Like millions of Americans, every four years I become a total couch potato and watch dozens of hours of televised sports I know very little about (curling, anyone?) and don’t view again until the next winter Olympics. The acrobatics and physicality of the various styles of skiing, snowboarding, skating, and sliding are amazing.
Even more, I love the stories behind the athletes. The tales of hardships, setbacks, goals, and grit are inspiring and sometimes heartbreaking. Occasionally a competitor stands out, like the bare chested, oil covered representative from Tonga who is his country’s sole athlete and its flag bearer. Pita Taufatofua, age 34, drew attention at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games for wearing a traditional Tongan skirt in the opening ceremony. Surprisingly, he repeated the attire for the frigid opening at the Pyeongchang Winter Games.
Pita’s story is interesting because he hails from a snowless tropical island, yet is competing in cross country skiing. After training without benefit of much practice on snow, Pita was pleased to finish #114 out of 118 competitors. In a supportive show of sportsmanship, the “Shirtless Tongan” and a few other athletes (including the gold medal winner) waited at the finish line to greet the final racer and carried him on their shoulders around the arena.
It all makes for wonderful TV drama, but the man is compelling beyond his oiled body or famous skirt. I caught a brief interview with Pita, and his simple words struck my soul: “Everyone has an Olympics. It doesn’t have to be in sport.”
Yes, indeed! The arena of recovery has many parallels to the Olympics, and almost none of them involve the spotlight of being on the platform. Recovery is the 50-kilometer cross country skiing challenge (five miles longer than a marathon) that feels like it goes on forever. The process actually isendless, but that’s a positive thing. You don’t stop training; you embrace a lifestyle.
To be successful in your personal Olympics, you need a coach – someone to guide, motivate, and correct you. You need your teammates – your fellow journeyers, your cheerleaders, your community. No one gets through the Olympics alone. Even Pita, the sole Tongan competitor, said, “I’d rather be finishing toward the end of the pack with all my friends than in the middle by myself. We fought together. We finished together.”
Sometimes you need realistic expectations. Pita’s main goals were not to ski into a tree, and to finish his lap around the stadium before the lights were turned off. Early in the recovery Olympics, sobriety for addicts and maintaining sanity and self-focus for partners are great achievements. You recognize the victories, even if they may seem small to those outside the struggle.
Staying in your personal Olympics is enormously hard. Sometimes you fail miserably. The stress gets to you and you fall, maybe repeatedly. You land on your backside in front of everyone. You are far below your best self, and there’s nowhere to hide.
The athlete of life gets back up and keeps going. You learn from mistakes and you keep them in perspective. In the face of huge disappointment in terms of placement, multiple competitors spoke of the benefit of suiting up, showing up, and giving your best. Often you get a chance at redemption, which still doesn’t necessarily involve a medal. Several champions had abysmal first showings, and returned to the slopes or ice and executed the performances of their lives. At that point, they said, it’s about enjoying the moment. You take one step, one jump, or one element at a time.
Olympic medals in life are usually invisible to others, but if you watch for them, they reward your heart with gold. You have the self-respect of navigating something hard with integrity. You are present in your life, even when things don’t go as planned. You refuse to let defeat define you. Winning is measured in your relationships, especially those that are most important to you. You support the people around you and root for those who are down.
As you mature in your personal Olympics, you find the process is more important than the platform. Excellent performance is reframed not as winning, but as offering your best moment by moment. When you feel defeated, be encouraged by these additional thoughts from the Shirtless Tongan.
The 2018 Winter Games are closing, and most of us won’t think of these sports again until 2022, when Beijing hosts the spectacle. Going for the gold in life, though, never ends.
Marnie C. Ferree