(Chock full of video goodness!)
“Swifter, Higher, Stronger” is the Olympic motto. It is natural, even if somewhat misguided, to take that to mean that those who go farther or faster than anyone else are our greatest heroes. While Michael Phelps is just freakish in his athletic ability and I would celebrate him getting eight gold medals if that happens, after I would move on. No offense, Michael. Though I probably will go bat crazy if Dara Torres wins gold.
There are some people who have to stare down the most daunting of choices about whether to try to overcome impossible odds or to accept something less. They aren’t the best at what they do, but they represent the best of who we are as human beings. Either for one moment or over an entire lifetime, they do something that inspires us. Through their example, we learn about hope and commitment.
Because of their choices and their determination, there are many athletes who have touched something fundamental in our souls. I could name many more than the ones I mention below, but here are some that really stick out to me.
I’ll obsessively watch the Olympics because it provides one of the places where humankind is at its best. As much as these two weeks every four years totally get me fired up about hope for humanity, only once have I leapt out of my seat during the Olympics. In fact, I fell over the coffee table and nearly hurt my own ankle. Yeah, I confess that this sport is about 300th on my list of favorites, but if you didn’t get excited about this one, you aren’t human.
(The money is about 1:30 in, but reliving the rest of it is worth watching the entire clip.)
I have no idea whether Kerri Strug had to overcome a lot in her life. It doesn’t matter to me. When faced with a moment of incomprehensible enormity knowing it was all up to her, she literally threw herself into the moment. Being hurt didn’t matter. There are many days around here when I wish I had what she had that night.
I got to see the Olympic torch relay when I lived in Georgia before the games in Atlanta. It passed through the little town I was living in. A guy from my old church got to carry it. I got to hold his then-unlit Olympic torch that evening at church supper. Talk about shivers.
As awesome as it was to see Muhammad Ali light the cauldron for the Games in Atlanta, the lighting that most people missed is the one I remember.
Mark Wellman is an extraordinary paraplegic climber and athlete. His downhill skiing is something to behold. He lit the cauldron for the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta. I so wish I could find a video clip or even a photo of this. I can still see it in my mind. Wellman was passed the flame and held the torch in his lap while he climbed a 120-foot rope to the top of the torch tower and lit it. I remember standing in my living room completely speechless, unable to move. He has devoted his life to astonishing achievements and helping others do the same.
I’m also a total sucker for the Ironman Triathlon broadcasts. I personally couldn’t care less who wins. It’s the people who overcome ridiculous odds just to be at the race and who will themselves through pain and struggle beyond comprehension and through up to 17 hours of racing just to finish a 2 1/2-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile marathon. They are who I tune in to see.
Here are some I remember the most.
Sara Reinertsen’s story is one of personally overcoming all number of people who told her she couldn’t. Excluded from many things in school – like many of our kids may be now or someday – because some said she wasn’t physically capable, her response was both simple and profound. Watch me.
The first year she competed, she didn’t finish. She missed the cutoff time after the bike section. I literally cried while watching the broadcast. I felt awful for her. It is a testament to her determination that she continued the way she’d done her whole life – she rededicated herself to the goal and tried again. The next year she came back and kicked the triathlon’s butt. Go Sara! And thanks for teaching us about never giving up.
Then there was Jon Blais – The Blazeman. He was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). He knew the time he had left on this earth wasn’t long, and that the time he had to still be able to walk let alone run was even shorter. He decided to be an Ironman, the first with ALS to do so.
In his honor, the World Triathlon Corporation has reserved his racing number – 179 – in all of its events for athletes racing for a charitable cause. Blazeman passed away May 27, 2007, though his legend and inspiration never will. He was 35, the same age I’ll be in two months. It’s a sobering thought.
And if as a father – or as a human being – you don’t turn into a puddle watching this, I don’t know what to say.
(Their story starts about a minute into this clip.)
Dick and Rick Hoyt’s motto is “Yes you can.” My first reaction every time I see them is, “What’s my excuse?” If you want to see a list of their ridiculous accomplishments, visit their web site. The one that blows my mind is the 2:40:47 marathon. I’ll save you the math. That’s a 6:08 per mile pace for 26.2 miles! I’ll let that sink in a minute. On top of that, Rick Hoyt graduated from Boston University. And they keep on inspiring us and raising the bar ever higher.
This last story speaks for itself, and at least for this parent, gives not only cause for hope, but for celebration. Thanks to D’Julie for reminding us of Jason McElwain in a comment she posted a while back. I had heard about him ‘pre-autism’ in our house, but clearly I needed to reconnect with his story.
Jason McElwain is blazing a trail down a path many of our autistic children have yet to travel. He is an inspiration to millions and a role model for our children and what they can achieve. It chokes me up to know his nickname is J-Mac. Sounds a little familiar around here.
All these athletes follow a basic principle – dream huge, set the bar so high that people will think you’re crazy, put one foot in front of the other, and don’t stop until you get there.
And remember, the race goes not to the strongest or the swiftest, but those who think they can.
When J-Man says a new word or makes a new sound or figures out something new or when he runs up to me and gives me a hug, that’s worth all the gold medals in the world. And every day, in our eyes, he is our champion.