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Life Lessons from the Olympics

Posted August 19, 2016

Muscular young man swims the butterfly in the pool

Watching the Olympics this year has been like gobbling down manna from heaven — something completely different — and something for which I was starving to cancel out the particularly nasty political rhetoric that continues to swirl around us in this final week of the Games. I don’t know when I’ve spent this much time in front of a television set so fully engaged. I watch as much of the Olympics as I can every day and night, and when I can’t — like every day at work — I catch  up with the day’s major events on the internet and news.

Refugee Team

I’m the type who really gets into the inspirational stories of the athletes, of course. The tougher the story, the more inspired I am. This year I was especially moved to learn that for the first time in Olympic history, there is a special ten-person  “Refugee Team” for Olympic athletes “who have no country .”  That phrase was like a punch in the stomach. We take a person’s country and our own for granted — it’s where you’re born, where you live, where you will die, Isn’t it? Well no, not now, not necessarily.  Before I’d had much time to think about it, there they were, marching into the stadium on opening night: young, beautiful, proud, smiling, deeply grateful to be alive, I assume,  and somehow actually competing at the 2016 Olympic Games in spite of whatever has happened in their own tragic pasts.

Female Athletes

I am anything but an athlete. I never had any leanings in that direction at all, although as a kid I loved to swim and was always the last one out of the pool. I was thrilled when I earned my junior lifesaving badge at Girl Scout Camp and experienced my first and last standing ovation at the campfire. I learned to dive from a diving board in good form: feet together, toes pointed, barely a splash, just as my athlete father (gymnastics, boxing) taught me.

I also loved tumbling, of all things, and bouncing up toward the rafters on a trampoline, but I was always too chicken to do the somersaults and back flips. I was more into having fun with my friends and playing board games like Monopoly and Clue than practicing any sport for hours on end. But then, I grew up at a time when girls didn’t take sports seriously, and teachers and coaches didn’t take girls interested in sports seriously. What a global turnaround at the 2012 Olympiad, in which female athletes actually outnumbered male athletes for the first time!

The Olympic Spirit

What draws me most to the Olympics each time is that on a deep level the Olympic struggles both symbolize and reflect all the elements of our ordinary lives: the hero’s journey, the universal human journey, the archetypal quest for the Holy Grail/hidden treasure/golden egg. The Olympic Spirit is the human spirit in all its glory, magnified a thousand-fold upon a global stage.

In interview after interview with the medal winners, we hear about their having vision, commitment, determination, the ability to work hard, the willingness to overcome challenges — and incredible perseverance toward their goals no matter what.

Older Athletes

This year I was particularly struck by the number of athletes competing and winning their events even though they are decidedly older than athletes who competed in past Olympics. These include Michael Phelps, of course, probably the best swimmer of all time; he came back to these Olympics at age 31 to add seven more  medals to his collection, now an unparalleled stash of 28; 30-year-old Usain Bolt of Jamaica, who won his third straight Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter track event, thus retaining his “Fastest Man in the World” title; and Anthony Ervin, also an American, who at 35 won the gold in the 50-meter freestyle  swimming event the for the second time — 16 years after winning it in Sydney when he was 19 years old! These are all truly remarkable stories.

But wait. There’s more . . . There are even Olympic athletes in their  40’s, 50’s and 60’s whom you may not know about, and I think you should, just in case you are 39 or so and not exercising at all, let alone training for the Olympics.

  1. Oksana Chusovitina, 41, representing Uzbekistan in gymnastics (!) is competing in her seventh  Olympics and says she has has loved every minute of it. She is the mother of a 17-year-old son.
  2. Bernard Lagat, 41, a Kenyan and former silver medalist in the 1500-meter track event, is representing the United States this year.
  3. Phil Dutton, 52, an equestrian who won a gold medal for Australia, is now competing for the United States in his sixth Olympics.
  4. Mary Hanna, 61, an equestrian from Australia, competing in her fourth Olympic Games, plans on competing in the 2020 Games in Tokyo. “I’m just now beginning to hit my prime,” she says.

You go! Thank you all for your effort, dedication, excellence, and inspiration!! You have enriched all of our lives by your sacrifices. We love you from afar.

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