Rarely do we get opportunities as plentiful as the Olympics to witness strength and perseverance and commitment in action. Over and over again, we see the results of countless days, weeks, months, years of dedication to a sport. We watch as the best in the world push themselves to be even better for this one moment in time.
There was something magical in watching Simone Biles and Aly Raisman land perfect floor routines. And we all reveled in the almost flawless performances by Michael Phelps. But for me, it was not the moments of perfection that were the most powerful. It was the moments when everything seemed to fall apart, the split seconds that went completely off course, that were the real lessons of the games.
Etenesh Diro from Ethiopia finished the semifinals in steeplechase wearing only one shoe. After a collision with another runner, she struggled to get her shoe back on. When she couldn’t, she just took it off and threw it into the grass. She pushed on wearing only one shoe to finish 7th in her heat.
Mo Farah of Britain won gold in the 10,000 meters after literally falling down in the middle of the race. Halfway through the competition, Mo was accidentally tripped by a friend. He sprang back up, retook the lead, and won the race.
Michael Phelps was seconds away from anchoring the men’s 4×200 meter relay when his swim cap ripped. In a sport where victory is measured in fractions of a second, the drag from loose hair makes a difference. He grabbed Conor Dwyer’s cap and led the team to victory.
Often the greatest lessons come in the moments when things go wrong. Because in life, more often than not, things go wrong. It is not how we perform in the moments that go as planned that make us stronger people. It is how we perform in the moments of struggle that define our greatest success.
And in these games, I learned more from someone who didn’t medal at all than from all of the medalists combined. For the first time in history, all three women on the US women’s team finished in the top ten of the women’s marathon. A spectacular finish- but no medals. Years of eating clean, training daily, and let’s be honest, suffering serious blisters, and they walked away empty-handed.
In an event that didn’t exist before the 1980s because surely women could not compete at that level in distance running , the three US women were all in the fight. At the 1/3 mark, Des Linden was actually in the lead, but as some of the other runners began to surge, she fell behind. Despite what appeared to me to be a super-human attempt to regain her position, she ended the race in 7th place. Des Linden would have every reason in the world to be upset, but she wasn’t.
“I put everything out there. I’m not upset at all. I wish I were a little bit better. I wish I would have been closer. But we went all in. And that’s as good as I am.” Des Linden
It’s not about the moment someone puts a medal around your neck. It’s not about a few seconds on a podium or the national anthem. Those moments are fun, no doubt. But what lasts, what matters, is the moment you realize that you are capable of the hard work and the commitment and the perseverance necessary to honestly say, “that’s as good as I am.” And that will always be enough.