Nathan Krissoff Service
December 23, 2006
It is an honor that is both humbling and heartbreaking to stand before you today, tasked with creating a window into the life of one of the most unique, complex, and inspiring people I have ever known. Getting to know Nathan Krissoff was an experience that I struggle to find words to describe. I feel that it is important to talk about the two sides of Nate that I knew in the last 7 years, one that I learned quickly, and the other that took significantly more time to understand and appreciate.
In the beginning, my perception was based solely on his external persona and social interaction. He was friendly, comical, and trained hard in the pool, but I always had a sense that there was much more to Nate than met the eye. I didn’t worry too much about figuring that out because I was too busy enjoying his personality and antics. He approached everything in a light-hearted manner, very even keel – always laughing things off, seemingly unfazed by whatever was unfolding in front of him. It was hard for me to take him seriously, since all I ever seemed to do was laugh when he was around. It didn’t matter what the situation was -- serious, stressful, or laidback – if you were with Nate, you were entertained. A freeze-frame of Nate that I carry with me in my mind is the moment in a conversation when it appeared as if he had flipped a switch inside – his face lit up, eyebrows shot upwards, and a half crooked smile flashed on his face. In that moment, I always waited with baited breath to hear what he would say, because, you have to understand, Nate had a way with words. In fact, he had pretty much an entire section of the dictionary all to himself. Between his favorite words such as “Baby”, “Options”, “Athlete”, “Epic”, “We’re friends”, “Blow up”, and “Standard”, and finding ways to add extra emphasis to syllables in others, Nate speaking was an experience unlike any other. Hearing those words in any context now brings a smile to my face, as I combine hearing them with a mental snapshot of Nate – eyebrows up, crooked smile, nodding his head emphatically. I searched through a bunch of e-mails I had from Nate and selected two to illustrate:
“Baby, can we have a team blow up session tonight? Some boat races, some good times, standard issue. -natedog"
Or in response to an e-mail I sent to his class before the swim season:
“yo, just wanted to let you know that this e-mail was simply athlete. Stach and I have it up on our walls and we thought it was just solid. Thanks for blowing us up this season and being a motivator.”
When I read those e-mails I could see him sitting at his computer, nodding his head, eyebrows moving up and down as he chose his words. I started to notice the words being used by teammates, myself included. To this day, I still say “standard”, “baby,” and others, always in situations where they are completely unnecessary and don’t work. For instance, this year, when I was training new hires at work, I said something was “simply standard”. I was greeted with blank stares – because after all, I am not Nate Krissoff. Had it been Nate instead of me, everyone would have written it down and underlined it. Nate also had a habit of adding extra emphasis to parts of words – particularly my last name. As you know, it is spelled d-o-o-b. 2 o’s – sounds like the letter u – but not according to Nate. I think Nate pronounced my name with 30 o’s in it. It was always a comfort to walk into a room and hear him boom it out – I would look around to find the source and see Nate standing somewhere, grinning ear to ear. He did this with others as well -- he never missed an opportunity to order up more vowels or add a dramatic pause. And of course, true to form, the rest of the team started doing the same thing. We couldn’t make it work like Nate could, but we didn’t care. The important part in all of this was not the words he used or the phrases he created, but rather his peers’ enthusiastic adoption of them. It did not seem to matter what he came up with, it worked and it was there to stay. Somehow, the significance of that part escaped me at the time.
Nate did not stop with words and phrases; he also had some peculiar habits. For some reason, he decided that he would get ready for swim practice extremely early, put his suit on, and go stand in the shower to wait for practice to start. This usually resulted in him standing in there for a 20, 30 minutes, maybe more. I’d enter the locker room and hear the showers running – not a surprise, Nate must be in there. Sometimes I thought he ran straight from lunch to the shower if he was going to the 2:15 workout. He would wait until the absolute last second and then make his entrance onto the pool deck – red as a lobster. He did this practically everyday without fail. He made it part of his routine. So I asked him once why he did it and he said: “baby, gotta relax, loosen, blow up the muscles.” Umm, okay, sounds good buddy. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that Nate had an obsession with being warm. When I spent time at Williams after graduating, I stayed in the room next to Nate’s. Most of the times I was there, I would wake up to laughter and giggling coming through the wall. I’d get up and go next door to find out what was so funny, and every time it was the same situation. Lights still off, and one, two, maybe three people in his room crammed on the futon, laughing hard. Nate was always still in his bed, completely secured under his blankets, only the bare minimum of his head visible. He laid there grinning as he made his visitors laugh. It struck me that he didn’t even have to get out of bed for people to go talk to him. And then of course there was the fact that he seemed determined to maintain the turtleneck and mock-turtleneck as fashion icons, in a range of colors – I can imagine for the sole purpose of keeping his neck warm. Or the fact that when on a water polo trip to Seattle a bunch of guys went off into the city but Nate chose instead to spend the entire time in a hot tub. Stay warm at all costs I suppose. Now, back to the shower antics -- like the words and phrases, what do you know but someone else started getting ready for practice early as well. And now when I arrived in the locker room I would hear the showers going but there were voices because he was having a conversation and laughing. Seconds before workout started, two people would make their appearance on deck. People wanted to hear what Nate was going to say, witness what he was going to do – you might have no idea what it meant, but you wanted to be there – he was magnetic. So I thought I had started to figure Nate out. He worked hard in the pool, chose his moments to speak, happened to have developed his own language, and loved standing in the shower and being warm. But I was further from understanding Nate at that point than I ever could have known.
As time progressed, I witnessed Nate reveal more of his inner personality, the part of him I had sensed before but never seen, and it became clear that he was even more unique than I thought. His words were still there, a mix of “baby’s”,“standards”, and “options”, but past those words were calculated actions that inspired confidence. He managed to combine the magnetism I spoke of before with a sense of pride and discipline that proved to be quite a combination. The breakthrough in my perception was a goals meeting for swimming. Every year, the entire men’s team gets together and writes their individual and team goals on index cards. Everyone shares what they wrote. Most people write down similar things: don’t get sick, go a certain time in a certain event, beat Amherst, etc etc. But not Nate. Nate’s card was simple, straight forward. When it was his turn, the switch flipped: eyebrows up, light in the eyes, but no crooked smile -- this time he was not about laughs but about purpose, not about “baby’s” but about delivering a message. His card read “Athlete. Athletics is a choice.” He stated that part, the written part, and then paused…measuring his words. Being an athlete was a choice, if you make the choice, honor it. Then he threw in some combination of “baby” or “standard” and the room laughed, but it was in that moment, before the laughter, that I saw a glimpse of the inner Nathan Krissoff– a sense of purpose, pride, ownership, and responsibility. The expressions and words were similar to his usual antics, but the substance was different this time. I remember thinking maybe I had a lot more to learn about Nate, and I was right.
Over the years, it was that sense of purpose that led me to appreciate Nate on a much higher level. Where once I saw a goofy friend who had a way with words and made people laugh, now I saw a grounded leader with both the tools to inspire and the understanding that life was about choices. It is so rare to find someone who is so magnetic, so quick to generate laughter, someone who draws people in with what he says and what he does, but who is also driven, disciplined, and extremely focused. I used to think that Nate zoned out for a while and then picked his moment to say something funny, but now I realize that he had a greater understanding of what was going on at any moment than you or I ever will. You get the sense that every action was calculated ahead of time – a surprise to you perhaps but well planned by Nate. He was goofy, hilarious, and charismatic on the outside but disciplined, insightful, and focused on the inside.
The tales of Nate’s leadership read like they were taken out of a leadership textbook – he found a way to inspire you without forcing the issue and to relate to you on a genuine level. Always subtle, always well planned; his leadership generated results because his teammates believed in him and trusted his judgment. He spoke effectively, got people together to watch movie clips or recorded content that he deemed appropriate for the situation, but always found a way to do it subtly. He read people and figured out what they needed to be successful, not just what he needed them to do.
Many of the stories people sent me over the last two weeks lead with a disclaimer: “this probably isn’t worth mentioning” or “I’m not sure if this is helpful” but then inevitably followed with “but it meant a lot to me and I will never forget it” or “I still remember it vividly four years later.” And to me, that is the key point in all of this. Nate didn’t have to work at inspiring and leading people, because he was born to do it. He didn’t have to wave his arms, yell or scream -- he inspired people so effortlessly, that now, in hindsight, each example seems too common, too minor to mention. When your peers and teammates reflect on you in that context, you have achieved something that few ever will. One friend reflected on how Nate helped him:
“However, what struck me about Nate was his nurturing side…While other people had mean and spiteful things to say from time to time, Nate was always there to bring a smile to my face and lift my spirits if I didn't feel like I belonged. He was someone you could tell your feelings and know that he actually cared about what you were saying.”
In light of all of this, it did not surprise me that Nate decided to join the Marine Corps. I knew he would be great at it, but wondered how he would mold his personality among a new set of teammates. I often joked that he might slip up and use “baby” or “standard” in the wrong setting. But I knew in my heart that he would be successful, and could probably be the best. It was finally apparent to me that the real theme for Nate was what his peers did. They looked up to him, they accepted and adopted things that he did, they sought him out for his company, for his thoughts, for his personality. How could he not succeed? Joining the Marines was another choice -- he would honor that choice. And honor it he did.
I read a book recently, written by a Captain in the Marine Corps. I read it primarily because I know people like Nate, and wanted another window into their life. One quote in particular stuck with me, when the author was talking about himself and how he was changing. It reads:
“And I mourned for myself. Not in self-pity, but for the kid who'd come to Iraq. He was gone. I did all this in the dark, away from the platoon, because combat command is the loneliest job in the world."
To me this addresses an incredible challenge – leading others while being forced to discover yourself. Many in this room have done just that. And, it would seem, that Nate understood this. In his senior speech to the swim team he opened up the biggest window yet into his internal beliefs, his sense of purpose and discipline.
“Self-knowledge never comes easily. And it is in the moments of greatest adversity that I think we learn the most about ourselves. There is something about 25 yards of untouched water and the simple click-click of the second hand on the clock that welcomes all kinds of challenges. I think Williams swimming is epic. Anything epic, to me, is inspiring. I think what we do is inspiring.”
If it was possible for Nate to reach new heights, to challenge his sense of self, to find a greater purpose, the Marine Corps fit the bill. Thinking about what he said in his speech, and the growth he demonstrated when I knew him, I can only imagine what he was able to do for his peers under the toughest of all challenges.
And now, in the wake of a heartbreaking two weeks, I wonder what we can still learn from the leadership Nate provided. What can I do in my life, and you in yours, to honor him – his character, his choices, his loyalty to what he felt was right. I hope that we can look within ourselves to find our passions, what drives our sense of what is right and just. The world needs true leaders; it needs people with strong beliefs who are willing to make the hard choices and honor them. It needs people like Nathan Krissoff. Strive to live your life with purpose, with clarity, with dedication – focus as he did, not only on doing things right, but on doing the right things.
There is a quote about leadership that says “Leadership is not magnetic personality — that can just as well be a glib tongue. It is not 'making friends and influencing people' -- that is flattery. Leadership is lifting a person's vision to high sights, the raising of a person's performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.” That is Nathan Krissoff.
So baby, to steal a phrase from you: “shhh, just rest.”
Godspeed Nate, wherever your journey takes you next.