It was one of the most heartwarming moments of the Winter Olympics. Noelle Pikus-Pace could not get to her family. She had just won the silver medal in skeleton and was beside herself. She literally climbed a fence and jumped into the stands to embrace her husband and two young children, saying over and over, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
Noelle’s tortuous fifteen-year journey to an Olympic medal took her all over the world hurtling down icy chutes. Along the way she endured countless disappointment, frustration, and setbacks. Noelle missed the 2006 Olympics because of a bobsled that ran into her and broke her leg. In 2010 she missed a medal in Vancouver by one tenth of a second. Noelle handled herself with grace, then went back to her hotel, cried, and retired to be a full-time mom.
After suffering a miscarriage in 2012, Noelle and her husband, who made her sled, decided that not only would she attempt one last comeback, but they would do it as a family. Standing in the Start House moments before her final run on Friday night, Noelle wrote on a piece of paper, “This is it. Don’t get scared now.” Below it she drew a smiley face.
Interviewed shortly after the race, Pikus-Pace thanked her mother for always urging her to go for it. Then she said, “To all the youth: remember who you are and what you stand for.” Noelle believes that the key to her success is to always stay positive and see the good in everything.
Here’s the biblical equivalent of Noelle’s words, “This is it. Don’t get scared now.” It comes from the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him through strengthens me.” When you and I tap into the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able to do far more than we ever dreamed possible, whether in sports, school, career, family, surviving hardship or tragedy, or simply living a whole and healthy life.
It was one of the most courageous moments of the Olympics. Jeremy Abbott, who trains in the Detroit metro area, had not done well in the inaugural team short program the week before. Attributing part of it to the distraction of living in the Olympic Village, he left the Village and checked into a hotel.
Last Thursday night Jeremy was skating in the men’s individual short program. Shortly after he began, Jeremy attempted a quadruple toe loop, falling hard on his hip and slamming into the padded side. I gasped as Jeremy lay there in pain for what seemed like an eternity while the music kept playing.
In a press conference Abbott said, “I was lying there, kind of shocked, and I didn’t know what to think.” Then the predominantly Russian crowd started clapping and cheering. Jeremy said that when he heard the cheers, he said to himself, “I’m finishing.” He had to change his program to catch up but skated beautifully the rest of the way, including all required elements and finishing strong.
When Jeremy was done, he held his head high, smiled, grabbed his heart, and blew kisses to the crowd. Later Jeremy said, “I’ve skated with stress fractures in my back. I’ve skated with compressed disks. I’ve skated with pulled muscles. I’ve skated with all sorts of things. I will finish this competition no matter what… I think my personal story is about perseverance and getting up when you fall.”
Abbott could have easily stopped the program right there, knowing that his medal hopes were gone. But his instinct to get up and keep going was truly inspiring. I could just imagine Jeremy saying to himself, “This is it. Don’t get scared now. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Jeremy was no longer skating for the points. By skating to redeem himself, Jeremy faced his demons, became fully alive, and was perfect in his imperfection.
It was one of the most amazing moments of the Olympics. For only the third time in American Winter Olympic history, Americans Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy, and Nick Goepper swept the podium in men’s slopestyle skiing. I am not a daredevil when it comes to taking physical risks, so watching slopestyle skiing was an eye-opening and jaw-dropping experience. I get the sense that for slopestyle skiers, “This is it. Don’t get scared now,” never even crosses their mind. They are too busy dreaming up and executing impossible stunts.
Bronze medalist Nick Goepper is from Lawrenceburg, a southeast Indiana town of about 5,000. As a kid, Nick would do flips off the couch and find any way he could to create crazy tricks. He would spend three months a year skiing down a measly four hundred foot hill at a local slope that is about one-fourth the vertical drop of an average ski resort run. The other nine months, Nick would ski off AstroTurf and pipes on a homemade backyard obstacle course. His childhood dream was winning the X-Games, and Nick never wavered.
“To realize I’ve come all the way to this stage from my humble beginnings makes me super proud,” Goepper said. “Whenever my name is announced on a loudspeaker, the thing I’m most proud of is them telling everyone I’m from Indiana.” Nick can do all things through the One who strengthens him, especially coming from Indiana!
What does it take to become world class at anything? What does it take to be able to say, “This is it. Don’t get scared now.”?
In order to commit to anything great, there has to be a fire in your belly, a fierce desire so deep in your heart that you can’t do anything else. Talent without passion often leads to burnout. The single-minded focus of a passionate individual is often the only antidote to the paralyzing fear that often accompanies performance.
• Clear goals
Becoming an Olympic athlete doesn’t just happen. It’s the product of a vision of greatness, clearly articulated goals, a plan for accomplishing those goals, and coaches/mentors to guide them along the way.
• A Willingness to Risk
Poet T.S. Eliott once wrote, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” After U.S. skier Bode Miller placed a disappointing sixth in the super combined last week, he tweeted, “I’ll never stop pushing myself past my limits, but the mistakes that come with it are hard to swallow.” He also said, “I do better when I risk.” Bode won a bronze medal yesterday in super-G, the oldest Olympic ski medalist in history.
Greatness only comes when there is a willingness to view setbacks as part of the journey.
Have you seen Proctor and Gamble’s “Thank You, Mom” commercials during the Olympics? The theme of “pick them back up” celebrates moms for “teaching us that falling only makes us stronger” and “giving us the encouragement to try again.”
I saw grace in so many of the athletes at Sochi who never won a medal. As a child, I remember watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports, which debuted in 1961 and aired for thirty-seven years. Hosted by Jim McKay, the dramatic introduction to this weekly sports anthology used the words “the thrill of victory” and “the agony of defeat.”
The vast majority of athletes at Sochi never came close to a medal, yet there was little badmouthing of opponents, griping about officiating, or excuses. Those who experienced the agony of defeat expressed gratitude for the opportunity to test themselves against the world’s best, and most will go home with renewed thankfulness for the privilege of being an Olympian. At the same time, those winning medals usually thanked their teammates, coaches, and supporters, knowing that no one reaches the Olympics without the help of others.
What can the church learn from the Olympics? The fear that can either inspire or shut down world class athletes when performing can also paralyze the church. In fact, the decline in many of our congregations today can be directly attributed to the inability of local churches to foster passion, set clear goals, embrace risk, practice determination, and model grace.
If only our clergy and laity could claim the theme scripture of many Christian athletes,
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This is it. Don’t get scared now. You can do all things.