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.
The Boys in the Boat
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.
The Boys of Winter
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.
Grace, Gold, and Glory
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.
In the Water They Can’t See You Cry: A Memoir
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.
Running For My Life
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.
It’s Not About the Bike
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.
Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story
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.