I am obsessed with the Olympics -- and I have been since I was little. I have watched hour after hour of events, year after year -- summer or winter, it doesn't matter. I watched with awe as the sportscasters brought us into the minds, hearts and personal lives of athletes, from flyweight boxers to bobsledders to bi-athletes. I am hanging on to every word of every story as Sochi unfolds, the athletic competition, the secret Starbucks in the NBC media compound, the plumbing -- it all fascinates me.
I visit Olympic sites whenever I can with my kids. At last count, I have been to over 20 of the cities where the Olympics have taken place (and visited dozens of the villages). Like so many other kids and adults, I dreamed about being in the Olympics. Oh, I did have a short-lived competitive figure skating career (and I use the word "career" loosely), during which time, I believe my skating dresses were more outstanding than my skills.
But what I remember most are the incredible moments of human strength, the unbending determination of those who fell and then rose again, rather than the ones with the straight path to the golden podium. That doesn't minimize the Michael Phelps', who accomplished feats of athleticism and victory never likely to be seen again. But as my parents told me and I have repeated to my kids many times since (which I am confident they find annoying), the measure of a person is what they do when the chips are down.
I remember the pain of Dan Hansen's falls in 1988 (he had competed in the 1984 games as well) after learning of his sister's death, Jane, the one who had inspired him to skate in the first place. And then the 1992 Olympics -- with no falls and no medals, and the 8th place finish in his first race in 1994. And oh, what a feeling of joy, when in Dan Jansen's final event and race of his Olympic career, he won the gold. In a moment of pure magic, he did a victory lap with his 8-and-a-half month old, Jane, (named for his beloved sister). And in my opinion, he would have been just as much of an inspiration without the gold.
Olympic Life Lesson #1: If you are lucky, your family is your foundation, your soul and your bedrock. The strength of your spirit (and the strength you get from the love of your family) is just as important as your skill as an athlete. These relationships can feed your soul long after the thrill of an Olympic career has faded.
I remember the look of sheer agony and dejection in the 1996 Olympic Games during the heated team competition with the Russians when Kerri Strug fell on her first vault and injured her ankle. Strug needed a great vault to ensure gold for the American team vs. the rival Russian powerhouse. She limped to the runway, and with a look of intense determination, charged forward, completing her vault, saluting the judges and collapsing to her knees in pain -- and ultimately leading the team to gold. Who knows what internal force, sense of team or out of body moment enabled her to complete this vault. But as a 31-year-old watching on that day, I learned about courage from that fearless teenager.
Olympic Life Lesson #2: You have an amazing reserve of strength within you that sometimes might even surprise you. That strength might not always be clearly accessible, but in a clinch, your indomitable spirit can amaze you. Believe that you are capable of greatness. You might never need it in the thrill of Olympic competition, but you will need that confidence in school, in relationships and in your career.
Can you ever forget the thud of Greg Louganis' head hitting the springboard during the preliminary rounds in the 1988 Olympics? That one really got me. The sportscasters just kept showing that hit over and over again. It was remarkable that Louganis was not rendered unconscious or unable to compete. Not only did he attain the highest score in the qualifying round, he completed the troublesome dive in the finals, winning the gold medal by a substantial margin.
Olympic Life Lesson #3: When you fall and you are in pain (sometimes literally), you have to find the strength to keep trying. Get back on that springboard, on those skates in that ring, in that challenging situation. And when you get up, you might not win the gold. But you will know that you left everything you had out on the court and have so much to be proud of.
The inspiring Olympic stories are endless -- from other Olympics, from other athletes from other countries, from famous and from obscure competitions, from those that end in agony, joy, injury or victory. The lessons that can be learned can fill volumes.
But maybe the biggest Olympic life lesson of all I have learned from the Olympics is that no matter what the conditions are, keep training, continue learning, get stronger, try new things, test your limits, forge ahead even when you are afraid, take one more step when you are sure you have nothing left. And if you always try to do that, you will be the Olympic champion of your own life.
Good luck in Rio 2016!!!