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NHL's Jack Hughes, MLB's Bobby Witt Jr., top young athletes write letters to future selves

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Published in Hockey
Wednesday, 03 April 2019 10:28

It's not the easiest concept to get your head around, but bear with us: What if a bunch of next-big-thing athletes -- like Jack Hughes, expected to be picked early in next week's NHL draft, or Bobby Witt Jr., the son of an MLB star and this year's No. 2 pick -- were able to write a letter to themselves, from the future, on the day they retired? Which hopes and dreams did they accomplish? What were the most memorable moments? That's exactly what we asked a slew of rising stars to do -- and exactly what they gave us.

Jack Hughes

You'd think the NHL's likely 2019 No. 1 pick might be looking ahead to a career full of Stanley Cups (you'd be right). But he's also grateful to those helping his Cup dreams runneth over.

Do you remember the night you and Cole Caufield broke the National Team Development Program's all-time points and goal-scoring records on the same play? That assist was your 190th point on Cole's 105th goal. The equipment manager had to saw the puck in half so we could both have a piece.

I'm writing this to you as draft day nears, and it feels like so much has built to this moment, including that assist. You wanted to go No. 1, and you put in a lot of work to get there. It was a crazy year, but it was fun too. You got a chance to compete alongside USA Hockey's best young players-faces I'm sure you've seen time and again in the NHL.

Look at all the guys who played there before you -- Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel. It's special to be on top of that record book. Hopefully by the time you read this the record still stands!

And remember those winters? All day and night on the outdoor rink with Quinn and Luke? That's where everything started. Your brothers made you who you are on and off the ice. I hope they'll be able to say you did the same for them and that they had great NHL careers too.

Maybe you even suited up with them a couple of times in the NHL. Maybe we all represented the United States at the Olympics or World Championships. Maybe we won a gold medal (or gold medals) together. What an honor that would be.

Everything you worked for was about being the best, about helping your team win. Sure, you were always competitive. You wanted to win Hart and Art Ross trophies. You wanted to appear in All-Star Games. But what really drove you-the reason you play the game, your obsession-was winning the Stanley Cup. How many times did you imagine lifting it over your head in celebration? By now, I hope you've experienced the real thing a few times too.

Take a second to remember all of the people who helped you get there too. Mom and Dad, of course, and your coaches and teammates. Think about all the fun you had growing up in love with hockey with your brothers and your friends.

I hope as you look back over your career that you realize all of the hard work you put in from a young age gave you what you'd been dreaming about your entire life. I hope every time you laced up your skates and put your gear on, it felt as special as it feels right now.

--As told to Chris Peters

Olivia Moultrie

In February, the American soccer prodigy made the unprecedented choice to go pro at 13. Here, she writes to her recently retired future self to reflect on how that big move launched an even bigger career.

Dear future Olivia,

Do you remember the day Abby Wambach followed you on Twitter? It was a Friday, and you were in a hotel room in Portland. You had just woken up, and Dad elbowed you to say, "Bro! Guess who just followed you on Twitter!?" You were only 13, but you had met a bunch of your soccer heroes already: Mia Hamm and Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath, to name a few. Still, seeing that blue check mark next to Abby Wambach's name on your follower list -- yours! -- was pretty surreal. You watched her win the World Cup! She's a living legend! And she chose to follow you. There's a reason I'm asking if you remember that morning. I'll get to that later.

That same Friday -- it was in early March 2019 -- some other really important news broke. The entire U.S. women's national team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit to fight for equal pay. You saw that and you thought, "Yes, they deserve that." You thought maybe, one day, you could be a part of that too. Fighting for equal pay; fighting to make sure no one ever says something like, "Yeah, she's good for a woman," but instead, "Holy smokes, she's a great footballer, period."

Fingers crossed, that's what people will say about you when you read this as a freshly retired soccer star. Wow, she was a great footballer, the best to ever do it. She won a World Cup, an Olympic gold medal, an NWSL Championship and, yes, a Ballon d'Or, for sure. (I've tried to prepare myself for that one. How many times have I laid in bed, picturing that awards ceremony and that acceptance speech and, even in daydreams, been at a loss for words? It's just a huge achievement. Too huge for words, apparently.)

Speaking of retirement, go big. Get yourself a big, fat slice of tiramisu and eat the whole thing by yourself in celebration of a career well-done. (Are you still a foodie, by the way?) I can't eat much junk food these days, so live it up when you can. Maybe even take some time to enjoy the fact that your whole day isn't planned out in 30-minute increments. I know you want to be a youth national team coach at some point, to be for the next generation what April Kater was for you. You want to work together with a player who loves football like you and be a mentor for someone like Alfredo Sainz is for you, but maybe take just one night to binge a few TV shows?

You probably won't. You never were that patient, or one to -- gasp -- wait for things. Patient people probably don't commit to play soccer for the University of North Carolina at 11 years old. They definitely don't decide that even college can't come soon enough so they should go pro at 13. Oh, well. Patience just isn't your virtue.

But working hard is. Dreaming harder is too. Which brings me back to my original question. Do you remember the day Abby Wambach followed you on Twitter? Do you remember those butterflies that flew in your stomach when you realized it was really her? I'm asking because what I want to know is this: Has a future 13-year-old, out there in your future world, opened Twitter (or whatever the future version of it is) and thought, "Oh my gosh! Olivia Moultrie followed me!"?

I sure hope so.

--As told to Hallie Grossman

Bobby Witt Jr.

The No. 2 pick in the 2019 MLB draft has baseball baked into his DNA, with roots in Colleyville and dreams of a legacy in Cooperstown.

Dear future Bobby,

The day has finally arrived: The last moments playing the sport you have loved since you were 3 years old. It's all you've known, really, and maybe that was inevitable, since Dad played for 16 years in the majors. In his final MLB season, he won a World Series. You don't remember it, since you were just a year old. But your whole childhood, you held on to the dream that you, too, could win a World Series one day -- and that was all the motivation you needed.

Growing up in Colleyville, Texas, all those backyard longball sessions and BP, where dad answered your questions, taught you fielding techniques. And mom, the backbone of the family, driving you to every practice and buying your new equipment. She always had time for you to live out your dream. You watched so many games, in person or on TV, that you almost absorbed the game through osmosis. Especially your favorite teams, the Rangers and the Red Sox.

When you were 17, you signed with Oklahoma and heard yourself projected as one of the top three picks in the 2019 MLB draft. Baseball was still America's pastime, still nine innings (on most days). And that's what you have always loved about it. Remember watching one of your favorite players, Dustin Pedroia? The way he plays, all heart and grit and effort. And Derek Jeter, a fellow shortstop -- what a legend. He played the game the right way, on and off the field. You always wanted to meet him, and hopefully you have. He follows you on Twitter, and so does Baker Mayfield. Even MLB follows you -- hopefully foreshadowing what's to come.

Remember the 2018 high school home run derby, when you hit eight home runs over 76 seconds -- and won? Bryce Harper was first-class, hanging out with you after he'd just won in the big leagues, too. Josh Hader greeted you, making you feel like you belonged. Maybe you've returned the favor by now to another up-and-coming baseball dreamer during one of your All-Star weekends.

Do you still love hitting? Man, what a feeling, knowing you can change the game with just one swing. You already envisioned facing Max Scherzer, his aggressive pitching and his different-colored eyes. You always wanted the challenge of facing off against the best.

Maybe by the time you read this, you've won the World Series. And the Winter World Series, where Dad won a championship. I really hope you're reading this just before your Hall of Fame induction speech -- that would be incredible. You don't like to set too many specific goals; you just want to play as long as your body will let you. And when that ends, you still want to be involved in baseball somehow.

No matter what, I hope you've held on to Dad's advice: Always stay humble. Be the hardest worker. And never stop believing in yourself.

--As told to Anna Katherine Clemmons

Morgan Hurd

In 2018, Hurd announced herself as perhaps the top American gymnast not named Simone Biles. And, as the 17-year-old writes to her future self, she's just getting started.

Dear future Morgan,

You couldn't help it. Your friends got mad at you, but you just. couldn't. help. it. Sorry, she's going too slow! you thought to yourself, as you jumped another gymnast in line to take one more vault turn.

But when you were 10 years old, when you were running full speed ahead, when that felt like running toward your dreams -- well, 80-some feet and a few seconds on the runway just never seemed like enough. You needed more. So you almost had to cut your friends in line, even though they hated it, even though you knew they hated it. Because when you were running toward your dreams, you figured, you couldn't run fast enough.

That's when you knew you were hooked on gymnastics. There were parts you loved along the way -- when your confidence peaked and you knew you could go through your routine in your sleep, barely thinking, barely even registering anything but you, and the chalk, and the mat. There were parts you loved less -- that clenching in your chest that made you short of breath when the nerves kicked in. But yeah, you were hooked. On all of it.

And those 80-some feet and few seconds were enough to fantasize about what could be ahead for you. A Tokyo 2020 spot ... fingers crossed. Competing in the all-around finals ... toes crossed. Medaling in each event ... fingers and toes crossed. You could see it all so clearly.

While we're on the topic of seeing things clearly: After all those years of being one of the only gymnasts to wear glasses, of standing out like a sore thumb, of hearing all the questions -- Why don't you just wear contacts?! How do you keep those things on?! Do you LIKE glasses?! -- I want to ask you a question too, now that you're reading this in the future.

Do you think more young gymnasts feel comfortable wearing glasses like you? Did you help let them know it's normal and fine and maybe even pretty special? Other than the Olympics, other than the competition, other than the medals (though, you know, fingers and toes still crossed), that's what I hope happens in the future. I hope, at the end of all this, you look around to find a bunch of gymnasts wearing glasses just like you, because they know it's normal and fine and maybe even pretty special.

--As told to Hallie Grossman

Efra Alvarez

The East LA native, who turned heads with his MLS debut at 16, tells his future self to remember his roots and share his success with the next, next big thing.

Dear future Efra,

Was it worth it?

Kicking the ball around the house? Playing with your older brothers in the streets of East LA? Working on your left foot amid the chickens and roosters on Fairmount Street, trying not to kick the ball into traffic on Hazard Avenue? Dribbling the ball on the sideline while Dad played men's league in City Terrace Park?

Was it worth it?

Fighting through traffic in Dad's Scion XD from East Los Angeles to practice and back? Meeting Eric Cantona and training alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic?

Can you still remember the day your manager, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, told you that you'd made the roster for LA Galaxy's opening night? That you'd make your Galaxy debut in front of your family? Does the moment when he pulled you aside after that training and said, "Be ready, you're going in tomorrow," still get you excited? Even after you have -- hopefully -- scored hundreds of goals and won an MLS Cup and played in a World Cup?

I know it felt crazy then. It helped stoke your fire inside then. And when you did go in, and you knew your family was there -- your mom and dad and your sister and brothers and your nieces and nephews -- that they were all sitting up in the stands watching you step on that field, a shy kid from City Terrace in East LA, you felt it. Felt the size of the moment, felt the thrill of taking the first step toward the future you've wanted to build. It hit you. You wiped away the tears and hustled into your place on the field. The place you feel most comfortable. That's how much you loved that moment. That's how much you loved the game that gave you that moment.

It's why it actually scares me a little, to think of you in the future, waking up and not having to go training. Waking up and not having another goal to score or another game to play.

It's why I bet you're making a difference now. Either as a soccer coach working your way up the ranks, retirement be damned, or a citizen in the community working to help young people like me find their calling. How could you ever stay away?

It's why I hope you upgraded the soccer fields in East LA. Not all parks let kids play soccer -- sometimes the field is only for baseball; sometimes it's just plain not allowed -- and I hope you create a place for that to happen. Maybe a future soccer player will step on that field and tear up a little bit. Maybe you'll watch them and you'll tear up too.

--As told to Hallie Grossman

Caroline Marks

The youngest surfer ever to qualify for the World Surf League tour, Marks, 17, anticipates her soon-to-be-legendary career -- full of Olympic medals and celebrity cameos.

Dear future Caroline,

It's me! You! Caroline! Do people still call you Caroline? Or do you have a cool nickname now? Maybe people just call you Champ. Like, "Hey, Champ! How's retirement going? When are you going to settle down and start that family you always wanted, buy a house in Hawaii? Where do you keep all those trophies and medals?"

I know, I know! I'm getting ahead of myself. You retired only yesterday. But seriously. How many world titles did you win? Four? Five? At least five, right? How about the Olympics? Our sport makes its debut next year in Tokyo, and I plan to be on that team -- and the teams in 2024 and 2028 and 2032. When I close my eyes, I can see every gold medal. Two years ago, I was the youngest surfer -- man or woman -- ever to qualify for the Championship Tour. Until now, it was my proudest moment. I'm about to start the 2019 season, and the top two Americans in this year's rankings will make the 2020 Olympic team. So ... how was it? What was it like to wear a uniform and compete for your country? Were there waves in Shida? How about Paris in 2024? Ooh -- was the contest held in a wave pool?

Just thinking about the possibilities has me so excited, my hands are shaking as I type this. Is there still typing in 2039? It is 2039, right? I hope you were lucky enough to surf for 20 more years, that injuries and insecurities didn't stand in your way. Big dreams come with big risks-but also big rewards. I hope that mantra pushed you to ride a really big wave, big enough that you had to wear a life vest and be towed in and were terrified. What was it like? No! Don't tell me. I want the surprise.

I also want to be the first girl to land air reverses and backside airs consistently in competition. I want to hear the other surfers say, "Wow. Now we have to do that because we're competing against the girl from Florida." Lisa Andersen was the first girl to drive women's surfing forward, and then Carissa Moore and Stephanie Gilmore. I want to be the next one to show what's possible, to get barreled in bigger waves like the guys. I want to inspire young girls to go for it and never let anyone tell them they can't do something, to be known as the surfer who works the hardest, has the most fun and is also the nicest person on tour. I want to be known as a legend. I don't want anyone to forget who I was and what I did for the sport.

I want to be relentless. Do you still want it as much as I want it right now? Did you make that documentary, land the cover of Vogue, surf that gnarly left at Skeleton Bay? Did you ever see the northern lights? Oh, and one more thing. You might think it's silly, but don't forget, I'm -- you're -- still only 17.

Did we get to meet Justin Bieber?

Hope so. See you in 20 years!

--As told to Alyssa Roenigk

Johnny Walker

The splashy Brazilian mixed martial artist, known now mostly for dislocating his shoulder after winning his third fight in the UFC, contemplates what aging means for an eternally youthful star.

Dear future Johnny:

I know you did it. It's 2019 right now, and it hasn't happened yet, as of this writing, but by the time you retire and read this -- 10 years from now or 15 years from now -- I know you'll have done it. You gave Jon Jones a good fight, didn't you?

And if you won -- I hope you won; I bet you won -- was your celebration as epic as you dreamed? Yeah, it's hard to top the shoulder-dislocation-by-worm-dance. But I have faith.

Just like I have faith, sitting here now, dreaming about all that's possible and all that's ahead, that you went on to try your hand at heavyweight and made yourself a champ champ. That you finished what Conor McGregor started and won a boxing title, too. That even as you got older, you defended all those belts you (here's hoping) racked up, all while fending off the very fighters you used to be -- the new, brash, almost unstoppable upstarts.

I have a hard time picturing that day, really. You, the old man in the cage, teaching those young guns a thing or two. It all feels so new still. The adrenaline and the energy and the rush of seeing another fighter in the cage. The thrill of knowing you're about to take him down. It's scary to think about the day when that adrenaline and energy and rush will be gone. Impossible, even. Which is why I bet you'll find a new way to chase that feeling after you leave the Octagon for the last time. I see WWE in your future. Probably an action movie or two. Maybe just a seat outside the cage to root on Valter -- a brother-to-brother passing of the UFC torch, a family legacy in the making.

In the end, that's all you really wanted, right? To put on a good show. To put up a good fight.

--As told to Hallie Grossman

Rachel Heck

Racking up trophies has its place, and the 17-year-old has already putted her way to a few. But she's raring to smash golf's old ways and don green jackets at Augusta.

Dear future Rachel,

How many times have you and Ariya Jutanugarn played together in a final round during the course of your career? Probably too many to count. How many times in your career do you think back to the first time you played with Ariya in a final round? You might not even remember that round, after all. You were only 16.

Here's the CliffsNotes version (do CliffsNotes still exist?): It was the last day at the Evian Championship. Your second major. You were the wild-card entry in France, but you made the cut -- just like you did in your major debut at the 2017 U.S. Women's Open. You were standing on the 15th green with two-time major winner Ariya and her sister, 13th-ranked Moriya. You still couldn't believe you were there. But you were there, girl. Ariya looked at you and, without hesitating, she said, "I'm waiting for you in five more years."

She knew you would be one of her biggest competitors down the line. And guess what? You were. Probably her biggest competitor throughout her career. Let's just say you two basically became the Jack and Arnie of the LPGA. The May and Rach, if you will (you might have a new nickname by now, but Ariya still goes by May).

Do you still do the thing? You know, the thing where you picture scenarios during your short game practice as though this shot -- the shot on the putting or chipping green -- is the shot that will win it all? Can you still hear your instructor Rob Akins saying, "This is it, Rach. This is the putt to win the U.S. Open." When you made that 12-foot putt on the 18th green at the Junior Ryder Cup in 2018, just one week after the Evian Championship, you knew these pretend scenarios weren't really going to be "pretend" at all. Thank goodness you made that clutch 15-foot downhill putt at the 2028 U.S. Open. Forever grateful to Rob.

And no matter how many clutch shots you've made, you're still most proud of the fact that you've been a trailblazer. Before you even set foot on Stanford's campus (four years after verbally committing), you said you wanted to spark change in the game of golf with the help of some of your best friends (who were also some of the best golfers in the country -- shoutout to our girl Sadie Englemann).

One of your goals before you went pro was to open up the floodgates for the PGA and LPGA to play together. It was the most reasonable way to get more viewership on women's golf, plus the ladies crush it out there ... why shouldn't they play with men? You first planted the seed at the Junior Ryder Cup in 2018 when talking to tournament officials about this possibility down the line (mind you, you were only 16). It didn't take long to make that happen. Now, I hope, there are women wearing green jackets at Augusta! Hello! Dreams: ACCOMPLISHED!

You may have a room full of trophies at home. You may even have a green jacket of your own. But even after retirement, you love golf, but you aren't golf. Hey, that's the same mindset you've had since you first picked up plastic clubs with your dad at age 3. Golf meant ice cream back then (classic Dad bribery). And today, golf might not necessarily mean ice cream. But it's still just a sport to you. It's not your whole identity. It's just a sport that's opened up your world and given you so, so much.

--As told to Charlotte Gibson

Zack Steffen

As he embarks on a new journey with Manchester City, the U.S. keeper has some ambitious (some might say crazy, but who cares?) ideas about winning a World Cup.

Dear future Zack,

People said you were crazy to say it. Crazy to even think it. You'd mutter the words, sort of sheepishly, almost under your breath, because even as you believed it to be possible, you knew others thought it was sheer folly. A fool's errand. But then you'd think to yourself -- well, why play this game if that isn't your goal? So you'd say it again.

You wanted to win a World Cup. You wanted your team, the United States men's national team, to win a World Cup.

That's what you wanted all those Saturdays and Sundays you woke up at 7:30 as a kid and camped out in the living room with Dad to binge the Premier League. You'd cheer on Chelsea and Jose Mourinho and Super, Super Frank Lampard and Petr Cech and Drogba (sorry to my future employer and to all Man City fans), then pore over the Review Show like it was a cheat sheet that could unlock secret codes to future greatness.

That's what you wanted when you played France back in 2018 and you saw how they saw the game differently, felt how they felt the game differently, knew that they knew it differently -- intimately almost. You decided then and there you'd have to go back to Europe to learn to see and feel and know the game like them.

You'd focus on making sure that you'd stay hungry and humble wherever your journey took you. You'd reflect on how impactful coming to Columbus to play for Crew SC was for you as a person and as a player -- how competing in MLS helped you learn to grind, to aspire to be the best teammate and role model. And when the opportunity arose to sign with Man City, you realized you were inching closer to some other dreams of yours along the way. Playing in a Premier League game. Playing in a Champions League game. You hoped other Americans would come with, learn from the best in Europe, then take those lessons back home to make the U.S. game that much better.

So when you're done with all this -- when you've walked out to a pulsating stadium for the last time (you'll miss that), when you've given your body the gift of not slamming it to the ground every day (OK, you won't miss that) -- here's what I hope. I hope there's a future soccer star, sitting in his living room at 7:30 in the morning with his dad, watching soccer on TV and taking copious notes on that day's keeper play, in case that game film could unlock secret codes. And I hope that one day, when that future soccer star says he wants to win a World Cup for the United States, no one will think him, or the idea, crazy at all.

--As told to Hallie Grossman

Alysa Liu

The 13-year-old figure skater has already had untold success by staying firmly grounded in the moment. With an Olympic legacy on the horizon, the future can be as dizzying as one of her triple axels.

Dear future Alysa,

Every jump starts somewhere. That's what you used to tell yourself. When you were 12 and landed a triple axel for the first time in international competition. When you were 13 and nailed three of them at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. When you were still 13 but decided you wanted to add even more to your arsenal. Quad salchow. Quad loop. Quad toe loop.

Did you ever land any of those quads in competition?

It feels weird to look ahead, especially when I've spent all this time obsessing about Staying. In. The. Moment. Remember when you won nationals? You didn't even know you broke Tara Lipinski's record for youngest winner. You only realized what you did later, when you read it online. Clean program, clean program, clean program, you said it to yourself so many times, determined to focus only on that exact moment. I guess you drowned everything else out.

You said it so many times -- clean program, clean program, clean program; stay in the moment, stay in the moment, stay in the moment -- that by the time you won and the "Today" show had you come on TV, and Jimmy Fallon also had you come on TV, it all felt crazy and slightly disorienting. Still, I wouldn't hate if one day you get to go on "Ellen" too.

And while I'm looking ahead, I have to ask: Did you do those big things you dreamed about? Did you win gold in 2022? Did you stay on the podium for every nationals? Did you ever travel to Italy? Did you help fight climate change?

I know, I know. Those are big things. Leap-of-faith-type things. But, hey, every jump starts somewhere.

--As told to Hallie Grossman

Akshay Bhatia

Playing the greats, defeating the greats, becoming a great -- it's all on the list for a 17-year-old soon-to-be pro golfer laser-focused on achieving his dreams.

Dear future Akshay,

You were being called legendary before you were even old enough to get your license. Just think about that for a second. That's crazy. But then again, seems right on par with your career.

I think the first real "legendary" moment was that chip-in. You know which one I'm talking about: the 40-footer at the 2018 Junior PGA Championship, the 18th-hole eagle that secured your victory for the second year in a row. I can almost feel your hands trembling while gripping your wedge. All eyes were on you. And you knew it.

Remember how fast your heart beat -- I'm sure it's happened again since -- after bogeying that 17th hole to fall one stroke back of Tommy Stephenson? But you stuck to your mantra (which I bet you still have): Just put yourself into position to win.

So that's exactly what you did: split the fairway off the tee and strike a 3-iron from 228 yards to the back fringe. Then there was the chip-in. The ball rolled slowly straight to the hole. The crowd went ballistic. You remained calm, pumping your fists toward the ground.

You've probably forgotten, but you made history with that chip-in. You became the first player in the tournament's 43-year history -- Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, the list goes on -- to win it back-to-back.

Speaking of those guys, remember when you dreamt of beating Tiger's records? For some, that might seem a moonshot. But for you, it was motivation to stay out on the course and grind for seven to nine hours every single day. Sure, other 17-year-olds were hanging out at the mall and Snapchatting with their crushes, but not you. Because you were different. You still are. And you're OK with that.

People criticized you to a pulp when you announced, at 16, that you'd forgo college and go pro as soon as you turned 18 in 2020 (a foreign concept at the time, but a soon-to-be trend thanks to you ... and to the dismay of college golf). But the critics only fueled you more. They echoed the ones who badgered you when you, Mom and Dad decided on home-schooling in eighth grade. These decisions didn't just come out of nowhere. They were made for the greater goal: becoming a professional golfer.

Let's be real: Everything in life has been for the greater goal. You never wanted to play golf just for fun -- even when you first picked up a club at 6. Your version of "fun" was competing with the greats, beating the greats and becoming one of the greats. Woods won 80 PGA Tour events and 15 majors. And, guess what? You won more. You won more.

There's some teenager out there right now missing school dances and kickbacks because he's hitting ball after ball on the driving range. He's grinding because he wants to beat Akshay. Just think about that for a second.

--As told to Charlotte Gibson

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