The Summer Olympics in Rio are winding down, but what a thrilling ride it’s been as athletes pushed the envelope of what’s possible, crushing world records with physical acumen and dedication, that we, the world watching, can hardly fathom the countless preparatory hours spent for those few minutes on the global stage. Defeat and injuries have also shared our TV screens, the decimation of dreams at times hard to watch.
Yet in victory, defeat and even disastrous mishaps there have been some truly inspiring moments this year in Rio that will be hard to forget. Watching Michael Phelps come back after hitting rock bottom a few years ago to lead the U.S. swimming team to incredible feats – his maturity in and out of the pool something to behold. Seeing Katie Ledecky in her quiet joyful way smash world records, having fun (her words), lifted our spirits.
Then there are the Simones. What an absolute treat to see Simone Biles (and all the U.S. gymnasts) excel, but there’s something about her exuberance that makes her excellence as an athlete all the more inspiring. I’m not one for watching lots of swimming, but I caught the women’s 100-meter freestyle race – the fact that Americans actually made it to the final seemed like quite an achievement. Then Simone Manuel WON! Her look of surprise after touching the wall was priceless. Still gasping for breath out of the pool, her immediate response to NBC was: “All glory to God…”
Simone Manuel is the first African American to medal in an individual swimming event. What a great cause for celebration considering the context of segregated pools in our painful American history. In that initial interview, you could see that significance hit her – so much now overcome. What a powerful influence and impact she has achieved in her sport, our country, and to the world – to be more, and do more Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.
Since my brother likes beach volleyball (something about those uniforms?) we avidly followed Kerri Walsh Jennings with Misty May-Treanor in her previous three Olympic gold medal endeavors. This year when Kerri Walsh Jennings teamed up with April Ross, we tracked their progress through the first week of matches. For sure, we were a little nervous when they struggled a bit with the Swiss, but they prevailed.
Watching Kerri Walsh Jennings succeed again (& again) has been inspirational, but nothing, NOTHING, like watching her reaction this week to defeat by one of the Brazilian teams that kicked them out of gold medal contention & into the bronze medal match.
In the previous three Olympics Kerri never lost a match. That’s a heck of a lot of wins. But, I must say, watching her reaction to her first Olympic defeat inspired me so much more than all of her victories. When the NBC interviewer asked about the word ‘joy’ she had written on her hand, she responded, “In all moments, when life is tough, when life is great – always be grateful. I am a blessed woman and today doesn’t make me any less blessed. It makes me more determined.”
Determination that drove Kerri Walsh Jennings & April Ross against the #1 seeded Brazilian team, Talita and Larissa, in the bronze medal match to come from behind to win one of the best beach volleyball matches we’ve ever seen. The next day Kerri Walsh Jennings said that this medal will have a special place up there with all her gold: “we earned this bronze medal!” Indeed, they did.
Getting third place, or not getting a medal at all seems tough after so much hard work. I understand this a bit. Years ago I ran the two-mile for my high school track team, a challenge since the best girl in state ran in our district, plus my best friend also ran it – always ahead of me! For two years the best I managed was third place here & there, but not enough points to earn the track pin for my varsity letter. My senior year as I debated the grueling training (10-15 mile work out runs) & whether it was worth it (or not!) Coach Zanka said, “Hey Virginia, we need a high jumper. Since you’re a cheerleader & jump a lot, why not give it a try?” Try I did — and made it to districts, and even regionals, finally earning my track pin, much cherished after three years of trying.
For many athletes just getting to the Olympics is a a BIG DEAL. Making into a final is also a BIG DEAL, especially in track & field where over 120 teams competed this year. There’s a great deal of pressure in the heats & semi-finals to win to move on to the final. One of THE MOST inspirational moments from these Olympics came in the women’s 5,000 meter heats when Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand fell, tripping American Abbey D’Agostino who immediately stopped to help Nikki up. As they both started back to run, the New Zealander returned the favor when Abbey fell down from a knee injury. Both finished the race… and hugged. Abbey blew out her knee, so most likely she won’t be competing for months, but what an inspirational legacy she leaves from these games — reflexive “small acts of kindness.” May we emulate her example when others stumble and fall around us (literally & figuratively) to lend a helping hand.
Oh, then there’s Ashton Eaton. Earlier last week we saw him fully supporting his Canadian wife Brianne Thiesen-Eaton as she took bronze medal in the heptathlon. Watching him compete this week in the decathlon definitely caused a few heart palpitations. It’s certainly a tremendous physical feat over two days of so many events to win gold, but what touched my heart is how Ashton and Brianne really supported each other (even on different teams.)
Supporting one another is also a take-away from these Olympics. In the team events it’s a bit more obvious (soccer, basketball, volleyball, water polo…) but it was also evident with American sprinter Allyson Felix (i am such a groupie) and the 4×100 relay team. When things didn’t go well after the dropped baton in the qualifying heats, they hung together, moving on to qualify by themselves, and then win the gold medal in the final. Even from brief interviews, it’s easy to see how they support each other on & off the track.
Most of us will never win a gold medal – or any medal for that matter! But we can be inspired by these amazing athletes, the winners AND the losers: all those brave enough to compete. We don’t have to be defined by our defeats and failures. We can learn from them and draw determination to try again… and again, if necessary, to reach our goals. Sometimes we may need to take a circuitous route to reach them (like doing the high jump to get my track pin.) Other times it’s just the journey that matters, how we do what we do. With joy? Open to opportunities to help others? To take a seat supporting the success of others? Or, as we can, blazing a path for others to follow…
Virginia : )
“Have you thought about the talents God has given you? Have you thought about how you can put them at the service of others? Set your stakes on great ideals that enlarge the heart, that make your talents fruitful. Life is not given to be jealously guarded for ourselves, but is given to us so that we may give it in return. Do not be afraid to dream of great things!” Pope Francis