Some Life Lessons from the Olympics

Anthony Ervin first won a gold medal in the 50 meter freestyle medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. For the next 8 years his life spun out of control as he succumbed to heavy drinking, drug use, and sex addiction. After a failed suicide attempt Ervin said, “I woke up the next morning only to find I had failed to even kill myself. At that point, I had a moment-with-God-type thing. I was reborn, in a way.”

Last Thursday Ervin again won the 50 meter freestyle, 12 years after his first Olympics. Commenting about his presence at the 2012 Olympics, Ervin said, “Not to be pedantic, but it’s like the ending to a body of Shakespeare’s work. As with Prospero, who kind of had his redemption and was returning to where he came from, so did I feel like my being here is my own form of redemption.”

Some of the most heartwarming stories during these Summer Olympics come from athletes who have triumphed over setbacks and have come back in inspirational ways. 10,500 women and men are participating in this Olympics, with only 302 gold medals to be awarded. That means over 10,000 athletes may be dealing with disappointment and failure of one sort or another. The honor of being selected for a national team and the joy of simply being a part the Olympic experience is overshadowed at times by personal expectations and national pride.

For some competitors it’s not enough simply to participate. After years of spending every waking minute of every day focused on this one moment in time, this one chance, success is measured only by a medal and, for some, only a gold medal.

The truth is that each one of us has experienced the thrill of victory as well as the agony of defeat, although our setbacks and failures are not played out to an international audience.

It could be the loss of a job, a boss who does not recognize our talent, being passed over for a promotion because of office politics, dealing with chronic illness, recovery from an accident, dreams that are forever dashed, or expectations that will never be met.

Many times the setback is beyond our control. How do you and I recover from disappointment, grief, and pain? How can we redeem situations that seem hopeless? How can setbacks be transformed into comebacks as we regain our footing with dignity and grace? How can we be reborn?

First, embrace your reality and allow yourself to feel the pain. Setbacks can open a path to fullness of life when we invite God to sit with us and hold our grief, embarrassment, and shame. How often have we lamented, “I only wanted my family and friends to be proud of me, and I feel as if I let them down. All of these years of school or practice have been wasted because I can’t find a job that supports my family. If only I hadn’t been treated unfairly, if only I hadn’t been sick on such an important day, if only the timing had been better, if only, if only ….”

U.S. swimmer Dana Vollmer set a world record in the 100 meter butterfly 8 days ago. She is the first woman in history to swim the event in under 56 seconds (55.98). Dana won a relay medal at age 16 at her first Olympics in 2004. Four years later, however, she failed to even make the U.S. team, finishing fifth in the 100 butterfly and seventh in the 200 freestyle at the Olympic Trials. “Coming back from 2008, after trials, I didn’t know if I was going to swim,” she said. “I had worked for so many years to reach that one goal, but along the way I had a shoulder injury, a back injury, and I was having to deal with fatigue and so much pressure that I just wasn’t having fun with it at all.”

As many of her friends traveled to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics, Vollmer traveled instead to Fiji, where she taught children to swim. She returned with a new perspective, recovered her childhood joy of swimming, and risked trying one more time. Setbacks become comebacks when we acknowledge our feelings and name the intensity of our grief before letting go of its fierceness and moving on. Second, challenge yourself to an attitude adjustment. Some people wallow in their pain forever. Others determine to recover their equilibrium and discover that new hopes and dreams emerge from the ashes of their failure. Wiping out negative thoughts, seeing the cup as half full rather than half empty, and making lemonade out of lemons may seem simplistic. However, history has proven again and again that God is bigger than our defeats, and the human spirit is resilient.

16 year old Jordyn Wieber, from DeWitt, Michigan, was the 2011 world all-around gymnastics champion going into the 2012 Olympics. The leader of the U.S. gymnastics team, Jordyn was taken by her mother as a 4-year-old to a moms and tots gymnastics class, and immediately she excelled. Jordyn’s natural coordination and muscle strength, ability to focus, and love of performing led her to London as the favorite to win the all-around gold.

Unfortunately, Jordyn was eliminated from the all-around competition because only 2 gymnasts from each country are allowed to advance to the finals. I can only imagine the hurt and pain of Wieber’s shattered dreams as teammates Gabby Douglas and Ali Raisman moved on.

The mark of a true champion, however, is how they deal with setbacks. Wieber could have folded, become bitter, and packed it in as she left the arena in tears. But she didn’t. Rather, she responded with grace and determination. U.S. gymnastics coach John Geddert said, “She had about five minutes of disappointment, and she let it cry out. And then she immediately responded with, ‘We’ve got work to do on Tuesday.’” A few days later Wieber delivered an outstanding performance on the floor exercise to help the U.S. win the team gold. Setbacks become comebacks when we learn from our losses and believe that God will find a way to work through our circumstances.

Third, prepare for defeat ahead of time.

Most of us are not ready for the shock of failure because our plan is always to win. The assumption is that if we even let the thought of defeat creep into our mind, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Naturally, the pressure becomes enormous, for when we deny the fact that none of us win all the time, one huge loss can adversely affect our morale and psyche for years.

Peter Haberl is a senior psychologist on Team USA who believes that a new approach is needed. He says, “The more you avoid a certain thought the more it is likely to surface. I would encourage the athlete to confront issues head on, to understand that losing and winning are both part of the athlete experience…. Thoughts about losing, and winning for that matter, can detract the mind from staying present.” The game plan is always to win, but there must be a game plan for failure as well.

American judoka Marti Malloy suffered the most agonizing defeat of her life in the 126 pound division of the judo competition a week ago. Marti defeated 3 opponents on Monday but made a risky move with 7 seconds left in the semifinals. Unfortunately, it backfired, giving Corina Caprioriu of Romania the victory.

Utterly crushed, Malloy lay on the mat, realizing that she had only an hour to let go of her dream of a gold medal and regain her poise as she faced the reigning 2008 Olympic champion for the bronze. Malloy won. Her coach, 92 year old Yosh Uchida said, “She wouldn’t let any obstacles stand in her way. She didn’t have any money, had to get a job or two to get by. But she wasn’t going to be stopped. I felt bad for her today when she lost in that semifinal but thought she would have the determination to fight through it.” Nothing is wasted in God’s economy, and setbacks are transformed into comebacks when we realize that defeat is a necessary part of the path to success.

Finally, learn humility and recognize that none of us succeeds or fails on our own merit.

In a world which ascribes unrealistic merit to sports stars and celebrities, humility reminds us that none of us are as gifted and talented as we are told we are. In fact, there are very few self-made people in this world. We are dependent on parents, teachers, friends, coaches, counselors, and peers to lead us along our life’s path.

Humility, however, does not equal shame or humiliation. Who can forget Chinese men’s weight lifter Wu Jingbiao, who was so shattered after losing a “sure” gold to his North Korean competitor that he was not even able to speak? Dissolving into tears in front of the camera, Jingbiao said, “I shamed my country, my team and all of those who cared for me. I’m sorry!”

Living in China, where the government makes it clear that only gold medals will do, Wu Jingbiao’s shame was transformed into redemption as the Chinese public voiced its impatience and distaste for their government’s “gold fever.” Every person in this world who gives forth their best effort deserves only the greatest applause and respect, for who we are and what we achieve are not identical. Setbacks become comebacks when the same people who helped us become successful are there for us when we suffer defeat.

London is famous for “The Tube,” its subway system. Everywhere there are signs to “Mind the Gap” between the train door and the station platform. The choice we all face is intentionally minding the gap between setbacks and comebacks. By minding the gap through embracing reality, adjusting attitude, preparing for both victory and defeat, and learning humility, we create God’s future. It may not be the future for which we dreamed, but it will be a future filled with continual rebirth, redemption, and moments-with-God-type things.



2 thoughts on “Some Life Lessons from the Olympics

  1. Thank you for reminding us that devotion comes in so many forms. That quiet and difficult road to our own best (or back) can bring out the humility in all of us. Talent without humility is an empty place. We are never alone.

  2. As always, you have words that touch the soul! I particularly liked your ending:

    It may not be the future for which we dreamed, but it will be a future filled with continual rebirth, redemption, and moments-with-God-type things.

    It is a way of looking at life that makes positive even those things that might otherwise break us down.

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