“The Olympics remain the most compelling search for excellence that exists in sport, and maybe in life itself.” ~ Dawn Fraser, Australian swimmer and 4-time Olympian Gold Medalist
Every four years the Olympic Games return and capture our collective imagination once again.
I find myself watching (and sincerely getting excited about) events I would NEVER watch on my own outside the Olympics.
Why is this?
I think the answer, at least for me, is that there is nothing else out there that is such a universal celebration of raw ability.
It is unadulterated talent on display.
It is the physical manifestation of the payoff of hard work and dedication to human possibility.
It is in the pure and authentic celebration of human excellence at its finest and most innocent.
We are awed by those who push themselves to do the seemingly impossible, thereby declaring in living color that most impossibilities are only opinion and only for now.
The Games inspires me. More accurately, the athletes at the Games do. They motivate me to want to rise a little higher. I’m moved by the backstories of so many of this year’s Olympians. The obstacles many have had to overcome just to be here have been breathtaking.
When things get tough, I’m reminded of athletes whose very hardships made them who they are today. Their ability grew out of the necessity of the moment. Their stamina was a direct result of the pain they pushed through, of life’s mountains they had to climb to get to the top of their game.
The stories are inspiring reminders that the human will is a powerful force that can get us over hurtles of all kinds.
And so I share with you an introduction to the backstories of just 6 athletes whose accomplishments defy their pasts, and thereby encourage us to do more with the circumstances we’ve been given, prompting us to reach higher than the mediocrity we’ve sometimes settled for.
6 Awe-Inspiring Backstories
… that will make you reevaluate just how limiting the obstacles are in your life.
Lolo grew up in poverty, her single-parent mom often holding two jobs just to keep food on the table, never quite knowing how they were going to pay the bills. Their poverty kept the family moving, requiring Lolo to attend eight schools in eight years.
After being evicted from their home, they lived homeless in the basement of a church. Lolo would wake up early for school to avoid the embarrassment of being seen coming out of a church basement.
The family soon had to move once more, but Lolo had a burning dream. The new school didn’t have a track. But Lolo had to run. It was here that she parted with her family when her coach arranged living accommodations with various local families so Lolo could continue to pursue her dream.
As she began to make a name for herself as a runner and hurdler, she began to entertain dreams of making the 2004 Olympic team. It was a bitter loss when she didn’t.
But that stumble in her running career only made her more determined to qualify for 2008. She did, but stumbled there too, only a bit more literally. So she started training 2-4 hours a day for a race that would last only 12 seconds. She’s now waiting for her second shot at Olympic Gold in London.
“I always use my failures as motivation,” she said. “It was natural because I had seen my mom do it her whole life.”
Failure is no more than a mindset. It is what you make of it. So make it no more — but no less — than the stepping-stone that takes your life somewhere amazing.
Adrien started competitive cycling when he was 19 years old, just three years after an uncle lent him a bike to compete in a local cycling event in Rwanda. He fell in love with the sport and began training hard, perhaps to help forget the horrific memories of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 where his six brothers were murdered.
He was able to escape that fate by hiding in small holes in the ground during the genocidal rage that took more than 800,000 lives. His life in Rwanda was difficult and poor.
Just last year, as a matter of fact, Adrien stepped foot inside his first hotel while at a sponsored cycling event. He had his fist experience with hot running water there. Often, he even slept on the floor to avoid spoiling the luxuriousness of the hotel bed.
Now he is the first cyclist to ever represent Rawanda at the Olympic games, and one of only four coming from that war-torn county to London this year.
You don’t always choose what will be written on the pages of your history, but you can choose what you will write on the pages of your future. So choose well.
When Lopez was just 6 years old, he was attending church when his village was attacked by Sudanese soldiers and ironically imprisoned by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
After watching his friends slowly die around him in the camp, he decided to escape. With the help of a few other boys, he was able to fit through a hole in the fence and ran for three days and nights to safety across the Kenyan border where he spent 10 years in a refugee camp.
Catholic Charities brought him to America after a moving letter he wrote asked the organization for help. He was sponsored by an American family and began going on long runs, perhaps in memory of his life in Africa.
Now he runs for other reasons.
Life’s obstacles are nothing more than obstacles. They are inanimate objects, events and circumstances, lacking the power to decide the nature of the path we travel. Only we can do that. We decide whether they cripple or motivate, whether they end or begin dreams.
Playing midfield on the U.S. Women’s Soccer team, Shannon hopes for her third straight Olympic gold.
And yet in 2002 she was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, which put her at risk for other autoimmune diseases, leading to contracting Lupus in 2007.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease itself that attacks the living cells and tissue of its host, especially targeting joints, skin, kidneys, lungs, the heart and the nervous system. She’s determined to make sure the disease never defines her.
“I want people to see I’m playing through this and to encourage them to stay active. I never want to use the disease as an excuse.”
Excuses are everywhere for why we do or don’t do, act or fail to act. But those excuses, while often understandable, are the recipe for the poison that kills our determination to do something profound with our lives. So make none.
Guor is one of only 4 Olympians to run under the Olympic flag as an independent. He simply refused to run for the country he fled saying, “If I ran for Sudan, I would be betraying my people. I would be dishonoring the two million people who died for our freedom.”
Guor is a South Sudanese refugee marathon runner who began his running career by running from a Sudanese labor camp where 28 relatives died. He survived by hiding in a cave with a jaw that had been broken by soldiers.
He ran his very first marathon just last year, running fast enough for an Olympic qualifying time in that one race alone.
Sometimes buried deeply within the pain we are called to suffer is the seed to a level of greatness unreachable without that pain that coaxed it to the surface.
Queen Underwood is a fighter in more ways than the obvious. She fought through years of sexual abuse by her father. She fought back from drug addiction. She now fights to make a difference.
“I am a Winner because what could have destroyed me didn’t,” she wrote on her website. “It made me stronger, more determined and more focused.”
“Success is a journey not a destination,” she continued. “The Olympic Gold is part of this journey, the beginning, not the end.”
“I’ve overcome abuse, I’ve learned to take control of my body through discipline and belief that nobody will make me feel helpless again.”
We can lie down and wait for life to bless us, delivering us from our difficulties. Or we can fight for what we want, to become who we were meant to be.
It’s true that circumstances often define us. We can adopt our external conditions as our internal identity, defining the essence of who we are. But that’s not a recommended course of action.
Rather, like Underwood, Boxx, Niyonshuti and all the others, we can refuse to allow the pain and challenge of history to continue playing out in our lives today. We can carve out a new path, redefine our circumstances, refuse to let the difficult or traumatizing or heart-wrenching restrict us along the path we are blazing for ourselves.
But even Olympians crash and burn.
Failure is a stepping stone to learn what not to do next time, to evaluate mistakes and what goals to set to reduce the likelihood of repetition.
Failure highlights areas of needed growth and improvement.
Failure can defeat us or motivate us to climb higher, work harder, run faster, push through and overcome and become a living manifestation of the indomitable spirit of excellence.
The Olympic Games thrill me because I love human excellence in all its forms. And although the Games reflect the physical most obviously, if we take the time to look beneath the surface, the athletes reflect so much more than mere physical excellence.
The Games embody determination, dedication, will and stamina. They reflect the refusal to allow life to get in the way of living it at its highest, pushing for what seems impossible, reaching amazing levels of human capability.
There is passion and drive, hard work, sacrifice and blood sweat and tears in every step, every jump, every stumble, every break and tear and sprain and twist and dislocation too.
Each story underscores a life that has been lived with delayed gratification for a higher goal, the discipline to push through pain and learn from mistakes and the power of practice and repetition and preparation.
The Olympic level of human capacity underscores the journey the athletes traveled to hone a skill, learn a craft, develop an ability and learn from others.
Coaches and life experiences and those with a slightly better time in their field, competing on a world stage where histories and politics and governments largely fade into the background, even if never out of sight, as athletes compete with athletes in a dramatic contest of the human spirit to excel, these athletes, par excellence, must dig deep into their souls and draw out something most of us leave buried there.
Perhaps the ultimate draw and influence of the Olympic Games is in the motivation they lend us to do some soul-digging of our own.
What lessons have you drawn from the Games this year?
Who have I left off the list?
Why do you love (or hate) the Games?
We would love to hear from you in the comments below.
Photo courtesy of Streeter Lecka/Getty Images Europe