The Olympics have me deeper into TV and news than usual. As always, there is so much to cheer for, be proud of, and inspire us for whatever our game of life looks like, and the one thing I know for sure is that we never know the whole story of the journey that put any of us in the shoes we wear today. The same goes for these athletes. Whether it’s Simone Biles withdrawal from competition, Caleb Dressel’s medal stack and the vulnerability he showed in one of his post race interviews admitting how hard this past year has been, or the unbelievable story of Jake and Taylor’s beach volleyball partnership as it became Jake & Tri and they took the court for their first match with only two practices under their belt, the story behind the story is always what interests and inspires me more than any medal or result. These athletes remind us of what is possible, but their road comes with intense pressure and grind that only few in the world can understand. I hope that what comes from this Olympic experience, played out under the most unimaginable circumstances, without fans and families, and indecisive tests that can end the road for them in an instant, is an awareness for the need for support from early in a promising athlete’s career. The task of developing a whole person in the vacuum of trying to becoming the best in the world is immense, but the real lessons we learn from the success and failure we experience as athletes have the potential to create amazing human beings.
In this day and age, athletes at the Olympic level are intimately tied to the business of sport with endorsements, financial gain, and their livelihood is on the line. Consistent greatness comes with a price tag and the financial distress that can come with having an Olympic dream is immense. I’ve heard it quoted on my favorite podcast that the average Olympian finishes their Olympic run $150,000 in debt. These stories have been a reminder to me this week that no one is meant to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and none of us can reach our potential alone, even the best in the world. The struggles we have seen become part of their heroes journey and show us that success doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Watching the American medley relay team, made up of four American teenage girls, support their anchor who missed out on the gold by .13 seconds was an inspiring picture of what support from the inside looks like. No matter what the story, how can we integrate the whole process of becoming instead of holding the physical performance, the end result, and mental health as separate parts where one has to be sacrificed for another? As spectators, we can meet the stories of these high performing athletes with empathy and compassion knowing the kind of pressure they are under and the inspiration they provide for us. And then I realize that if we did that every day with everyone we meet, how much greater the connection with the people around us would be. If people feel like they have to watch out for themselves because no one else has their back, human connection and our sense of humanity is lost.
People say to me all the time, you are so open with your blog and what you write about. I write to clear my head, and so my kids will have an idea of what their mom was thinking about. I don’t want to be a mystery to them when they reach an age where it becomes relevant to their experience. My greatest hope is that it helps them understand themselves better even if I’m not around. I want them to understand that they are so much more than what they accomplish or do in a day. Armed with the understanding that not everyone has earned the right to know everything, vulnerability and candor have helped me create connection with people that inspire and teach me from the highest levels of sport and have helped me learn more about myself and the world. I can’t imagine keeping it locked up inside, it’s the greatest reason I have for my optimism.
What I have learned in my life is that success stories are not perfect pictures, they are real, marred by cuts and scraps and even deep daggers to our hearts that change us, the question becomes will we have the courage to wrestle with what lies beneath that story and will we be the ones who choose not to judge the stories of others that we think we understand even though we have never walked a mile their shoes. These Olympics are the games that will inspire me for all the reasons that they have since 1984, and for so many new reasons because of the struggling humanity that is on display. The better we know ourselves, our boundaries become clear, and we meet the stories we encounter with more compassion and less judgment, and that is a win every single time. This last year and a half has shown us how independently strong we are and in the same moment how much we need each other for connection and growth…it’s not an either/or proposition. We are never alone in the struggle if we have the courage to let it be seen.
With love & optimism,