What is it that makes the Olympics so special? Undoubtedly it’s seeing the worlds greatest athletes coming together all vying for glory, for their country, for their family, for themselves.
But what makes them more special than other world competitions; almost all other sports have some major world championship/cup/grand prix etc at least every other year and in some sports every year. Therefore, a world champion can still be crowned without the Olympic Games. Some would argue that since the Olympic Games only occur once every four years it makes the honor of being an Olympian and thus an Olympic Champion or medalist even greater than World Champion any other year. There is a whole lot more hoopla, fanfare, national pride and hype for the Olympic Games than any other major international competition. This is partially because the Olympics are more rare of an occurrence; this is also due in fact to the inclusion of 28 different sports, for a total of 41 disciplines all occurring at the same location at the same point in time.
As a result for two very short magnificent weeks seemingly the entire world is swept up in the awe and magic of the Olympic Games. Everyone and anyone with access to a television or computer seems to be tuned into the Olympics. Newspapers, magazines, websites, and endless different types of blogs are all vying to interview medal contenders, former champions, newly emerging athlete still classified as an underdogs, and even those wide-eyed first timer “nobodies”. In my opinion each form of media with their unique angle of coverage is necessary to making the Olympics as special and as grand as they are. Why, well because for the Olympics they are not just reporting statistics, the raw numbers, the outcomes. Instead what is so special during the onslaught of media prior to the Olympics is the personal connection that is created, the behind the scenes glimpse into an athlete’s story, the personal details the audience connects with. What is it that drives them, makes them tick, makes them get out there and train dedicating endless hours of time, copious amounts of energy day in and day out all in the pursuit of their own Olympic glory?
For the majority of the four years between Olympiads these very athletes are training day in and day out, making sacrifices both in time and money, overcoming obstacles and struggles that would make many throw in the towel calling it quits long ago. And yet here they are, now bestowed with the title of Olympian, now and only now do they emerge from the shadows, crawl out from behind the obscurities, ready to be known, ready to have the spotlight cast upon them, all with their own story of their own unique journey. A journey that for many began years even decades before. It began in the hopes and dreams of a young child. It began when someone else saw potential, saw the possibility, and decided there was something special here that was worth taking a chance on. It began when Mom and Dad without knowing what was in store said yes I will help you, and they said and did this over and over and over again. And along that journey each and everyone one of us has countless stories that could fill chapters of books, the kind of stuff that draws you in, where you find yourself eagerly turning the pages, the kind of stuff that moves you and speaks to you, it strikes some chord perhaps buried deep within you a long time ago. It is the kind of stuff that can resonate with such a wide and diverse audience because regardless of our backgrounds, our upbringings, our aspirations, or our life’s goals there are certain qualities that the dreamer in all of us can relate to.
It is the sharing of these stories the inner intimate details about each and every Olympic athlete that makes the Olympic Games so special. After all isn’t this why we tune in so intently during the Olympics, know facts and tidbits about our athletes that only a year ago we knew nothing about and except for a slim minority would never consider taking time to watch. As I said every major sport has some major championship at the international level every year. Where can you go and watch these events? A very few are broadcasted on tv and often at off times with very little press. For others you’d be very lucky to catch them streamed live on a website, a website often from another country, perhaps a country who takes more pride in such an event. Take my own sport of track and field, NBC will broadcast live at the Olympics, Americans will cheer on from home captivated, screaming
at their television, computers or tablets. As a whole we will sing the anthem with pride every time our flag raises high, as our American athlete stands a top of the podium and is crowned Olympic Champion. Many will check the National medal count list daily and smile a sense of pride and satisfaction every time another gold, silver or bronze medal is added to America’s list.
But they give out the same gold, silver, and bronze medals at world championships. It’s the same anthem, sung the same way, with the same Star spangled banner flying over head when one of our athlete’s stands atop the podium at world championships. The pain hurts just as much racing 26.2 miles at the World Championships as it does at the Olympic Games. A 9.87 seconds 100 meters is just as fast as 9.87 seconds at the Olympic Games, and the title of fastest man in the world is bestowed equally to each. Part of why there is less viewership of Olympic contested sports in non-Olympic years is the pathetic lack of media coverage. But even still for events that are broadcasted somewhere it in no way compares to the coverage and viewership that occurs during the Olympic Games. Why do we care so much during the Olympic Games, it’s because we have been made to care. The hype and excitement leading up to the Olympics is almost inescapable. There is a gradual build where products start to advertise with Olympic athletes, where these products get a facelift proudly displaying our patriotic colors red, white and blue. It’s a time every four years when your fourth of July outfit is appropriate for what seems like half the summer. The general media starts to talk about it. At first there is a slow trickle of stories focusing on Olympic hopefuls, often highlighting Olympic medal contenders regardless of whether that athlete has yet to be named to the Olympic team. The public is roped in with stories of success and heartbreak. The devasting defeat of not earning an an Olympic Berth helps to bring meaning and put into perspective just how rare and special earning one’s rings really is. Then as spring turns into summer it really starts to heat up as more and more athletes are named to the Olympic Team earning their Olympic Berth. Finally by midsummer the Olympic hype, advertisement, and fanfare are rushing in from every media outlet and it’s all everyone is talking about!
This is why after making the Olympic Team a few weeks ago my life has been a whirlwind. My training is no more focused or intense then it was leading up to a World Championships. My academic load is virtually nonexistent because I am in between semesters. What has made it crazy, busy and hectic in the best way possible is the constant call for my time from the media. This is a special rare opportunity for me to share my story, teach people about race walking, and maybe inspire others in their own pursuits both athletic and academic. I have enjoyed the positive press I have received as it has given me a platform to introduce people to race walking, people that until reading the story, hearing the interview on the radio, or watching that news segment may have never before known of my event within track and field. Exposure is a very good thing for the long-term growth and development of race walking in America. It definitely takes support, especially in the financial area to make it on the big stage and be successful. It has helped me raise awareness of the glaring gaps in the development of an American race walker. It has helped me to point out how we do not have a robust high school program like many other events in track and field, how the lack of inclusion in NCAA further stifles development, and how post collegiate an athlete is virtually on one’s own to financially navigate training and living expenses which often force premature retirement or result in only mild success where an athlete never fully had the opportunity to reach his/her potential. Opening people’s eyes to these gaps and the way in which I persevered, living off my graduate school stipend while I earned my Ph.D. , has also helped me to raise money to help sponsor myself and continue to keep race walking. Most recently, post Olympic Trials, this press coverage has helped me not only get my story out there but has encouraged people to donate to helping me financially afford the ability to have my husband, Mom, and youngest sister travel to Rio to watch me race live.
I am extremely thankful for the reporters who have taken a chance and pitched my story, who have taken the time to meet me and help their viewers get to know me and my event of race walking, and who have helped connect me with the community back home on a more personal level. Because of you, people have a greater interest in race walking and my own Olympic performance.
What do I expect or hope my Olympic performance to be, well this is more than a simple response that cannot be neatly defined with numbers; neither in time nor in place finished. Often this question is pitched something like, “do you have a chance at medaling”, “what place do you think you will come in”, “now that the Russians are banned how do you think you will place,” “do you think you will be faster than you were four years ago?” The simple answer is no. No I will not win, no I will not medal, and no I probably won’t be top 10. No my time will probably not be faster because Rio will be a lot hotter than London was. No even without the Russians in my race there are still plenty of athletes faster than me, and no I do not think all those athletes are clean, unfortunately doping is not limited to Russians. People’s response to this is somewhere between, “oh you shouldn’t say you can’t medal you never know”, “oh” (with a look of disappointment), or “oh well we’re still hoping you’ll get that gold.” There is nothing disappointing about not winning gold (unless in fact you legitimately had a shot to win gold). There is nothing wrong with finishing last and being happy with it, if in fact you gave it your all both that day at the Olympics and every preceding day to prepare you for that moment. And this is where the media really plays such a pivotal role in the reception of the Olympic Games and individual athlete’s performances. When you get to know the individual athletes, the struggles they fought, the triumphs that made them rise, the challenges they overcame you have a deeper connection and you can measure their success in ways that numbers cannot define.
Would I love to be an Olympic Gold medalist? Of course! I’d be crazy for saying no. But I also know it is unrealistic as my lifetime best is 1:30:49. That’s 20k or roughly 12.4miles (just under a ½marathon distance) at 7:19/mile pace. That’s just over 90 mins, which happens to be the American Record. This means no female in American history has ever gone faster than myself. The World Record is 1:24:38, which is over 5 minutes faster than the best time by any American ever. Last Olympics the World Record was set, as it turns out the winner would go on to test positive for doping. A “clean” athlete has since broken her record. I say “clean” because it’s highly suspect for a dirty record to be broken and by a significant amount of time by a clean athlete. But right now this performance to the best of our anti-doping measures is legitimate. The anti-doping measures are what they are, yes some doping cheats will be caught, and yes some dopers will get away with it. These cheaters may get caught 4 years down the line when technology and testing has improved and samples are retested but as many feel that is too little too late.
So let’s remove doping from the equation because while some dirty athletes will unfortunately finish ahead of me so too will clean athletes. Every athlete has a different story with a journey unique to him/her. My story is simple I was a 10 year old soccer player who watched to 1996 Olympics and fell in love. That summer I knew I wanted to be an Olympian and so the dream began. I was 14 when I was introduced to race walking and 26 when I made my first Olympic Team. I was lucky to grow up in NY where race walking is a part of the track and field program just like any other event such as shot put, long jump, or the 800m run. I was beyond lucky to have knowledgeable high school coaches who recognized my potential at the 1500m distance, a distance less than 1/10th the Olympic distance. They saw my potential, embraced it, developed it to the best of their ability and encouraged me to join an outside club, Walk USA, to be simultaneously trained at longer distances that athletes my age competed at internationally such as the 5k and 10k. I am lucky to have attended college on a large academic scholarship that made sports participation possible. I am lucky to have been accepted into a Ph.D. program that paid their students a stipend to live off of. I am lucky that my graduate school and the lab I worked over 50hrs a week in were as understanding as could be expected of someone being paid to earn their education. I am lucky to say that my parents and husband never made me choose academics or sports and thus I refused to allow anyone else to force me to have to choose. I am lucky that I can multitask beyond belief and could juggle a Ph.D. while training for the Olympics. I am lucky that I never had to pay the bills through race walking and could still pursue my Olympic dream. Now what if I had been paid, what if I had been able to focus more of my time and energy to race walking, what if I could be a full time athlete with all the time needed for rest and recovery for a decade of my life? Who knows but as I said this is MY story and My journey to MY Olympic Dream. How will I measure success on race day? How will you and everyone back home know if I did it? Look to my face, when I cross that line, is it beaming in a smile? Because if it is you know I did it. You know I gave it my all, never gave in and never gave up. The time on the clock maybe irreleant if it’s that hot. Yes there are fellow competitors I’m looking to beat. There are some who I will pass and others who will pass me. There will be some I never would have expected to beat and others who will have the race of their life and perhaps pass me. Not racing for a medal or putting a number on my place of finish does not make me soft or any less of a competitor than those who are gunning for a gold medal. In fact I might argue it makes me even greater of a competitor because I have not only had to fight during the race, not just during training in preparation, but I also had to fight along my journey to find a way to become my dream without a conventional path to success. I am not defining this journey, the journey of an Olympic Dream, by success that is limited to a number.
I hope that my smile inspires others back home to follow their own dreams, make their own paths, and believe in their own potential. I hope it helps to expose others to race walking and overtime a better system is in place domestically to develop race walkers. I hope that others realize you too can be a student AND an athlete at the highest of levels, if you too feel passionately about both. There are ways for adversity to strengthen you. The path to becoming an Olympian never has and never will be easy no matter how many people want it for you, no matter how much God given talent you are blessed with and no matter how much money is thrown your way. Therefore, get ready to embrace the pain, learn how to cope with the set backs, find a support system you can call on when the going gets tough beyond belief. Sometimes having to forge your own path in it of itself is part of the training that makes you so fierce. It’s part of what makes you want it so bad and makes you so damn proud when it’s achieved. Measuring success in your own terms without numbers but in experiences is a way to bring greater meaning to your accomplishment. It also is a reminder that these experiences, this journey, the people who shared in it with you, these memories created, these are all yours forever.
And maybe if we collectively start to define success in our own terms the next generation will look up to doping free individuals. They’ll learn that success that is not measured in medals can never really come with a price tag awarded in prize money. When we start to value the journey, and don’t just support the athletes in their moments of triumph but embrace their struggles, acknowledging the process we start to redefine what success is. We need to hold our role models up to higher standards, standards that are more than gold, standards that come from the values an individual embodies, the traits one portrays. When we do this then we will have role models that have earned the honor of hero and are worthy of society’s praise and admiration. And the beauty in this is one can inspire just as much in moments of triumph as in failure because one’s character is what is sought after, and one’s character is what our youth want to emulate.
When this amazing journey has come to an end I know I will look back on it all with only the fondest of memories. In 2012 I had the race of my life and you know what I finished 28th. I couldn’t have been any happier that day or even now four years later looking back. I gave it my all, raced a huge PR and took a chance that was worth every risk. This time around I am hoping to once again live in the magic of the moment, take it all in, appreciate where I am, remembering and forever thankful to all who got me there. In 2012 there was a slogan “More than gold”. It meant that there was far more at stake than medals. The glory and honor of the Olympic experience cannot be limited to or defined by three medals. You cannot put a price tag on the Olympic experience. After all as the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, stated: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
I will be down there in Rio after more than gold. And when that smile radiates across my face you will know I did it!