Every now and then a story hits the news that shocks because of the strength of feeling it arouses.
The tragedy of Richard Swanson, a 42-year-old American man who aimed to dribble a football 10,000 miles from Seattle to Brazil to raise money for the One Futbol Project is one such story.
Since I read about Richard’s death earlier this week, I can’t get him out of my mind.
Here was a man who had the courage to do what most of us mostly only fantasize about: leaving everything behind and taking off on the adventure of a lifetime. Richard loved football, he loved running, his kids were grown, his condo sold: why not do something outrageous?
Haven’t we all dreamed about packing a rucksack and travelling for months, years… maybe forever? The simplicity of a life with few possessions has much to offer. Richard had been having ‘a hard time’ finding another job and he saw his mammoth trip through eleven countries, including Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia, as an opportunity to ‘think about what you want out of life’.
His video diaries are heartrending in retrospect. Richard set off full of enthusiasm on May 1. His adventure lasted just 14 days: Tragically, he was hit by a truck in Lincoln City, Oregon just hours after reaching the coast on May 14.
Once-in-a-lifetime adventures aren’t supposed to end this way – in a parallel world, the right ending would have been a bearded, tanned and smiling Richard arriving in Brazil just in time for the 2014 World Cup.
Richard was a graphic designer who understood the importance of building a social media platform – he posted regular updates on his Facebook page and added frequent video clips of himself talking to camera to his Breakaway Brazil website. He was self-deprecating with a great sense of humour; he also recognised the craziness of the task he’d set for himself.
I clicked through the posts on Breakaway Brazil (now offline), watching clip after clip, smiling at his huge enthusiasm for the mammoth task ahead, laughing with him as he questioned his own thinking processes. I admired his joie de vivre (who wouldn’t?) and his determination to do something with the free time he hadn’t wanted, something he’d enjoy hugely but would also benefit others, specifically football-crazy youngsters in disadvantaged communities.
He was so full of life, this Richard Swanson, so inspirational: a ‘glass half full’ type of guy, the kind of person everyone wants in their lives. Rather than let unemployment get him down, he was doing something quite amazing, and helping others into the bargain.
And then I remembered: this man was dead, had died before I ever heard the name Richard Swanson or visited his website.
Social media turns the normal order of things on its head. Although it’s now regular (and accepted) practice for journalists to visit victims’ Facebook pages looking for quotable messages of condolence, I’ve always thought it rather voyeuristic and, well, not in good taste.
But here I was, obsessively watching a man I had never met talking about his exciting plans for the year ahead, plans I knew he could never fulfil because he was already dead.
I know I’m not the only one who has been inspired by Richard. His death has ignited an outpouring of grief across the world, including a heartfelt message from Sting.
Richard Swanson continues to help others after his death – he was an organ donor. There’s a gathering in Seattle on Sunday on what would have been Richard’s birthday to celebrate his life.
What an inspiration, what a man.