The fact that Avner came to hold this belief did no mean that he would brood, sulk, or feel ill done by. On the contrary. It meant only one thing. He would compete. He would beat the Galicianers at their own game. He would become so unique, so extraordinary, so unbeatable at something that in the end he would come out on top. Ahead of Galicianers, kibbutzniks, you name it. No matter how smart, strong, determined, unscrupulous they might be. He'd win. (Vengeance)
Well, that's one way to deal with a rough deal: if you don't like the system, beat it. His determination to "win"—even though for Avner, this had nothing to do with sports—is a very Olympic quality indeed.
Years later, recalling the moment when he first caught a glimpse of the German, Owens wrote, "Long was one of those rare athletic happenings you come to recognize after years in competition – a perfectly proportioned body, every lithe but powerful cord a celebration of pulsing natural muscle, stunningly compressed and honed by tens of thousands of obvious hours of sweat and determination. He may have been my arch-enemy, but I had to stand there in awe and just stare at Luz Long for several seconds. (Triumph)
Owens saw in Long all the things he prided himself on. Sure, Long was going to be pretty much his only competition in the long jump at the Berlin Games, but the ultimate sportsman wouldn't begrudge him some respect.
"You've got to put your body on the line. Remember our motto: If you want to be the best, you've got to take out the best." (Grace, Gold, and Glory)
Is that always true, though? Do you have to "take out" the best to beat them?
Earlier that day, I had my first event, the 100-meter breaststroke, at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis. The swimmer to beat was sixteen-year-old Megan Quann, a big, muscular high school student from Washington State who had been on fire in all the important meets leading up to the trials. (In the Water They Can't See You Cry)
This was a common thing to do for all of our Olympic athletes. They tend to narrow down the field and pick out one or two people that would be dubbed "the competition." But if that's really true, why are all the other competitors even bothering?
Thirty-five hundred. The number sounded so high yet so small at the same time. When I ran my lap around the camp each day, there were boys as far as the eye could see. I never thought of trying to count them all, but I knew thirty-five hundred was a drop in the bucket compared to so many lost boys. And I'd heard other boys' stories. Everyone had lived through hell. Many of these boys had lived through hell far longer than me. You couldn't even call a lot of them boys anymore. (Running For My Life)
Sometimes, a person comes along and reminds us that competition isn't always fun and games. For Lopez Lomong, he had to compete amongst all the boys in the refugee camp for a chance to immigrate to America. For him, it wasn't about being the best, or standing out. It was a matter of life and death. That's not a game, but it sure is a competition.
"You know, winning by forty isn't fun. Maybe to some guys but not to this team. But watching Michael and Scottie together out there, suckering these guys into a corner, or right before the half-court line… that was fun." (Dream Team)
That's part of what makes sports great. It wouldn't be that much fun if it wasn't so insanely hard. Everyone who has ever played a sport of any kind knows that a complete blowout is a major ego boost, but if you're solidly winning every single time, it's a drag. The fun is in the challenge, the competition, and the people who learn that will always come out ahead.
Joe, he thought, had maximized both his physical and his mental abilities to an uncommon degree, thus permitting himself to compete against much bigger, stronger, more naturally gifted men. He had managed that not just because he understood the sport and his own abilities so completely but also because he understood the concept of relativity in competition. Joe did not go into an event hoping to set a record or to dominate others. Rather he shrewdly assessed his own strengths and limits as well as those of his main competitors and adjusted his race plans accordingly. (The Amateurs)
So, in other words, he raced smarter not stronger. This is key for a smaller competitor, but what threw us completely was the phrase "concept of relativity in competition." Can't you just see Einstein, hair askew and tongue out the side of his mouth as he rows himself to victory?
I made a game out of timing the completion of treatments. I would look at my wristwatch, and stare at the IV bags as they emptied into my body by droplets. I tried to calculate the rate of drip, and time the end of the treatment down to the last second. (It's Not About the Bike)
Some people are just born with a naturally competitive spirit. For Lance Armstrong, even his battle against cancer turned into a sport—one that he was determined to win.
Yes, I could dive well, and maybe I could win a gold, but I was still young and inconsistent. I was capable of scoring 10s, but I was just as capable of scoring 2s. The worst part was that Dr. Lee was losing sight of the fact that this was about a young diver competing to the best of his ability; he wanted me to win a gold medal to protect his own record. (Breaking The Surface)
"Compete" as a verb is really different than "competition" as a noun. To compete means to try, to give it your all at a certain task. Competition, though, is a nerve-inducing noun, a trial, and a race that will put you to the test.
In January 2008, in Beijing for the formal opening of the Water Cube, Ian [Thorpe] was asked there by reporters whether that summer I could win eight gold medals.
"I don't think he will do it, but I'd love to see it," Ian said. "There's a thing called competition. It won't just be one athlete that will be competing, and in a lot of events he has a lot of strong competition." (No Limits)
We love that kind of attitude. Thorpe—long considered the Australian Golden Boy of swimming, was the person most likely to be dethroned by Phelps, and yet, he shrugs it off. That's what sports are all about.
My breaststroke had very quietly gotten way better than it had been. In practice, I had been working on subtle differences: keeping my shoulders closer to my ears, my hands flatter, my fingertips up when I accelerated forward. (No Limits)
Amazing how tiny, infinitesimal changes can have such a huge impact in the pool. Keeping his fingertips up gave Michael Phelps greater speed. It just shows the skill necessary to make it to the top, and the level of focus required to win.
From that crowded little red house in Clarksville, out of an extended family of twenty-two kids, from a childhood of illness and leg braces, out of a small historically black college that had no scholarships, from a country where she could be hailed as a heroine and yet denied lunch at a counter, Skeeter had become golden, sweeping the sprints in Rome. (Rome 1960)
Sometimes, the strength required to achieve incredible things has nothing to do with muscles, but strength of spirit and a determination to succeed. Wilma Rudolph (Skeeter, that is) overcame prejudice, poverty, and physical maladies that probably would've stopped anyone else.
When you row, the major muscles in your arms, legs, and back – particularly the quadriceps, triceps, biceps, deltoids, latissimus dorsi, abdominals, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles – do most of the grunt work, propelling the boat forward against the unrelenting resistance of water and wind. At the same time, scores of smaller muscles in the neck, wrists, hands, and even feet continually fine-tune your efforts, holding the body in constant equipoise in order to maintain the exquisite balance necessary to keep a twenty-four-inch-wide vessel – roughly the width of a man's waist – on an even keel. The result of all this muscular effort, on both the larger scale and the smaller, is that your body burns calories and consumes oxygen at a rate that is unmatched in almost any other human endeavor. (The Boys in the Boat)
Um, can someone remind us how this is fun? This sounds hard.
Where the British boys resembled Ulbrickson's was in strategy. They liked to do exactly what the Washington boys did so well. They excelled at sitting back but staying close, rowing hard but slow, pressuring their opponents into raising their stroke rates too high too soon, and then, when the other crews were good and fagged out, suddenly sprinting past them, catching them unawares, unnerving them, mowing them down. (The Boys in The Boat)
When strength and skill are evenly matched, the only thing left to determine superiority is strategy—and the American boys were in trouble if their strategy matched that of their main opponent… although we all know how that turned out.
"Jesse, just do what you always do," she said to him in their bedroom on their final night together. "You know you're better than anyone else. Just stay healthy and everything will work out." (Triumph)
It must be nice to know that as long as you "stayed healthy" you stood a good chance to win a gold medal. That's how good Owens was: he would be the best in the world as long as he didn't colossally mess up. On that note, we need to create a couch-potato competition. We'd definitely stand a chance to win gold.
Brooks wanted to abandon the traditional, linear, dump-and-chase style of hockey that had held sway in North America forever. He wanted to attack the vaunted Russians with their own game, skating with them and weaving with them, stride for high-flying stride. He wanted to play physical, un-yielding hockey, to be sure, but he also wanted fast, skilled players who would flourish on the Olympic ice sheet (which is fifteen feet wider than NHL rinks) and be able to move and keep possession of the puck and be in such phenomenal condition that they would be the fresher team at the end. A hybrid style, Brooks called it. (The Boys of Winter)
Man, Coach Brooks didn't want much, did he? Obviously, he took a lesson from the adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. No one had beaten the Russians at their own game, and the way to do that was to learn their game, and then improve upon it.
On the morning of the meet, I nonetheless awakened with a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. My mind was clouded with self-doubt. Will I be able to perform my skill, even after an injury? Yes, I was physically prepared – but mentally, I wasn't confident at all. The sprain and weeks of recovery had thrown me off. I tried to summon that same strength David once used to battle Goliath, but weakness is all I felt. (Grace, Gold and Glory)
Sometimes mind over matter is a real thing, and if you go into a competition with a negative mindset it can hamstring you more than a physical injury. In that meet, Gabby disappointed herself with some of her worst routines, and it wasn't necessarily because of her injury. Mental strength is huge, especially in sports where you compete solo.
I figured out how to cut through the water, making myself hydrodynamic. Almost every swimmer can do freestyle, but the technicality of the breaststroke weeds out a lot of folks. People either can do it or they can't. There's no middle ground. I might have originally been a butterflyer while swimming with the Red Hots, but after three weeks' working with Brian, I was a breaststroker. Each swim, I coordinated the kick with the pull a little bit more and pulled my chin up while taking a breath a little less.
Then I started to go fast. Really fast. (In the Water They Can't See You Cry)
Have you ever tried to butterfly? It's incredibly difficult. When we try, we look like a drowning cow, floundering in the water with limbs flailing uselessly everywhere.
So it's fascinating to learn that Amanda Beard started out with the stroke that makes us look like we're <em>having</em> a stroke, and then had to work even harder to learn the breaststroke. Sometimes the simplest looking things can be the most difficult, we guess. Different strokes for different folks. (Badoom-ching.)
The United States engaged in fourteen games in that summer two decades gone – six in a pre-Olympic qualifying tournament and eight as they breezed to the gold medal in Barcelona – and the closest any opponent came was a fine Croatian team, which lost by 32 points in the gold medal final. The common matrices of statistical comparison, you see, are simply not relevant in the case of the Dream Team, whose members could be evaluated only when they played one another. (Dream Team)
Think about that for a sec. This team was so good, the only way you could judge their skill was to watch them play each other. No other team in the world came even close. Dang.
Garvey was my constant companion at the '84 Olympics. He actually did give me strength, because he was the one safe person I could talk to. I never had to worry about him judging me or talking back. It's amazing that a stuffed animal can give you strength, but it did. Many athletes use a small object to focus their concentration. Thanks to Mrs. Lee, my object of choice was a teddy bear, which for some reason the press and the public felt matched my personality. (Breaking the Surface)
Greg, you're amazing. Never stop being you.
It's like that at the Olympic Games. Years of training, of hard work, of desire and discipline – all of it compressed into minutes, sometimes just seconds, and time seems to stand still as history plays itself out. There's nothing sweeter than winning. (No Limits)
Surprisingly, out of all the athletes in our anthology, it's Phelps that truly captures what the Olympics are all about. It takes years of training, sacrifices, injuries, and tears to get to compete in the Games, and then when you finally do, it might be for a matter of seconds. That doesn't seem like much of a payoff, does it? And yet, every four years, new generations of athletes continue to dedicate themselves and fight through incredible ordeals in order to go for gold.
Where he was, primarily, was flat broke again and more than a little discouraged. Not just about the perpetual problem of finding money but about the whole crew business. The year had taken an emotional toll on him. Demoted and promoted and demoted again, he'd started to think of himself as a kind of yo-yo in the hands of the coaches, or the Fates, he wasn't sure which – up one minute, down the next. The sense of purpose crew gave him brought with it the constant danger of failing and thereby losing the precious but fragile pride that his early successes had brought him. (The Boys in the Boat)
It's hard to find any athlete who's never experienced a moment of self-doubt. So it's no surprise that Joe Rantz suffered from what's known by doctors as discouragitis. (Just kidding. They must have a fancier name for it.) But the lure of gold and the spirit of competition continued to motivate him towards seeking out the elusive goal of Olympic greatness.
But for Owens, each step was a test, to see if his back could hold his weight. So stupid, he thought, so stupid. Five days earlier, five days before the biggest meet of the season, he had fallen down a flight of stairs while horsing around with his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers in Columbus. […] The day before, Owens had qualified for the final of the 100-yard sprint despite the searing pain in his back. Now all he wanted was a chance to compete in the final. If he couldn't withstand the pain, he wouldn't participate in the three other events he had entered: the 220-yard dash, the 220-yard low hurdles, and the broad jump. (Triumph)
Despite the fact that his coach and his teammates were trying to talk him out of competing, Owens just had to try. And we all know what happens next: he wins. He runs despite crippling pain, and ended up setting several records and earning himself quite the reputation.
How could the younger Brooks not feel stung when, on the cusp of an Olympic dream, he was tapped on the shoulder and told to go home? Days before the 1960 Olympics began, coach Jack Riley replaced Brooks on the roster. After months of recruitment, Riley had finally convinced 1956 standout Bill Cleary to rejoin the team. Bill Cleary's one condition was that his brother be able to play with him. Bob Cleary's head was pasted over Herb Brooks's body in the team picture. (The Boys of Winter)
Most people would've given up, or at least held a massive grudge against the Olympics after that. (We certainly would.) But not Herb Brooks. He used it as a motivational tool to qualify for the next two subsequent Olympics. Guess that's what separates Olympians from the rest of us mere mortals: persistence, and the drive to prove to themselves they can be the best.
It's called a kip, and it's one of the toughest skills a gymnast first learns on the uneven bars. The kip begins with pulling yourself up to the low bar in a swing glide, bringing your toes to the bar, hoisting your hips up, and finally holding your whole upper body above the bar. The skill, which can be used to either mount the bar or connect elements in a routine, is a big part of just about every level of competition. That makes it a must-do skill. And in May 2003, I was failing at it. Big time. (Grace, Gold, and Glory)
No Olympian gets on the podium by giving up when the going gets tough. It's hard to believe that Gabby Douglas—the girl who flew her way to gold—once struggled to do one of the basic moves that makes up gymnastic bar routines. And to hear her tell her story, one would think she could've done triple-back-handsprings right out of the womb.
But even Gabby Douglas had a hard time learning how to do certain things. With hours of practice, dedication, and a few older girls giving her tips, she eventually mastered the skill.
By three, I was a full-on water baby who longed to be a part of the team, even though I wasn't eligible to join the summer league until the following year. I was such a pest that the coaches got me a tiny black swimsuit with red piping, the uniform of a Red Hot. It was official (at least to me!): I was part of the team. My parents and the coaches let me spend all summer pretending. I followed swimmers alongside the pool during races as if I and not they were swimming. (In the Water They Can't See You Cry)
Dude, at the age of three, we would've kept this up for about five minutes, and then wandered off to play something else. Amanda Beard was one persistent little tyke.
I listened for the sound of soldiers chasing after us, but all I could hear was my heart banging in my chest and my heavy breathing. My legs started to give out. Even with a friend helping me on each side, I could not keep going. One boy paused for a moment. Reaching around me, he swept me on his back and off we went. Big trees came up over us. I knew a lion or a leopard might be hiding in one, waiting for an antelope to come by. My friends didn't even look up. They kept on running, carrying me with them. (Running For My Life)
Lopez Lomong and his friends define "perseverance." Despite all the terrible things he experienced, Lomong never gave up. He survived, but not only that, he thrived, and went from war-torn Sudan to carrying the American flag in the Olympic opening ceremonies. Dang.
The Olympic goal had continued to tantalize him. Because, without a chance to compete in the Olympics, his rowing career seemed incomplete, he had decided to stay with the sport for one more shot, the 1984 Olympics. (The Amateurs)
Even though Tiff Wood had already been selected to participate in two previous Olympic games, he never got to row a single stroke (he was an alternate in 1976, but no one got sick or injured, and in 1980 President Carter demanded an American boycott of the Olympics). Most people might've shrugged and decided that the fates were against them, maybe the Olympics weren't meant to be. Not Wood. He was going to give it everything he had and more, because that's what it means to be an Olympic athlete.
I couldn't do it. I got halfway up the incline, and I lost my breath. My bike wobbled beneath me, and I stopped, and put my feet down on the pavement. I felt faint. […] After a few minutes, I gradually recovered my breath. I sat up, and tried to pull myself together. I stood. I tentatively straddled my bike. My legs felt shaky, but I was able to ride downhill. We coasted very slowly back the way we came, and made our way back to my house. […] The chemo had attacked my blood relentlessly ever two weeks, Monday through Friday, and I had finally overdone the bike riding. I paid for it that day. But I didn't stop riding. (It's Not About the Bike)
Woof. We think undergoing chemotherapy and several serious surgeries are a pretty decent excuse to not go for a bike ride. (In fact, we consider it a free pass to sit around and watch all the Netflix our hearts desire.) But Armstrong wasn't about to let a little cancer get in his way.
But he never failed to impress me with his intelligence and his perseverance. Ryan was determined to go to school, and once he'd accomplished that, his goal was to live a normal life for as long as he could and take every opportunity to educate people about AIDS. I was amazed at how he handled himself, whether it was one-on-one or on national television. He was – and is – an inspiration. (Breaking the Surface)
Ryan is the kid who inspired Greg Louganis to get involved with AmFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, which has done a lot of good over the years since he joined. And it's all because one kid wasn't going to let an AIDS diagnosis stop him from achieving his goals. Perseverance FTW.