olympic lessons

We are a winter family here – we dig the snow, and the cold, and are more easily put off by the sweltering humidity of summer than the bracing edge of winter.  That said, this winter has tried even our snowman attitudes.  For these reasons, our family has really been filling up on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.  It’s been hard to peel Grant away from the TV this week and a half.  He’s as caught up in the charisma of it as much as I am, and every free moment he’s been asking to catch up on whatever he may have missed.  His watching habit shows no discrimination – he’s as happy to watch a biathlon event as he is to hold his breath over the dramatic acrobatics of the half pipe or the unpredictability of snowboard cross.  He earnestly chronicles the most recent developments if I happen to miss something while I’m making breakfast or folding laundry.  He eats up the stories of the athletes, and can tell me how many medals someone has won, not just this go ’round, but all previous ones, too.  He’s a details guy, and there are a lot of details here.

It is no surprise to me, though, that his favorite to watch is the same as mine: ski racing.  The heart pounding, edge-of-the-seat anxiety that happens when these athletes hurl themselves down this mountain is pure couch-potato adrenaline.  I grew up skiing, and can conjure up only a muted impression of what this must feel like at these speeds, and this level of difficulty.

Here’s the thing about skiing:  the place where the winning is done is the thin, almost nonexistent line between control and out-of-control.  Hold on too tight and you won’t be fast enough.  You’ll be playing catch up the whole way down.  In order to ski aggressively, in order to throw down a medal worthy run, you have to be willing to risk.  And not just risk losing, but risk it all. Give up too much control, though, and you’re careening into the snow fence, your body twisting unnaturally at unimaginable speeds. The athlete must strain against the free fall and yet give way to the free fall.  For the Olympic athlete, it’s about riding this line.  That’s the sweet spot.

Maybe I’m not so different from an Olympic athlete.  Oh, sure, I’ll never have the physique or muscle tone; I’ll never know the sacrifices.  I’m not anticipating the glory and pride that come from winning for my country, or the devastation and disappointment of losing.  But my search for the sweet spot seems just the same.  I wonder if my life could look more like a ski race.   What if I put off my fears, stopped riding the conservative line, and leaned into the gravity of the mountain?  What if I instead of rigid movements with tight muscles, I relaxed into the fall? What would that even look like?  What if I let go enough to feel that sweet spot?  And what am I willing to risk to find it?

This is the battle for all of those athletes out there competing.  Some of them find it.  Many do not.  A few of these Olympians know the glory of this triumph, the pride of standing on the podium, for their country, and yes, for themselves.  But all Olympians know the risk.  All Olympians know failure and disappointment.  Even the winners.  Because there is no way to become an Olympic athlete without having overcome loss.  These athletes know disappointment, they know injury, they know pressure within, and pressure without.  They know how their heart pumps blood differently through dreams unmet.

Last week, Shaun White took fourth place in the Snowboard Half Pipe event.  A crowd favorite, he may be the best snowboader out there.  But other guys performed better than he did that day and he did not medal.  Grant watched as this was unfolding, and at the end he said “Mom, I’m sad for Shaun White.”  And I think we all were.  But being an Olympian, even an Olympian with two gold medals from previous Olympics, didn’t make Shaun White immune to disappointment, to failure, to heartbreak.  I was glad for Grant to see this.  To see how even the people we look to as the best, the ones who are doing it well, aren’t perfect.  Nobody does it well all the time.  Life is not lived in the sweet spot.

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia wraps up this weekend.  In the meantime, you’ll find us on our couch, Grant giving us the play-by-play.  And when it’s over, you’re invited to find your sweet spot on our backyard luge course.  And I’m not even kidding.



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