This month’s motivational story of altruism, athleticism and global adventures has melted our hearts – and our editorial policies. In an equal opportunity twist in our continuing series on inspirational women, this month we feature MICHAEL DEE, a…Man with a Mission
It’s 10.30am, and I’m in the lobby of the American Club waiting to meet Michael Dee. We’ve never met before, but I’m confident that I’ll know Michael when I see him. Last night, I watched a half-hour special that chronicled his extraordinary ascension of Mount Kilimanjaro. Why extraordinary? Well, it’s Kilimanjaro, of course, but what really caused an international buzz was the makeup of Michael’s climbing team: his team of eight included citizens of four continents, three teenagers and two Special Olympics athletes.
Michael enters the room, clad in exercise clothes, a shoulder-slung backpack and a huge smile. Sure enough, I recognise him instantly. We exchange greetings and move into a nearby dining room for a light breakfast and room to chat.
We start with the obvious: What’s it like to climb Africa’s highest mountain?
“It was awesome. This was actually my second climb. In 2009, I climbed Kilimanjaro with ten of my colleagues. We raised over $320,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which was enough to grant 80 wishes to kids with life-threatening illnesses.”
Originally from Buffalo, New York, Michael moved to Singapore in 2000 to act as regional CEO of Morgan Stanley. Not long after arriving, he became a founding board member of Make-A-Wish Singapore.
In 2004, he moved to Houston, Texas, then returned to Singapore in 2008 to take up a position at Temasek Holdings. Since then, Michael has completed the Ironman triathlon in Western Australia and two Racing the Planet desert running races of 250 kilometres each – Chile’s infamous Atacama Crossing and the Gobi March through the Turpin Depression.
“The Atacama was brutal, and the Gobi almost killed me!” he laughs. “The Atacama is rated the second-hardest endurance race in the world. You carry everything you need on your back over rocky, diabolical terrain in temperatures that range from around 10° to 53°C.”
He gazes out of the window, seemingly recalling some memories of the race that he would rather forget. Then he suddenly snaps to. “But I raised over $300,000 by running that race, which was enough to send 62 competitors and coaches to the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens this year.”
His connection to the Special Olympics extends back decades. His sister was born with Down syndrome and has been a Special Olympics athlete for 35 years.
Michael’s recent Mount Kilimanjaro climb has been widely covered in the press. But the biggest stars of this trek were the two Special Olympics athletes, Salihin Sinai of Singapore and Herith Suleiman of Tanzania.
After his first climb, Michael knew he wanted to return one day with his sons Matthew, Christopher and David. They planned the trip for the summer of 2011. As the date approached, Michael’s sons approached him with a question.
“My boys said: ‘Dad, you are always raising money with your activities. What are you going to do this time?’ I hadn’t really thought about it, as I viewed this trip as a family vacation. Then it hit me – we would take a Special Olympics athlete along with us. It had only been done once before.”
Michael needed an athlete with good communication skills, mental toughness and physical endurance. He remembered Salihin, a Special Olympics competitor who had previously won medals in both swimming and badminton.
Born with an intellectual disability that affects his abstract thinking, Salihin doesn’t feel fear or expect problems like most people do, and Michael believed that this could be of benefit to him on the climb. Though extremely physically fit (“he thinks nothing of running for two hours straight”), Salihin had no experience with mountains and altitude, so he trained with the team for three months to prepare for the seven-day climb.
Training included weight-bearing hikes through Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, rigorous conditioning sessions at the SPEED Institute and workouts with Michael’s long-time trainer Shamugam “Guna” Gunasakera. Salihin’s eight-year mentor, Singaporean Yeo “JC” Jia Chyang, put him through circuit drills of 15-kilometre runs, 240 push-ups, 240 sit-ups and sprints. Eventually, JC decided to join the team, as did Herieth and Michael’s friend Jon Golding, who was persuaded to join over Easter dinner.
Approximately half of all attempts to reach Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit fail. The biggest problem? Succumbing to altitude sickness at heights that soar 19,340 feet above sea level. To add to the team’s challenge of covering over 40 miles and five climate zones, they chose the Lemosho Route via the treacherous Great Western Breech to reach the summit.
“As a team, we decided to take Lemosho because we wanted to be able to say we took the hardest route possible,” laughs Michael.
Language was also a barrier as Herith spoke only Swahili, but Jon’s colonial-Swahili from his childhood provided the necessary bridge. In the end, says Michael, the team discovered they spoke a universal language that transcended all problems – football, played with a potato.
By the end of the third day of the climb, the effects of the altitude were setting in; Salihin was crippled by headaches, bouts of nausea, sleeplessness and vomiting. The next day, his condition worsened. On the fifth and hardest day of the climb, Salihin awoke dehydrated and weary. Through his extraordinary determination and bolstered by the encouraging words of his team, he mustered the energy to climb the 3,000 feet of the difficult Great Western Breach.
“When we reached Kibo Crater, Salihin was in tears. I will never forget his face,” says Michael. “He was completely, totally and utterly exhausted. There were only fumes left in the tank, yet he felt this incredible sense of accomplishment. It was a great moment of pure joy and relief.
“Herith put his arm around Salihin and they marched across the ice field to our campsite, each supporting the other. I get emotional just talking about it: it embodied the spirit of Special Olympics,” recalls a misty-eyed Michael.
The team staked flags from Special Olympics, Singapore, the US, Colorado, Texas and Tanzania before starting their descent.
As the only Special Olympics athlete from Asia ever to reach Kilimanjaro’s summit, Salihin was greeted by a throng of journalists and photographers upon his arrival back in Singapore. He made the front page of The Straits Times the following day.
Just listening to Michael’s stories of physical endurance, extreme temperatures and altitude sickness has left me feeling exhausted and a little dizzy. Where does this incredible drive stem from? I surmise that Michael must be a born athlete and lifelong competitor. Turns out, I’m right – but not in the way that I expected.
“I was a competitive figure skater as a child. My dad was a figure skater, and my mother, at the age of 84, is still coaching on the ice. My parents met in a skating rink in Lake Placid, and I was on double runners at six months old.”
The cool, pristine, rhinestoned atmosphere of competitive ice-skating is a far cry from, say, the six-day race across the Gobi Desert that Michael completed last year to raise money for children affected by an earthquake in China’s Qinghai Province.
“My theory is that empathy is not enough, I have an obligation, a code if you will, to take action and be the change. I’ve always found that if you do something that’s really hard, people will be really generous in return.
“I’ve been fundraising since I was a teenager. My guidance counsellor told me that I wouldn’t get into Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, so I attached a 38-page business plan to my application to raise $100,000 – we’re talking 1980 money here – in a figure skating exhibition. In the end, the first “Showcase of Champions” was held with Olympic gold medallists like Peggy Fleming and Scott Hamilton in attendance. And, my application was accepted!”
Michael combined forces with the US Embassy and Singaporean figure skater, Anja Chong, to bring Michelle Kwan to Singapore to skate with Special Olympics athletes earlier this year (see page 112 of EL’s March 2011 issue). A month later, Apolo Ohno also spent time with the Special Olympic athletes. Last week, Michael helped his son David’s friend’s quadriplegic sister, Chelsea, realise her dream of swimming, with the support of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Then there is the matter of securing Singapore as the host country for the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games.
We wind up our breakfast so Michael can pack for a trip to Korea. “Holiday weekend in Seoul?” I inquire. No, he says. He will be serving 1,800 steaks to US military troops stationed in Korea, as part of a coordinated volunteer project, Steak Team Mission.
Michael’s pursuit to make the world a better place one race, climb and steak at a time is nothing short of amazing. For the past decade, he has been flying all over the world for business, in economy class, tracking hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings and donating them to his charities. A father of four, accomplished businessman, dedicated philanthropist and adventure enthusiast, how does this one man juggle all four balls when most people struggle to manage just one?
“Every day, we are presented with small and large opportunities to ‘make a difference’ with our time and resources. To seize those opportunities with gusto and passion is to fully experience all that life has to offer. I have been inspired by the two most important men in my life, my father and my father-in-law, both of whose personal identity is manifested in their investment in others. If I can inspire others like that, then I guess I’ll be my own hero.”
|Special Olympics is a global movement led by athletes with intellectual disabilities who use sports to demonstrate the capabilities of all people. More than just one-off elite sporting events, Special Olympics takes place every day, offering 32 Olympic-type summer and winter sports with nearly 50,000 competitions annually around the globe. In Asia, Special Olympics supports 23 countries and offers programmes for over 950,000 athletes, their families and their communities. For more information or to get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org.|