yale, Georgetown for law school and now you work at a firm here in New York City. So you've really beat the odds!
Deb Gruen: 09:18
I guess. Again, I don't even know what odds were against me. I just continued on a path and went for it.
Optimism really did get you to where you are today?
Deb Gruen: 09:27
Yeah, for sure. I mean, when you're up against, you know, a really difficult problem and I have every day I go to work and I have really hard challenges, you know, if you go in with an attitude of being like I can't do this, that's not great. You're sour to work with people don't want to help you. And so I would say that having a good attitude isn't, it's incredibly important for you and also the people that you work with because it makes others want to help you too.
I want to go more in depth and talk about the science behind optimism. Dr. Dennis Charney, who, you know, his research is the basis of this podcast and it says, in order to be resilient, you need to have realistic optimism. You're very realistic when it comes to optimism. Explain that.
Deb Gruen: 10:07
I think the greatest example of that is to know your limitations. When I went to China a few weeks ago, I decided I have to walk the Great Wall, I'm going to do this, you know, it's be realistic about it. In other words, I'm not going to walk up and down because I'll be too exhausted the rest of the trip to really enjoy it. So again, I knew I could do the Great Wall, but going up and down wasn't a great idea for me. When I was swimming, right, I knew I was not going to win the 100-meter breaststroke, just given the classification system. So it was important to me to know, I'm not going to win a gold medal, but I do think I can metal. So again, just being realistic about it and it's good because it can also save you I would expect from a lot of disappointment.
Exactly. Because the research shows you should know when to cut your losses and focus on really what's solvable and achievable.
Deb Gruen: 11:02
And how do you do that every day?
Deb Gruen: 11:05
Yeah, sure. I mean, one example, right, If you have a deadline for something, and I'm not great at this, but you know, giving someone a realistic deadline of when you can give it in, I tend to be about two hours after I say it, but, I would, that's kind of, you know, the example you have way too much to do and so you have to prioritize and think about what can I reasonably get done in this amount or period of time.
The science says you shouldn't be excessively optimistic or unrealistic because then you're not prepared for challenges or possible failure.
Deb Gruen: 11:36
Yeah, I think I would agree with that. My parents were very realistic about what I could and what I couldn't do. And I think I've continued to hold that because I knew I was never going to go to the Olympics, right, and win a race against the Michael Phelps equivalent. Or I knew that I was not going to be the best swimmer on the Yale Women's swim team because I can't kick. But I did identify things that I could do well at and I think that's very important to my success.
What do you want people to take away from your story, from your life journey?
Deb Gruen: 12:10
I don't really consider myself as a teacher for others. What I would hope that people do is find what they like, identify something that is within the realm of possibilities that they can do and just go do it. Don't listen to the person who tells you you can't go on your field trip when you're in middle school because it's up a flight of stairs. That's ridiculous. Or that you can't be good at a certain subject, that's crazy. Just find what you like and practice.
You didn't let your disability dictate your life and your future, but what about those who might have disabilities, who don't have this positive outlook? What would you tell them?
Deb Gruen: 12:49
To others in my position or not, I would tell anybody to just find what you're passionate about and go do it. Disability or not. That is what I would say if I walked back into my office right now to anybody on that team.
What's next for you?
Deb Gruen: 13:06
So I think I'll stay at my firm for a while. I'd like to be in a position of leadership someday and then afterwards to transition to public service.
Well I believe that you're going to do it because when you set goals it seems like you accomplish them.
Deb Gruen: 13:21
Well thank you so much. Good luck. And I know that great things are in store for you.
Deb Gruen--proof that optimism can help you overcome adversity and accomplish great things. That's just one of the 10 resilience factors we focused on so far in this series. It's been a fascinating journey and we're excited to announce that Road to Resilience is expanding. Starting next month, we'll be going beyond the resilience factors to bring you stories and insights that you can use to thrive in a challenging world from fighting burnout, to understanding how trauma can impact families across generations and building resilient workplaces. And as always, we'll focus on the science behind each topic. I also want to introduce our new host, his name is Jon Earle and he's creating these episodes. Stay tuned. He'll be here in February.