Standing on the awards podium, I look out over the Berlin Olympic Stadium. I am on a promontory that juts out over the stands, the same space where Hitler spoke during the 1936 Olympic Games and where Jesse Owens' received his four gold medals, each of which shot a hole in the myth of Aryan supremacy. The power of this spot is palpable and, with only the blue track below me and the blue sky above, I feel as if I am floating on air. In the distance three flags are being raised, one of which is American, and in that moment it sinks in that that flag is for me.
The moment I just described, where I received my bronze medal for the women's 1500m at the IAAF World Championships, was be the pinnacle of my athletic career thus so far. In fact, in terms of best life moments, it ties with marching into the Beijing National Stadium with my fellow countrymen for the Olympic Opening Ceremonies.
Yet it's funny, because although I have fantasized my entire life about what it would feel like to own a medal, not much has changed now that I have one. As soon as the awards ceremony was over, I had to rush to do my cool-down and to go to drug testing. Less than a week after that, I was racing again in Zurich. Now that I'm home, my medal sits on my dresser in the tin case it came in and I'm back to base training in preparation for the 2010 track season. In this way, I have come to realize that it's not about the medal at all. Instead, what matters most is the sense of pride in accomplishing a goal I had worked so long towards and the joy of sharing that success with the people that helped me to achieve it.
It would be impossible to pinpoint the moment when I started working for a medal. I think experiences in life create dreams, which then become goals, and all along the way everything you do affects your journey towards them. If you are lucky, you have friends and family who encourage you, mentors who show you the right path, and doctors and trainers who make it possible for you to follow that path to completion. Had I not broken my leg in kindergarten, my Grandma might not have started me in Irish dancing, which developed my leg strength and speed, and which in turn helped me become a successful runner. Then again, maybe I would have, because there are so many paths that can lead to the same place.
When I look back at how things turned out this past summer, it is amazing for me to think that I actually am a bronze medalist. I am not particularly superstitious, but I was beginning to think that the world had it out for me. My month started with a surprise breakup, which left me feeling emotionally wrecked. When I reached Berlin, my bed had bed bugs and I found myself covered with red bumps from head to toe. The medical staff cringed when they saw me and everyone else probably thought I suffered from some form of pox. When the racing finally started things were not much better. I was tripped in the quarterfinal and moved on to the next round only through appeals. In the final, another girl was knocked down. I had to leap over her, which meant I ran out of gas the last 50m, and crossed the line in 4th. But, since the winner had caused the fall and then stepped on the inside of the track, she was disqualified and I am now a bronze medalist.
For me, it was a very rocky road to bronze, but I wouldn't change a moment of it. I learned so much about myself through those hardships. I have always believed that the most challenging situations are the most educational. While I do not enjoy going through hard times, it is from those experiences that I have seen what I am truly made of and what matters most, and in the end, success feels that much sweeter.
While my resume now says "World Bronze Medalist," I think it is important to realize that for every success a person has, there is always a story behind it. Whether that person is an international figure or an average Joe, their achievements were preceded by some combination of self-determination, struggles, and a lot of support. The common factor, however, is persistence in their pursuit, and that is something that everyone is capable of.
Follow Shannon Rowbury on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ShannonRowbury