Thursday, August 31, 2017


She stood off to the corner. At 5-9, this freshman looked strong and capable but she was standing away from the court, as if scared of the speed of the game and the off chance the ball might come to her. She was new, she was the tallest girl on the freshman court and no one knew anything about her. One of the girls on the court asked her to play. She sauntered uneasily to the service line, drew back and piloted the ball from an underhand fist toward the other side of the net. It landed in the bottom of the net. Some of the girls on the court rolled their eyes, others snickered. The tall freshman moseyed back off the court, defeated and embarrassed.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the finished product in a snapshot.

In 1946, a man by the name of Korczak Ziolkowski was commissioned by a Lakota Elder, Henry Standing Bear to build a monument in the side of a South Dakota mountain known as Thunderhead, sacred to the Oglata Lakota tribe. Standing Bear wasn’t comfortable having four American presidents staring down at his people. Just 17 miles from Thunderhead lies Mount Rushmore, and Ziolkowski worked on that project years before. 

He accepted Standing Bear’s offer and after two years of building a house, water lines and a way up to the mountain, Korczak officially began in 1948 to build a monument of epic proportion to the Lakota Chief Crazy Horse. 

He had learned a lot on the Rushmore site and wanted no government money or interference. (Korczak twice turned down multimillion dollar government offers to help fund the project) He started with $174 at the age of 40, buying used equipment and selling other sculptures he crafted during the winter and rainy months. His vision coming to fruition, he struggled with all the little things in a project you can’t see in a snapshot. He averaged only 5 working months a year of full time drilling, exploding and sculpting working around the weather. Sometimes the drills would break, equipment would go bad. At one point, he created his own cable car made of a box he nailed together strung precariously on cables he set into the monument.

Ziolkowski built a 741 staircase to the top of the mountain and bought a 24 year old generator and constructed 2,440 feet of piping to help him drill into the rock to set the dynamite and coring and chiseling he needed to do. The generator would often stall and Korczak would have to descend the staircase, start the generator back up and climb back up. One day, he was up and down 9 times. (13,338 steps in just one day!) As perhaps a joke or maybe documentation, for a while he had a sign on the mountain that simple said, “Slow. Man at Work.”

Undeterred, he continued on. He divorced and married on the project and found time to have 10 kids, one of which he delivered himself. The family continued work on the sculpture and built a tourist friendly museum to see the progress and learn more about Crazy Horse. When the face began to take its final shape, he had to blast a hole through the middle of the mountain and not disrupt what was above. That alone took three summers. 

Korczak’s vision was of the Chief riding his horse, hair and mane blowing behind them and Crazy Horse pointing forward. The Chief, who was never photographed and died in Nebraska at the hands of the US Cavalry in May of 1877, once said he had no home, that “My home lies where my dead are buried.” Ziolkowski’s vision was Crazy Horse’s remark; explaining why the Chief is pointing out into the Black Hills of South Dakota. 

Her name was Hannah and she was in the middle of a divorce and living with her Dad. She had played volleyball in the 7th and 8th grade but the teams were, by her admission, not very good and she didn’t learn much from the coaches. She didn’t know anyone at this new school and it showed in her lack of confidence and body language. Her underhand serve, as it is with many high school coaches, was as good a reason as any to cut her and be done. But this coach saw something in this project and worked with her. She resisted often, not wanting to come out of her comfort zone. She didn’t want to do approaches, she just wanted to hit. She wanted to hold her passing hands the way she did in 8th grade. Why couldn’t she underhand serve? When one skill was too tough, she asked to do another. Some of the girls became frustrated with her even more. In a competitive drill, she was the outcast no one wanted. Many water breaks, with the girls doing a cheer, Hannah would lag back, not wanting to be the girl everyone was whispering about.

But a couple of the girls- perhaps realizing she could one day be a valuable asset to the team in the future- started to help her. Hannah came in early the second morning to work on her overhand serve and it got better. She came back early from lunch, stayed after camp. She started to do her approach and the timing started to click. On the third day, she came in again and launched a serve 30 feet, ½ inch and it crawled over the net for what would have been an ace. Hannah’s arm shot up in the air, as big a gesture as her smile was.

Korczak Zioklowski spent the next 34 years making his vision a reality. He died in 1982 at the age of 74 and his wife and children promptly picked up the vision and continued his work. To this day, the visage of Chief Crazy Horse can be seen heading north on state route 385. Of course tours and closer looks are available in the monument’s visitor’s center, run by the Zioklowski family.

Before he died, Korczak said in an interview, “When the legends die, the dreams end. And when the dreams end, there is no more greatness.” He always called himself a “storyteller in stone,” a title he relished. He is buried somewhere on the site of his life’s work; he wanted his remains to be unknown like those of the mountainous Chief he spent his life honoring. 

Korczak’s Crazy Horse is jarring in its scope. His head measures 87 feet high. For a dose of perspective, the president’s heads on Mt. Rushmore are 60 feet tall. When all finished, which one tour guide suggested was probably within the next 50 years, the Chief from flowing hair to the tip of his finger will measure 641 feet and a height of 563 feet. Zioklowski’s project never wavered in its possibility or its necessity and it continues today.

And tomorrow…

Hannah spent four days at camp. She went from unskilled and cautious to a player not just better but more confidant and one that enjoyed her teammates and the game more. Will she ever become an All-State player? At this point, no one can say. We do know that if the coach had seen this project based on her snapshot on day one, she’d been jettisoned: left to float into the sea of all the others we let go because as coaches we lack the vision, the patience or the work ethic to see what’s past that snapshot.

Drills and bits, dynamite and explosives, patience and a kind word, some extra time or just an idea of what they can be, projects are built and defined by more than just the first snapshot we take. We work, and look a little deeper…

“Beauty can be seen in all things. Seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.” –Matt Hardy