I’m not gonna lie, I am definitely one of those people who gets caught up in total Olympics fever at this time of year. I mean, what is NOT to LOVE about humans in spandex sliding down a solid ice tube at ninety miles an hour? Who doesn’t marvel at the batshit crazy courage it takes to ski head first down a ramp tall enough to make the elevator up there feel like a theme park ride?
For most of us, the sports of the Winter Olympics only cross our consciousness for two weeks once every four years; it’s easy to forget that these athletes are grinding day in and day out for 1450 days in between. And let’s be clear – these are not all glamorous sports with giant multi-million dollar endorsements that propel their lifestyles. No – in many cases, these athletes fly on airline buddy passes, and their parents and friends work to provide food and accommodation just so they can make it to the qualifying events. It takes a whole lot of love for the game to put your teen and twenty-something years on hold in search of that elusive Olympic medal. They put ALL their eggs in one basket and surrender to the expectation that they will give their most perfect performance exactly on that day that their Olympic game falls.
For me, the best moments of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Peyong Chang were not the perfect performances, the Winnie the Pooh bears flung onto the ice or the emotions of the well-deserved medal ceremonies. My favorite moments were the heartbreaking, unbearable fuck ups that left athletes standing in disbelief wondering HOW this moment that they had worked SO hard for had gone so wrong.
It is in the sting of defeat that we usually see the greatest moments of growth. When the wound of failure is inflicted, the learnings begin to take root. Each spectacular loser joins a club that only they can truly understand.
So, as a tribute, here are three lessons that I learned from this year’s beautiful losers:
1. When you’ve got nothing to lose, you play your own game.
Nathan Chen is a bona fide figure skating phenom. At just 18 years old this was his first Olympics, and the expectations were high. This kid hasn’t done anything but win; in many respects, his smooth ride from childhood to the Olympics almost seemed too easy. After his epic in the men’s short program where he fell once and stumbled two other landings, Nathan’s only comment was, “I’ve never been in this position before, I don’t know what to do.”
What he didn’t know was that the greatest lesson he’d never experienced was heading towards him like a freight train.
Going into the men’s long program, sitting in 17th place, he had absolutely nothing to lose. With close to no chance of getting a medal, he could remove any and all expectations from his mind. He could quiet the voices of his coaches, family, reporters, announcers, fans and the media, and instead skate for the joy and love of the moment. And BOY did he bring it. Chen landed SIX quad jumps – accomplishing an extraordinary technical feat never before seen in the Olympics, and moving within a hair of winning a medal.
What we can ALL learn from Chen is the importance of playing for YOUR moment of progress instead of allowing the expectations of others to get into your head. How many times has the second-guessing of others caused you to lose touch with your instincts or beliefs? If you can take the moment for yourself, and focus your efforts squarely on doing YOUR best, you might just get further than you even knew you could.
2. The journey matters more than the destination – especially if you can be open to the destination changing.
Lindsey Jacobellis is the greatest female snowboard cross racer of all time. Yet it now seems likely that her silver medal at the 2006 Torino Games will mark the peak of her Olympic career. Jacobellis has won an astounding ten gold medals in snowboard cross at the Winter X Games, yet after 4 attempts at the Olympics (including a self-induced error holding her back from the gold in 2006), she has never managed to medal.
Such utter heartbreak and humiliation would be enough to make most people hang up their snowboard boots and try something new. But for Jacobellis, these failures have fueled her commitment and her gutsy efforts to redeem herself. Even still, she has failed to meet the hopes held by so many of us following her career.
Or has she?
One thing is for sure: Lindsey Jacobellis is uniquely positioned as one of the most well-rounded snowboarding athletes of all time. She is familiar with extraordinary highs and devastating lows, and her collective experiences have put her in a position unlike anyone else. Jacobellis is able to personally articulate the great satisfaction gained from a life spent competing on the snow.
With this experience under her belt, she now finds herself turning to a new passion: championing the future of her sport and the development of young women athletes. For that, I fucking SALUTE HER. The vast majority of female business and civic leaders played sports in their youth, and with Lindsey poised to develop these future leaders, it’s possible that she’s is on the road to having a profoundly bigger impact on the world than the fleeting accomplishment of an Olympic medal. One might argue that she wouldn’t be in this position if not for her unique story complete with all of its wins and losses.
Watching her inspiring story unfold, I am reminded that it’s a limiting mindset to focus only on your immediate goal. When you sign up for the journey of self-development that comes with being an Extremer, you never know when you’ll be in the perfect position to realize your life’s greatest accomplishment. If you take the time to perfect your unique set of skills and passions, when the moment comes, you’ll be ready.
3. When I feel most destroyed, that’s when I’m about to grow.
The name Lindsey Vonn is synonymous with downhill skiing, Vail Colorado, excessively hard training programs… and… all around utter badassery. It’s easy to forget that Vonn has actually only ever won 1 Olympic gold medal because she is such a high-profile leader of her sport. It wasn’t until this year that I realized what a miracle it is that she’s even standing. Vonn has destroyed so many of her individual body parts in pursuit of a better performance. She’s had to give up more seasons in the peak of her prime due to injury than any athlete of her level, yet comes back stronger each time with a steely determination to put her failures behind her.
My god, if she were my daughter, I think there’d be a moment where I’d want her to just stop with this sport and take a safer spot in the commentator’s box. But no – Vonn is a paragon of resilience, showing us that the human body does, in fact, repair a broken bone to stronger than it was before. The experience of coming back from so many painful accidents clearly gives Vonn grit and edge unmatched by anyone around her.
Watching Lindsey Vonn miss out on that elusive career ending gold in Peyong Chang this year, I was struck by the incredible perspective she had for the moment. Even after all that she had worked for was out of sight, she did not let her disappointment diminish what she had learned and accomplished:
“I’ve had a roller coaster the last eight years with so many injuries but I’m here, I’m healthy, I’m able to ski a hundred percent and I’m just very thankful for the opportunity. I may not have gotten a medal today but I’m still proud of my performance.” – Lindsey Vonn
Vonn serves as an extraordinary example of resilience. All of the tough turns in her career have cleared the path for a powerful leader to emerge. She is woman seen radioing up the hill to her junior teammate to give tips on the race course, even though it might threaten her own chances at a medal. Although she didn’t win as expected, her journey towards Peyong Chang has shown the world that there’s nothing that she won’t bounce back from. From how we’ve seen her rise from failure before, it is certain that Vonn is just at the beginning of her success.
So here’s to the under-celebrated heroes of the Winter Olympics. They may not have taken home the Gold, but what they learned from their failure will have a deeper impact on their development than winning ever could. If you take any lesson from this year’s Olympics, let it be the beauty of putting your all into something, no matter the outcome.
The next time you’re in the thick of a devastating failure, remember: the same way it has shaped these Olympic rockstars, your failures develop new growth within you, always preparing you to unleash your full potential when the time is right.
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