When Laura said she wanted to watch the Winter Olympics, I didn’t eagerly give up my evening of writing and reading. I had never really watched the Olympics because, quite frankly, I have zero interest in sports and the athletic ability of a spoon (of which my physique will testify.)
But as we watched such odd events as half pipe, curling, and luge along with familiar categories like ice skating and bobsledding, I realized that—who knew?—the principles of Olympic triumphs and efforts translate universally, even to the unathletic, chunky, stay-at-home-and-read sort like me!
Check out these gold principles I carried away from the Olympics.
1. Be satisfied with running—even without results.
I was only halfway listening on February 11 when Chris Mazdzer gave an interview after his silver medal win for men’s luge. To tell the truth, I think luge is a goofy word and a goofy sport. But he said something that really resonated with me.
“[This win was] 16 years in the making. I’ve had a rough last two years. And it just shows, don’t ever give up. Whenever you’re at your lowest, you can keep fighting it.”
The sportscaster asked, “How were you able to stay so relaxed and have so much fun and still lay down those four strong runs?”
I had to go through those runs to be comfortable with who I am without results.
“Honestly, it’s all in the mentality. I was so comfortable with who I am,” Chris continued, grinning. “I had to go through those runs to be comfortable with who I am without results. So basically as a human I’m comfortable with where I am. I know what I can do, and I know what I can give to the world.”
It’s not hard to translate that to my writing pursuits—and whatever your pursuits may be. Keep going through the runs, even if you aren’t seeing results. Someday it will pay off.
2. What really matters is your performance, not your award.
On the final night of figure skating, after Evgenia Medvedeva’s
performance, sportscaster Terry Gannon said, “I don’t know if we watched gold, but we watched greatness.”
A lot of people wouldn’t believe that gold and greatness are mutually exclusive. It goes against all we believe to think that anything but first place is acceptable, let alone great. But sometimes the beauty of the performance, the act of an athlete giving her all, is more majestic than a perfect program.
One of the greatest female ski racers in Olympic history, Lindsey Vonn, sure knows that’s true. At 33 her body has already said “Enough!” to the one thing that she loves most. At this, her last Olympics, she took home the bronze for downhill skiing. In a post-race interview, Mike Tirico asked how she would describe her Olympic career.
She only paused for two beats before saying, “I’d say I was an Olympic champion, but I was someone who embodied the Olympic spirit more so than how many medals I got. . . . Of course we’re all athletes, we’re competitors. We all want to win and that’s a given, but at the same time . . . you can really show kids what it’s like to be a true sportsman, a true champion. Not just because you’re a winner, but because of how you conduct yourself.”
Mikaela Shiffrin, another American skier, said something similar, even after losing one of her runs. “I’m not lying when I tell you: It’s not about the medals, it’s not about winning races, but it’s about how I feel on my skis.”
And though there’s something to be said for being a true competitor and not just a participant (I’m looking at you, Elizabeth Swaney), all you can do is your best—the medals are just some extra bling.
3. You Are Your Biggest Competitor
I asked Laura on the last night of the Olympics, “How do you think these Olympians keep from comparing themselves to others? How do they keep that from rattling them?”
It seems to be a consistent understanding among Olympians and successful people in general: you are your greatest competition, the person to beat.
US half pipe snowboarder Chloe Kim didn’t have to do her final run—she had already won gold. But she did it anyway, saying, “I knew if I went home with a gold medal knowing I could do better, I wouldn’t be very satisfied. . . I wanted to go bigger. That third run was for me to prove to myself that I did it so I could go home and be happy with myself.”
They do it to beat themselves.
Olympians say a lot of cliche things—things that are no less true for circulating on memes and magnets. Yet it seems less hackneyed coming from these folks, less like a crutch—because they live it out on the screen before us. And in this case they perform even when they know they have no hope of beating Shaun White or Mikaela Shiffron or Virtue and Moir. They do it to beat themselves.
4. Those moments might be just around the corner.
Laura was crying when the Hungarian pulled ahead in the short track speed skating event to win the country’s first gold medal in history–and first medal since they received silver in figure skating 38 years ago. She doesn’t have special connection with Hungary or anything. She just said, “I always cry when the underdog wins.”
Another one of those moments happened to the first-time Olympian Norwegian skier, Simen Krueger, who fell in the first lap of the 30-kilometer cross-country skiathlon. But far from down and out, Krueger, in the rear, stood and gathered his strength to pass 63 other skiers and win gold (with apologies to the two Russian competitors whose chances he wiped out with him when he fell.)
The point is that neither of these guys were expecting to pull ahead, especially not after a catastrophic spill. But a come back or a pull ahead might be around the corner for us at anytime—we’ve just got to keep at it or pick ourselves up and give it our all.
5. Know how to recognize—and accept—moments of your own greatness.
After the US Women’s hockey team beat Canada (after
their four-year gold streak), one of the Canucks took off the silver medal faster than she could skate. It looked ungrateful, unsportsmanlike.
And then there is the puzzling case of Murai Nagusu, the American figure skater who was the first US woman (and only the third woman ever) to land a triple axel in her free skate program at the Olympics.
Among other bizarre things she mentioned in an interview, she said, “I thought of this as my audition for Dancing With the Stars. I would like to be on Dancing With the Stars because I am a star. . . . I made history here by landing the first triple axel for a U.S. lady at the Olympics, so I think that is a big deal.”
Though both of these ladies apologized later for their tasteless reactions, it didn’t remove the bitter taste left in our mouths by two athletes who couldn’t accept what they had earned or absorb the honor of where they were and hadn’t learned how to live in moments of their own greatness. After all, silver is nothing to cry over. And as for Murai who took a wrong turn somewhere on her way to reality television and wound up at the Olympics, well, she’s still young and can hopefully learn to reevaluate her priorities.
6. Admit your goals and don’t apologize for your ambition.
Mikaela Shiffrin didn’t want much from herself—just to win gold in every category—five to be exact. Or at least that’s what she hoped for this year. When she said as much at Sochi four years ago, people went crazy, calling her brash or overambitious.
So she backpedalled, blaming her extravagant proclamation on lack of sleep and youthful enthusiasm. But lately, she’s been rethinking her retractions.
She said, “If I leave any legacy behind, it’s just the idea, just the theory that you admit to your ambitions and you don’t let people tell you you’re wrong to have those ambitions. As long as you’re willing to work toward them—you can’t just expect it’s going to be given to you just because you had the dream. But if you’re willing to work toward them, then you have to admit to them first.”
7. Don’t Let Preconceived Boundaries Stop You
Alex and Maia Shibutani (affectionately known as the Shib Sibs) are a brother and sister figure skating team. If you’ve watched any amount of figure skating, you know that it can often border on the risqué—not the sort of scene appropriate for a sis and bro.
They said they’re frequently asked, “Can siblings really succeed in this sport? Should they? Aren’t they limited from the steamier showings of those who tend to climb the podium?”
But they’ve decided to cross boundaries and do things differently—and not just for themselves, but for the good of the sport.
Alex said, “If you’re sitting through an event full of ice dance teams and seeing the same story told over and over again, that’s not good for the growth of the sport. . . . Having a different point of view, which we naturally bring because we are coming from a different place, is something that we’ve embraced.”
Echoing that sentiment, US snowboarding gold winner Jamie Anderson said, “You have to do your own thing. If people are inspired, that’s awesome. If people want to judge [me], then that’s just not any of my business.”
Doing things differently is not easy, but it’s always worth proving that there’s more than one way to do things. And along the way, you just might inspire someone.
8. Learn how to be uncomfortable and enjoy it.
During the Olympics I saw my fill of people saying wedding vows to Big Macs and Diet Coke trying to convince me that it will make me feel good and Hershey prompting me to go for the gold . . . caramel bar. (Foods that Olympians don’t eat but are great for making sure us couch potatoes will never be Olympic contenders. By the way, if you want to see what Olympians actually eat, check out this article.)
I was, however, interested in two particular commercials. One was for Visa in which Mikaela Shiffrin soaks in a tub of ice while sipping a green smoothie and reading a book. I watched it over and over, fascinated by her seeming comfort in the frigid dip.
Another commercial for Comcast showed Olympians with sweat pouring down their bodies as they trained hard, struggling to make their elite physical feats look easy and effortless.
I’m not quite there yet—reveling in my discomfort.
Something I heard during the Olympic coverage tied these two behind-the-scenes snapshots together. In an interview before the much-anticipated 18-year-old US skater Nathan Chen’s first performance, his ballet coach said, “Nathan learned how to be uncomfortable and enjoy it.”
Not sure about you, but I’m not quite there yet—reveling in my discomfort, be it holding out a few more minutes on the treadmill or working on the 20th draft of an essay. But it’s a good reminder that no one ever got to the Olympics, or anywhere else noteworthy in life, without sweating and suffering. And even amateurs like you and me need to work on our endurance.
9. Always keep a grin on your face—in case you’re tossed into greatness.
So stuffed animals were the thing this year, thrown to the contestants at the end of their programs. Can we all agree that one of the most inspiring moments of the Olympics was when Garfield showed up on the television screen with Evgenia Medvedeva and sat in her lap grinning even as the judges proclaimed Alina Zagitova the gold winner?
The tubby tabby looked proud of himself—probably pleased at how little effort he put in to being part of the Olympics. If some day life tosses you into greatness, just enjoy it.
. . . . . .
Now that they’re over, I find myself actually missing the games. I’m sleep deprived, I wrote nothing last week, and I feel fatter and lazier than ever. But I definitely carried away some golden inspiration and motivation.
So come 2020, if you need me, you’ll know where to find me—on the couch . . . with a snack . . . watching the Olympics.