So I’ve taken off from posting the last couple weeks to watch the Olympics. It’s an excuse, but a great one, if I must say so myself. The Olympic competitions are the greatest reality shows of all time. Like all great art, they reflect the human condition in all its glory and futility.
But what do the Games have to do with this blog? Well, like anything else worthwhile, maintaining a beautiful, simple life is hard. Whether your objective is to eat more cleanly, reach a fitness milestone or simplify your life, you will need perserverance, resilience, determination and focus to accomplish your goal–qualities on display in abundance at the Olympics. The Games are a magnificent paean to the eternal human quest for excellence.
Here, without further ado, are the ten most inspirational athletes from the 31st Olympiad, in no particular order.
Never in history has an athlete carried a greater weight of expectation than that borne by 4′ 8″ Simone Arianne Biles. Before she had won a single Olympic medal, television commentators were already calling her the “greatest gymnast ever.”
And she carried it magnificently. She was expected to win a gold medal in every event in which she competed. However, she almost fell off the balance beam and finished 3rd in that competition. But a true champion is measured by how well they handle both victory and defeat. And, in that regard, Biles was flawless–always poised, gracious and humble. She didn’t crow when she won, or make excuses when she lost. In the next event after her stunning defeat, she recovered in spectacular fashion. She performed her usual array of leaps and flips, seemingly untethered by the bonds of gravity, and won gold easily. As Kipling said, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same”–then you’ll be like Simone Biles, my son.
Katie Ledecky is, arguably, the world’s greatest athlete. All the other dominant superstars, from LeBron James to Serena Williams, occasionally suffer the sting of defeat. Not Ledecky. She has never lost a distance swimming race. In fact, she wins by such unimaginable margins that the only suspense when she competes is who will come in second.
Katie Ledecky is a very average athlete. When her current current coach began working with her, she couldn’t do three pull ups or run a 9-minute mile. She’s improved a lot since, but she still doesn’t have the imposing physicality of Michael Phelps or Serena Williams. You can just look at those two and tell they’re among the world’s greatest athletes.
Then how do you reconcile the last two paragraphs? How can one person be both the world’s greatest athlete and a very average athlete at the same time? Relentlessness. She simply won’t be stopped. She comes from a very privileged background–her father is a Harvard-educated lawyer and her uncle owns the New York Islanders hockey franchise–but she swims like she needs to pay her Section 8 rent. She basically swims a distance race like it’s a sprint. All out. Further, she’s a student of the sport, constantly analyzing video and data, even though she’s already the best in the world.
Natural talent and aptitude are marvelous gifts, but Ledecky reminds us of a simple truth we all know but are reluctant to acknowledge: There’s simply no substitute for hard work.
Poor Justin Gatlin. He’s one of the greatest sprinters who’s ever lived. He’s an Olympic gold medalist in his own right, and once held the world record in the 100 meter dash. Problem is, he had the poor judgment to be born at the wrong time. He was born in the Age of Bolt.
No athlete since Michael Jordan has captured the public imagination like Usain St. Leo Bolt. He is, quite simply, the most beloved sportsman on earth. Bolt is that once-in-lifetime star who transcends his sport, and belongs in the same firmament as Ruth, Ali and Jordan. Gatlin has always operated in his shadow, and has the unfortunate role of playing Salieri to Bolt’s Mozart, Frazier to Bolt’s Ali, Wile E. Coyote to Bolt’s Roadrunner. You can almost see the anvil hovering above his head.
Part of this is because of Bolt’s well-documented freakish talent. There is simply no one like him, nor will there ever be. At this year’s games he was clearly diminished by age, and was still yards ahead of everyone else.
But no one attains to Bolt’s level of transcendence on talent alone. Millions love him who know absolutely nothing about track and field. That’s because if there’s anything bigger than Bolt’s talent, it’s his charisma. He projects a joy when he performs that’s impossible to resist. He looks like a kid racing his friends in the street on a warm summer evening. He has the rare gift of being able to exult over his own triumphs without disparaging or demeaning his opponents. Not even Ali could pull that off. He was often mean and unnecessarily cruel to his rival, Joe Frazier. Bolt simply doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.
It’s one thing to be great. It’s another to be loved. But it’s a rare, special person who accomplishes both.
Aly Raisman, 22, is captain of the U.S. gymnastics team. Because of her age and experience, she’s nicknamed “grandma” by her teammates. Oksana Chusovitina competed in the 1992 Olympics, two years before Raisman was born. I guess that makes her “great grandma.”
Yet there she was, at 41, flying, twisting and tumbling at an age where very few of us do those things voluntarily. And she did so with abandon. She tried a vault so difficult even Simone Biles didn’t attempt it. It’s called “the vault of death.” She didn’t land it, but she didn’t die. She popped up and kept competing.
When asked why she’s still at it when most have retired to less hazardous occupations, Chusovitina’s answer was clear and unassailable: “Because I love it”. Case closed.
So often we stop doing the things we love because we think age or circumstances limit us. Why? Someone asked Chusovitina if she would compete in Tokyo in 2020. “Of course,” she said. We can’t wait. Oksana Chusovitina is a “grandma” who’s truly great.
Many of us think Olympians live glamorous lives, but that’s mostly untrue. Very, very few become wealthy or famous, maybe one to two percent.
Four years ago, the strongest woman in America had to live on $400 a month. Sarah Robles was preparing for the 2012 London Olympics and was scraping by on the meager stipend provided by U.S.A. Weightlifting. At 315 pounds, she just couldn’t find sponsors, even from “progressive” companies like Nike.
Robles finished 7th at the 2012 Games, but was then hit with a doping suspension. She unwittingly consumed a banned substance found in an over-the-counter medication she took for polycystic ovarian syndrome. After that, she lost what little she had. She was shunned in the weightlifting community, lost her health insurance and lived off of food stamps.
But she didn’t give up, battling back to win a spot on the 2016 US Olympic team. And this past week, Robles won the first US weightlifting medal in 16 years, a bronze. “I got bullied as a kid,” she said, “and one of my motivations is to not let anyone else feel the way I felt about me. No one should have to hate themselves, doubt their abilities, change what they like or who they are.”
Her future plans are to continue to inspire others as a coach or perhaps a PE teacher. Mostly, she just wants to be a voice of reason and kindness. Lord knows, the world could use more of that.
Everything was going according to plan for Mo Farah. He was right where he wanted to be in the final of the 10k race when life happened.
He fell. For most people, that would have been the end of the race. But here’s what Mo Farah didn’t do:
- Stay down.
- Look for someone to blame.
Instead he popped up like he was on springs, gave the thumbs-up sign, and went on to win the race. There’s no doubt that the strength training he had done–which many distance racers avoid–gave him the power to return to his feet so quickly.
If we live long enough, every single one of us will be knocked down at some point of our lives. If we learn from Farah, here’s what we shouldn’t do:
- Waste valuable time and energy looking for someone to blame. Including ourselves.
And here’s what we should do:
- Prepare of the inevitable now by strengthening ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally.
- When we do fall, get up, give the thumbs-up sign and keep moving forward. ????
Several years ago, on a hot August day in Louisiana, DeKendrix Warner waded into the Red River when he slipped and fell into deeper water. Six of his teenage friends and relatives heard him call for help, and rushed into the murky river to save him. All were black. DeKendrix survived, but all six of the kids who went in to save him drowned in front of a large, helpless group of family and friends, none of whom could swim.
Black children are three times more likely than white children to drown. Just under 70% of African-American children said they had no or low ability to swim.
The reasons for this are as complex and fraught as any other racial issue. Much of it is a product of Jim Crow laws and segregation. A generation ago, blacks were systematically denied the right to use swimming pools. Jeff Wilse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, says that, even in cities that did not have a policy of segregation, whites would “set up, essentially, sentinel guards at the entrance of the pool, and when black swimmers tried to come in and access them, they were beaten up, sometimes with clubs.” And, of course, because of discrimination and entrenched poverty, very few black children grow up with swimming pools in their back yards.
But the fear of swimming among African-Americans may go as far back as slavery. Black slaves who could swim could escape, and so fear of water was instilled into them by their owners, and that fear has been passed down through the generations.
And then there’s hair. Many African-American women won’t go near the water because they feel it wreaks havoc on their ‘do. But even this phobia has its roots in hatred. Black women (and men, for that matter) have long been taught the lie that their hair is inferior and ugly in its natural state. For many, if not most, African-American women, being seen in public with the hair God gave them is one of their greatest fears.
So Simone Manuel’s stunning and historic victory in the 100 meter freestyle, coming almost six years to the day after the Red River tragedy, meant far more than just another gold medal for the United States. Already, little African-American girls are being inspired to learn to swim because of her example. Her win may well be the final blow to the barriers that keep so many blacks out of the water. And that, in turn, will save lives. Who says sports are trivial?
Her victory proved, once again, that triumph and accomplishment know no racial boundaries. That African-Americans need not be afraid of the water. And that black women can be beautiful, even with chlorine in their hair.
ABBY D’AGOSTINO AND NIKKI HAMBLIN
Neither of these distance runners won a race at the 2016 Games. But they both won a medal.
Abby D’Agostino of the U.S. and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand collided into each other during the 5k race. Both fell hard. D’Agostino was the first to pull herself up, and she noticed Hamblin was still on the ground. “I went down and I was like ‘What’s happening? Why am I on the ground? Then suddenly, there’s a hand on my shoulder [and D’Agostino saying], ‘Get up, get up, we have to finish this.’ And I’m like, ‘Yup, yup, you’re right. This is the Olympic Games. We have to finish this.'”
And that’s what they did. D’agostino was more severely injured and was limping badly. Hamblin turned around to help her, and D’Agostino told her to go on. Hamblin did and finished the race in a little over 16 minutes. D’agostino tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee in the fall, but, amazingly, limped on to finish the last third of the race. After she finished, she had to be taken from the track in a wheelchair.
These two women had trained tirelessly for years for this one race. It had been the focus of their existence. They had never met before, and were from different countries. Yet, instinctively, they both sacrificed any chance they had to win to help each other finish. Afterward, they both said they wouldn’t change a thing.
The International Olympic Committee decided to award both athletes the prestigious Pierre de Coubertin medal. It has only been awarded 17 times in Olympic history.
There’s more than one way to win.
WAYDE VAN NIEKERK
I know I said these stories were in no particular order, but I lied a little. This one is by far my favorite. When, in years to come, this tale wins an Academy Award, please remember that you read about it here first.
It actually begins 50 years ago.
Ans Botha was a both a sprinter and long jumper before she began her coaching career a half-century ago. She started coaching by training her daughter Herma, but soon was shepherding a slew of athletes. During her 50-year tenure she became a renowned figure in South African track. Her runners called her Tannie Ans, which means Aunt Ans in her native Afrikaans. “I dearly love all my athletes,” she says, “but it’s about being strict.”
Six years ago a skinny teenager named Wayde Van Niekerk caught her attention when he was a schoolboy who finished fourth in a Junior Championship race in Canada. They got together in 2012 when he started attending college as a marketing student in South Africa.
Gradually, she mentored him with the perfect combination of compassion and ruthlessness, guiding him from being an injury-prone mediocrity to qualifying for the Olympic Games.
But this is also the story of Wayde’s mother, Odessa Swarts, who was a record-setting athlete as a teen. The problem is, she was racing in racist apartheid South Africa. That meant that, because only white athletes were allowed to compete internationally, she would never have a chance to race on a world stage. Instead, she ran in obscurity on grass, gravel and dirt tracks, destined to be denied sponsorships and recognition for her talent. “A lot of people ask me what if I had the chance to have all these opportunities,” she said. “What if? I don’t want to think of what if. My belief is it wasn’t made for me, it was made for [my son]. I was just made to be the mother of a champion.”
And finally, it’s the story of a great race. Van Niekerk was assigned lane number eight, the furthest on the outside. No one had ever won a major race from that lane, because a runner in lane eight is “running blind,” with no one ahead of him. It’s as if he’s running by himself. In much more favorable lanes were the experienced race favorites, Kirani James, who had won gold at the last Olympic Games, and American LaShawn Merritt, a hulk of a man who was a bronze metal winner. But from the firing of the starter’s pistol, van Niekerk set a blazing pace. Merritt and James just knew he had to slow down at some point. He didn’t. Maybe he just didn’t know any better. In the last 100 meters, instead of tiring, van Niekerk gathered more speed, and galloped away from the pack. He destroyed the world record, running a heretofore unthinkable 43.03. It was the most stunning performance of the Games.
So this is the story of a white-haired great-grandmother, whose passion and patience finally, after 50 long years, paid off in the greatest way possible. It’s the story of a mother whose once-thwarted dreams were realized in the magnificent achievement of her child. It’s the story of an underdog who rose from obscurity to conquer his powerful rivals. But most of all, it’s a story of love–between a mother and son, and an elderly white coach and her young black pupil–that resoundingly defeated a bitter legacy of hate.