I love the Olympics. I start looking forward to the Games a year before they start. I glue myself to the television, load up the DVR, and go to great lengths to avoid any sports news to make sure I don’t accidentally hear any results before I see the competition on one of the plethora of Olympic broadcasts on my DVR.
My fascination with the Olympics isn’t really about the sports, although I do find most of them pretty entertaining. My obsession is really about the stories. The people who aspire to compete in the Olympics amaze and humble me. Their stories touch my heart. They expand my understanding of human nature. I rarely make it through a single broadcast without being moved to tears.
I’ve been watching the Olympic trials for various sports over the past few weeks. I am getting excited for the beginning of the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics. I discovered, completely by accident, that I could find one Olympic trial for some random sport and set the recorder to capture ANY new Olympic trial broadcast of any sport on any channel. It is like magic. What a bonanza! The Olympic stories are already unfolding in front of me through the wonder of television. These are the stories of athletes who are already celebrities, the stories of the athletes who may be the next legends of sport, and the stories of the athletes who may never be household names.
Almost everyone has heard of swimmer Michael Phelps. He has more Olympic hardware around his neck than any other athlete in history. He has competed for Team USA in four Olympic Games. He was 15 years old when he went to his first Olympics. He basically grew up in the pool… and in the fishbowl. Because his star shone so brightly, he attracted the camera. The media covered all his escapades. Those escapades included stunning athletic achievements. They also included less impressive personal conduct, as a young man tried to figure out who he wanted to be. He struggled with questionable judgment, turbulent relationships, and substance abuse. During the 2012 Olympics in London, he continued to achieve. At least, he continued to achieve Olympic medals… but one sensed that he was no longer achieving personal peace and satisfaction.
In recent years, Phelps sought treatment for his substance abuse issues. He solidified healthy relationships. He got engaged. He became a proud father. He reaffirmed his personal and professional commitment to his long-time coach. The Olympic swimming trials show us a man who seems to have come out of the dark place in his personal journey. Long ago, Michael Phelps came into his own as a swimmer. As he earned a place on his fifth Olympic team and won his last race on American soil, he seemed to show us all that he has come into his own as a person, as well.
John Orozco did not perform as he wanted to at the London Olympics in 2012. He had a disastrous performance that may have cost the USA men’s gymnastics team a medal. I am sure this disappointment both haunted and motivated him as he fought his way through four more years of preparation for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He worked and competed hard. He earned the right to be considered for this year’s Olympic team, despite those people who said he couldn’t come back or couldn’t be relied on not to fold under the pressure.
In the sixteen months prior to the Olympic team competitive selection process, his beloved mother died suddenly. He also sustained what would have been a career-ending injury for most people. Doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to compete until at least June. Before the end of June, he powered his way through the Olympic selection events. When the selection committee announced his place on the men’s gymnastics team, his face shone with the absolute joy and blessedness of the moment. Uncontrollable tears streamed down his face. You have to believe he will banish the London demons while competing in Rio.
In women’s gymnastics, Laurie Hernandez, just sixteen years old, competed in her first senior tournament at this year’s US Championships. She finished in third place. More importantly, she proved to the selection committee that though she be but little, she is fierce. She fairly crackles with carefully controlled kinetic energy. She is such a cute young lady, with her bubbly personality, huge sparkly eyes, and curls as springy as the rest of her body, that it is tempting to refer to her as a “little girl.” This is no little girl, however. No child could be so skilled, mature, disciplined, poised, and motivated.
In addition to her athletic ability, she demonstrated her value as a teammate. When one gymnast had a rough performance that seemed likely to torpedo her chances of making the Olympic team, the other competitors rushed to give her quick hugs of support. Laurie did the same. However, I noticed her embrace lasted a fraction of a moment longer and seemed to offer connection just a layer or two deeper than the others. Even through the television, I could feel authentic empathy- a transfer of warmth and comfort to a teammate. Again, this is no little girl. As Laurie Hernandez blossomed onto the international stage, the television media captured her unfurling. I felt like I was watching a young woman discover the depth and breadth of her personal power on her road to Rio.
Vashti Cunningham is going to her first Olympics as part of the United States women’s track and field team. She is eighteen years old and high jumps on the international stage. She finished second in the US Olympic Trials, earning her the right to march into the Olympic stadium in Rio and compete with the world. Her coach is her father, Randall Cunningham. He was an NFL pro-bowl quarterback- and a high school high jumper himself. Vashti Cunningham bookends the women’s high jump team with Chaunte Howard Lowe, who is now on her way to her fourth Olympic games. In addition to competing as an elite athlete, Ms. Lowe has dabbled in a few other endeavors. She has spent her time between jumps getting married, raising three children, and pursuing a graduate education.
Both of these women are incredible athletes with incredible stories, but I think what moves me most about them is how they represent eternal cycles of excellence. The legacy of achievement passes from father to daughter, from veteran to newcomer. In return, the father and the veteran grow and build even richer lives because of their interaction with the daughter and newcomer. These cycles of excellence prove to me that mediocrity truly is not the measuring stick for our world. It gives me hope for the future.
I think my favorite story of the Olympic trials, though, is one about a man who will not be competing in Rio. Troy Dumais has been part of USA Diving for 20 years and competed in three Olympic games. During the diving Trials, he fell just short of making the 2016 team. As he stood on the springboard for his last dive of the Trials, he knew that it was mathematically impossible for him to secure an Olympic berth. As he readied himself for that last dive of his long career, the crowd acknowledged his substantial contribution to the sport. The diving community and fans stood and applauded, in appreciation for his skill, inspiration, and mentorship. His eyes welled up as he took in this moment of love, admiration, and awe. It was obvious that this outpouring of emotion genuinely surprised, humbled, and moved him. He steadied himself, took a breath, and finished the competition. He didn’t succeed in getting a place on this Olympic team, but I think he achieved something much greater without even knowing he was trying for it.
The Olympics start on August 5th. I can’t wait to hear the other stories- the stories of American athletes I haven’t heard yet and the stories from the rest of the world. I will be rooting for the Team USA athletes to go for the gold, but I will be rooting even harder for all the people behind the stories.
What are you looking forward to most about the Rio Olympics? We’ve read so many stories about the operational difficulties, it is easy to worry. Let’s hope for a smooth, inspirational Games. Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a gold-medal winning day!