Gabby Douglass, Olympic Champion
Photo by Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Copyright © 2012 by Ralph F. Couey
And we will never forget Jesse Owens running through Hitler’s delusional wall of Aryan supremacy in 1936.
Over the years, we have watched, utterly enthralled as our Olympians inspired us through their efforts, and their victories. They honored our country, and made us all proud to be Americans.
And yet, there is a curious myopia at work. We cheer them lustily when they win, and groan when they fall short. But in reality, we only see them during this two-week window.
An Olympic athlete is a rare human. Of course, they’re gifted with extraordinary ability. But the most impressive thing about them is the one invisible element that sets them apart from the rest of us.
The path to the games is long and tortuous. It is an endless procession of years in a gym, on a track, or in a fieldhouse. It is enduring the frustration of trying to get muscles to precisely obey the demands of the mind. It is working through injuries, fighting fatigue. It is pushing aside their anger at the end of a very long day, muscles burning with utter exhaustion, facing a hard-nosed coach who demands, “It’s not good enough. Do it again.” We never see that part of their life, and why we will never really comprehend the tears on the medal stand, and also the more private tears of the defeated. This is something we can never understand because most of the rest of us don’t live a life of excellence. We are mired instead in a culture of “good enough.”
Excellence doesn’t just happen. Achievement won’t fall out of the sky like some wind-blown lotto ticket. It takes years of hard, laborious, and even painful work. But mostly, it requires something special inside a person. Call it dedication, commitment….whatever. It is that indefinable “thing” that fuels the competitive fire within, and puts them resolutely on a path from which they will never stray, the path aimed straight towards the medal stand.
Very few of us have that kind of drive, that will to excel. But what kind of country would we be living in today if we did? Most would agree that education is the key to prosperity, but very few kids (or adults, for that matter) attack their studies with the same ferocity that Gabby, Kerri and Mary Lou employed perfecting their routines. Maybe if more of us spent as much time and care each day seeking, preparing for, and executing job interviews as Ms Franklin, Mr. Phelps and Mr. Lochte spent in the pool more would have found jobs, or even created their own by now. If all of us took a long look in the mirror we would know that our success or failure in any venture has so much more to do with us than it does with easily-blamable exterior forces.
All Olympic athletes lose at some point. But they don’t surrender. And the one thing that differentiates a winner from a loser is that willingness to drag themselves off the floor and go at it again. And again. And again. Until they get it right.
This country faces a lot of problems, many of them daunting ones. But if all of us allow ourselves to be inspired by our Olympians in the right way, if we understand that the road to success never easy; that it is hard, rocky and uphill, if we face the truth that, after all, the only thing that keeps us from success…is “us”…and that we are not enemies, but teammates, than our problems become solvable.
We can all meet on the medal stand.