I am not normally a fan of the Olympics. I know. I know. What kind of person am I? But, seriously, I’ve just not really ever cared. I don’t mind watching (I don’t have much of a choice since everywhere you turn, there they are), but if they didn’t come around every two or four years or whatever, I would not be broken up over it. That said, there have been three athletes whose stories spoke to me.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
First up is Ester Ledescká, the Czech skier/snowboarder. NBC did a human interest spot on her, and she blew my mind. It’s one thing to be a world class athlete, but it’s another thing entirely to be a female, world class athlete who competes in not one, but two, sports. And Ester doesn’t just compete. She wins gold medals…in two sports. It’s awesome. What really spoke to me about the interview with her was when she was discussing how many people had told her she shouldn’t try to compete in two sports. They told her it is better to focus on one. They told her that if she attempted to focus on two she would only accomplish being middling at two sports rather than potentially exceptional at one. They told her it couldn’t and shouldn’t be done. Ester, however, had a the audacity to ask a simple question when people told her it couldn’t be done. She asked them, “How do you know?” And she did it anyway. Damn. I thought about my own life and how many times I listened to naysayers, never once believing in myself enough to stand up for myself and tell them what I knew in my own heart: “I got this.” So often I backed off the courage of my convictions and figured others knew what was best for me. I was wrong. I think every young girl (and boy) should know Ester’s story. Ester is the embodiment of grit, a woman who knew what she wanted, fought for it, worked hard, and did what others said couldn’t be done. She kicks ass.
“We are at our most powerful the moment we no longer need to be powerful.” -Eric Micha’el Leventhal
The second outstanding athlete is Shaun White, of course. I have been a fan of Shaun’s since his first Olympic appearance in 2006 in Turin. Shaun White is a walking superlative. He’s a joy to watch, the rare combination of hard work, creativity, enthusiasm, confidence, finesse, and passion. He elevated snowboarding to an art form, constantly pushing himself (and others) to greater heights, literally and figuratively. At 35, he showed up solidly against competitors almost half his age. Yes. He landed in fourth place at his fifth Olympics, but who cares? He’s Shaun White, dammit. What struck me about what I saw of him after his final run, though, wasn’t his graciousness but his heart. After receiving an ovation upon completion of his final Olympic run, after accepting hugs and kind words from each of his fellow competitors, Shaun did something more extraordinary than all of his physical feats. He let the emotion of the day take over, and he cried, not a couple quickly wiped away man tears but actual, ugly-cry tears. I don’t think I have ever been more impressed by him than I was in that moment. He showed his humanity. In fairness, he has cried on camera at Olympic events before, but this meant more. This was a man openly weeping on television for the world to see because he was feeling all the feels. And me being where I am in my life cried right along with him. I’ve got tears just remembering it now. Shaun gave the sport of snowboarding a firm foundation and a heart, and he proved that you can be a man and feel your feelings and show them for all the world to see. And that is a bigger gift to the youth who follow in his footsteps than his Double McTwist 1260.
“Life is not about how many times you fall down. It’s about how many times you get back up.” ~Jaime Escalante
The final athlete who wowed me this week was Mikaela Shiffrin. After falls in her first two events, events where she is usually the one to beat, she was visibly shaken. She was angry at herself, disappointed in her performance, and all-too-aware she was letting people down. But she rode the chairlift to the top of the Super G course and stood at the gate to face her fears. I can’t even comprehend that level of bravery. After her first two events, she could have simply decided not to compete any further. She could have decided that maybe the universe was trying to tell her it wasn’t safe for her to compete. Oh, the voices of self-doubt she must have been battling as she took that ride to the top of the mountain. But she did it. 3…2…1…and she burst from the gate to ski 70 miles per hour down to the finish. And when she finished in 9th place, she wasn’t disappointed in herself. She was ebullient. She was smiling. The relief on her face was there for the world to see. She hadn’t raced that race because she had something to prove to others. She had raced because she had something to prove to herself. She showed up to that race for herself and, in doing so, told the fear in her heart and mind to go to hell. She is so strong. I’m not talking her physical strength (although, holy crap, yas queen, you go, girl). I’m referring to her mental strength, the strength to fall in front of the world and get back up and risk it all again. That is what the world needs to see more of. The strength to look fear in the face and do the scary thing anyway. Mikaela, you are my hero this week. I will always root for you. Not because you’re my Colorado mountain girl, but because you are wicked brave.
I guess my admiration for these athletes teaches me these three things. I need to believe in myself and follow what my heart tells me because it knows me best. I need to be willing to open up, to be vulnerable, and to feel my feelings when they arise. And I need to look fear in the face to make forward progress. This is the way.