Monday, August 18, 2008
Eight one hundredths of a second – that was the difference between the U.S. men's 4 X 100 freestyle relay team winning and the French taking second. Both broke the world record, but only one team will be remembered for accomplishing the feat. On the podium twelve men stood, four each for first, second, and third. All most likely trained with the same intensity, the same sacrifice, the same goals, and the same history. On another day, at another time, the fortunes may have been reversed. Such is the nature of competition at that level. Think of the number of swim clubs in the United States. Think of the number of young swimmers at those clubs. Think of the number of swimmers who are close to but not close enough to world class speed. Think of the number of parents who wake up at 3 a.m. to drive to practices and meets. Think of the number of parents who write check after check for coaching, membership and tournament fees, gas money, hotels, equipment, and food. Four young men from all those thousands got to have gold strung around their necks. Now think of all the other sports where only one or two get to succeed at the international level – tennis, gymnastics, beach volleyball, track, ice skating, golf, weightlifting, boxing, skiing – the list goes on. And only a handful of these sports offer any real money either in college or professionally. Players do them for the love of the sport.
Michael Phelps trains seven days a week about six hours a day. That's beyond dedication. Interviewers talk about his Olympic dream, but a dream is something to muse upon. This is an Olympic goal – something attainable through planning, training, and execution of skills. To achieve his goal he needs the personal drive. No parent, no coach, no fan can provide him with the hunger. I love watching the Olympics because I am humbled by the level of intensity these athletes need to muster even to get to the arena, much less to win. Every heat showcases incredible talent, most who will never get to Olympic medals, or even to Olympic finals. And behind them extends a comet's tail of hopefuls who were hundredths or tenths of a second off the mark or a point or two short or injury inhibited or a skill shy. And behind those athletes extends a universe of other athletes who simply have to play the sport for joy and exercise.
We watch the races and the matches and the competitions and we think that could be my son or daughter. But preceding those few seconds or minutes have come years, even decades of training. The 41 year old swimmer Dana Torres trains every day for six hours and she has been doing that regimen for 35 years. I marvel at that dedication in the face of a regular life when I have cleaned toilets for 35 years, but never for Olympic gold! I admit that I hate cleaning, but even if I loved it I know I could never sustain the dedication of daily long-term training with little more than Olympic medals at the end. I like sleeping in occasionally, slacking off on the beach, and eating at Cheesecake Factory too much. To give oneself over to the training necessary to even hope for Olympic medals without any guarantee of success requires a far more focused individual than most of us will ever be.
Watching the men's gymnastics team finals was truly awe-inspiring. For a short time, the American men held the point lead, but ultimately they fell behind the Chinese and the Japanese teams to capture the bronze. While the Chinese had not only been touted to win the gold, but had also been told by their government to win the gold, the pressure had to have been intense. The head coach was quoted as saying that if his team didn't win gold he would go to the tallest building in Beijing and jump off. The drive to succeed had both internal and external dynamics. The American men on the other hand were not expected to medal especially after losing to injury the only two members with Olympic experience, the Hamm brothers. When the Germans, who threatened the Americans for the bronze faltered on the pommel and the points showed the Americans had won bronze, the celebration by the Americans erupted with the same joy and intensity as if they had won gold. On the opposite side of the gym, the Chinese sobbed and looked completely relieved to win gold – not really joyful. They had had metaphorical rifles pointed at them and finally with the gold they were out of the gun sights. Their celebration had that bittersweet component of having dodged the bullet. I'm sure they couldn't understand the level of exuberance the Americans released, because success could only be measured by winning gold. Anything less would have been both demeaning and failure. But the American's attitude was that any point total that took them to the podium was a success no matter what the level.
Hopefully all athletes can find that same inner peace with the successes they achieve. Olympic medals will only go to a small percentage of players in the world. But the joy of scoring a goal, blocking a shot, scaling a wall, achieving a personal best, attempting a new skill, and all the other individual moments of success exists for every player. As parents we need to remember that every pat on the back, every ""good job,"" every hug, and every sideline cheer are the gold medals our kids want to achieve. While the French team of four swimmers didn't win gold by only eight hundredths of a second, they did get the opportunity to stand on an Olympic podium. While such a tiny fraction of time kept them from gold, all the years of practice, sacrifice, and dedication brought them to the podium. The disbelief and frustration on their faces at the end of the race were replaced by smiles and joking when the medals were handed out. I have to think they realized that despite the loss, they really didn't lose at all.