Every two years, Summer and Winter, I go through a period of sleep deprivation because I try to maintain my usual schedule while watching as much Olympic coverage as is humanly possible. I am a confirmed Olympics junkie. I’ll watch any country playing any sport, except curling. I honestly just don’t “get” curling.
Years ago I recognized that these Olympic athletes are a different breed. Most of them have old family film of them doing their sport when they were six years old and you can see that they had something special even at that age. And they’ve dedicated their lives to this singular goal – to become an Olympic athlete.
Most of us will never become Olympians and are destined to live the dream vicariously through their amazing feats. And the good news is: Those of us who have our own athletic dreams can learn a lot from observing these young super-human athletes and their approach to success in their particular sport.
For twelve years (for three Olympics) I’ve watched Kerri Walsh Jennings play beach volleyball and win three gold medals. Over the years, I’ve come to feel that no one in that sport is lovin’ what she’s doing as much as Kerri. Make no mistake, she always plays to win and has laser-like focus on gold. But, her passion for the game itself is evident to even the casual observer. I believe her pure joy in her sport is a big part of why she continues to play at the highest level and keep racking up gold medals.
If you’re watching the 2016 Olympics, you know the name Katie Ledecky, the 19-year- old who will soon give Michael Phelps a run for his money as the greatest swimmer of all time. When being interviewed after a semi-final heat in the 200 freestyle, she was asked how she would prepare for the finals coming up the following day. Her answer was: I’m going to get a good night’s sleep and tomorrow morning I’ll be in the practice pool. When asked what she’d be doing in the practice pool to prepare, she replied: “I have a few things to work on.”
Now, this is a kid who has left all her competition “swimming for second.” She swims – she breaks a world record! And she “has a few things to work on”??
For the soon to be dubbed Greatest Swimmer of All Time, there’s always room for improvement. And that’s what makes her so great.
Kristin Armstrong won her third gold medal in the Women’s Bike Time Trial, an absolutely grueling race. She fought off wet weather, a strong challenge by a Russian competitor and a nose bleed – not to mention the fact that most of the field was far younger than her 43 years.
Some time ago I met Kristin. She had just returned from her second recon visit to Beijing where she would be riding the time trial in the upcoming 2008 Olympics. She mentioned that, to her knowledge, she was the only competitor who had made the trip to actually train on the course, and she’d been there twice. It was a critical part of her preparation and it clearly was a good strategy. Beijing was her first of three gold medals.
This is a lady who leaves nothing to chance. And the reward – three times – has been Olympic gold.
One of the most beautiful sports to watch this year is women’s gymnastics and it’s because of the team that USA has fielded this year. It’s less a competition and more an exhibition. The five American pixies are simply throwing down perfect performances and stuck landings one after the other. They seem to gracefully jump through the air, leap on precarious narrow beams and fly across high bars – each move being incredibly risky and dangerous.
When Simone Biles, already referred to as the greatest gymnast of all time (at 19 years of age!), was asked how she and her fellow team-members were able to harness their Olympic nerves and perform such clean routines, she answered with….We just try to think about all the times we’ve done it in practice and pretend it’s just another training routine.
Do the training and then shut down the mind and just let the body do what it knows how to do. Certainly is working for this Fab Five team.
And simply because I think these athletes need to be mentioned…..
Ibtihaj Muhammad is an American Muslim on the fencing team. She knows very well that she’s simply one American woman but she’s representing an entire culture at a very important time in history. She’s handling that heavy load with great grace and dignity.
For the first time in Olympic history, a field of 10 athletes from the war-torn countries of Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo has been competing in Rio as the Refugee Olympic Team. They represent no country – they have no flag nor national anthem. What they do have is the same drive and will to succeed as any other athlete at the Games. Each has a heart-breaking story of how they got here, but that’s not what’s important now. What’s important is that they’re in Rio and each is an Olympian!
We all have a lot to learn from these folks we call Olympians, whether they come home with a medal or not.
Good luck to every athlete competing in Rio!
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The principle of reaping what we sow is certainly relevant to any effort requiring endurance. A Hail Mary might occasionally work on the football field (think Doug Flutie), but don’t expect that kind of miracle while participating in a 5k, half-marathon or marathon.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about endurance, it’s that it can’t be faked for long. Things have a tendency of shaking out fairly quickly. We know when someone has put in the work.
As heavyweight boxing great Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”