On August 18, 2016

Defining the Olympic spirit

By Angelo S. Lynn
These Olympic games may be the perfect distraction — and contrast — to the political embarrassment that has otherwise dominated national news.
Rather than seeing the worst of ourselves as reflected in Mr. Trump — his insults, sarcasm, put-downs and pathological lying — the nation sees the best of itself in its Olympic athletes.
There’s the moment when American swimmer Maya DiRadio, who won four medals in these games, swam over to console teammate Missy Franklin after her last place finish in her semi-final competition in the 200-meter backstroke, an event in which she holds the world record. Franklin, who won five medals (four gold) in the 2012 Olympics as a 17-year-old and stole America’s heart, saw her star fade this year, but vows to come back in 2020.
There’s 19-year-old Katie Ledecky with her pile of gold medals in the 200-, 400-, 800-meter freestyle, plus others, being as humble and gracious as anyone could hope their daughter or son could be. And Michael Phelps, of course, dominating the news with his five goal medals and a silver in these games, adding to his record 28 Olympic medals.
Then there is Simone Manuel, the first African-American to win a gold medal in swimming — an accomplishment made all the more relevant when viewed in light of the nation’s historic segregation laws. But there was bitterness on Simone’s part — all that was history; she was just as proud to represent America in these games. That’s progress on so many fronts.
There’s all-around Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian, along with the entire U.S. women’s gymnastic team, who have dominated the sport in recent years as few other teams have ever done; American Michelle Carter, who won gold in shot put besting her dad who had won silver in the Olympics two decades before; Vermonter Laura Graves leading her team to a surprise bronze in dressage; Tori Bowie winning the silver in the 100 meters sprint.
And there’s more to come — it’s Day 10 of 16 for the 2016 Olympics, which end Aug. 21 — with stories as heart-warming as they are inspiring.
But what’s it all about? What makes these athletes so compelling?
Certainly they all have drive, discipline, determination and big dreams, but more importantly, they are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to pursue those dreams. They have the guts to persevere and maybe come up short; they have the depth of soul and character to push past all reasonable limits of pain and exhaustion; and they make the commitment to put everything on the line when competing.
Consider the story of 43-year-old Kristin Armstrong, now a three-time Olympic gold medal winner of the women’s individual time trials in cycling. After winning her first gold in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, she retired from the sport to become a mother, but then returned for the London Olympic games in 2012 to successfully defend her title. In coming back for a third Olympics, she became the first-ever American woman to win the same individual event at three consecutive Olympics as well as being the oldest female cycling medalist of all time.
And it hasn’t been easy. She’s had several hip surgeries in 2013; she works full time as a community health director back home in Boise, Idaho; and she balances a family life in the midst of it all — now with a 5-year-old son. But it is her willingness to endure hardship that seems remarkable. In a 29.9 km race against yourself, the undulating terrain with one incline at 20 percent, the weather and the clock, you have to gut it out. Every sport has its challenges, but in the longer-distance races, you have time (44.26.52 minutes to be exact) to dwell on the pain, while maintaining an average pace of 25 mph — and yet winning by just 5.5 seconds (a huge lead in any other race, but just a momentary let-up, just a moment of self-doubt or of not wanting to hurt so much) over a 44-minute fight for glory.
“I hurt so bad out there today and when my coach keeps on telling me to go deeper and deeper, I have to keep on telling myself that I can go deeper and that this is a result I have to live with,” Armstrong said after her gold-medal ride. “I have always loved that we were all born with the power to believe and to believe in ourselves… You can set a goal and you can go accomplish anything you want. It doesn’t matter your age; it doesn’t matter where you’re from… I think that for so long we’ve been told you should be finished at a certain age. And I think there’s a lot of athletes out there that are actually showing that’s not true.”
Of her willingness to push herself, Armstrong noted in a television interview that what motivates her during a race is knowing that she has to live with her effort the following day.
“Can I go to sleep that night knowing I gave it my all,” she said, knowing that she left nothing to spare but put everything on the line.
That’s beyond talent and skill, that’s the Olympic spirit and it’s why these games produce such compelling stories.
Angelo S. Lynn is the editor and publisher of the Addison Independent in Middlebury, a sister paper of the Mountain Times.

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