Imagine if you spent four years on one of the following:
⦁ Writing a book manuscript
⦁ Getting your college degree
⦁ Putting your child through college
⦁ Playing small gigs in hopes of landing a record deal
⦁ Working with a fertility specialist to get pregnant
⦁ Preparing to launch a new business
⦁ Building your dream home
⦁ Campaigning for office
⦁ Restoring a vintage automobile
⦁ Laying the groundwork to start a church
⦁ Following a tight budget to get out of debt
Now imagine that you're on the very edge of accomplishing that goal. You can see the finish line. You feel both the relief of completion and the exhilaration of accomplishment. You're thinking of how your life is about to change in the coming moments when a dream comes true and opens even further doors of possibility.
The Olympian’s universe
And then...due to an innocent mistake, a small error, a slight misunderstanding, a brief lapse of concentration, a minor setback...it's suddenly all gone. In an instant. That's the world an Olympic athlete lives in.
Of course, it must be gratifying and exciting to be one of the best in the world in your sport, to represent your country, and to compete in the earth’s premier athletic event. Win a gold medal and you’re an instant celebrity back home. Win a gold medal and then watch the doors open for commercials, lucrative endorsements, TV commentating, and high-paying speaking gigs.
Winning an Olympic medal is never an end to itself. For many amateur athletes, the Olympics is like the summer job that helps pay for college or the internship that hopefully leads to a job offer. Of course, just competing as an Olympic athlete will make you a hero in your small hometown, but a Welcome Home party and parade doesn’t pay the bills.
It's never just four years
In these 2022 Winter Olympics, gold medal favorite, Mikaela Shiffrin, made costly mistakes on two of her slalom ski runs which took her out of contention for any medal at all. In her first event Shiffrin missed a gate. A few days later in another event she crashed 11 seconds into her run. Afterwards, Shiffrin struggled to hold back the tears as she told reporters that her disappointing performance "makes me second-guess the last 15 years."
Did you hear that? In that moment Shiffrin wasn't just doubting and possibly regretting dedicating the last four years of her life to a sport. She was questioning the last 15 years. Mikaela will turn 27 next month. Because of two split-second mistakes while wearing a pair of snow skis, a young lady is struggling with buyers' remorse on how she has spent more than half her life. This is someone who already owns two Olympic gold medals and is a three-time World Cup champion. And in two days, Mikaela Shiffrin was looking in the rearview mirror and questioning it all. The Olympics can do that to a person.
Compared to your job
When you make a mistake at your job, there is not a world-wide television network capturing your blunder on live TV, replaying it over and over to its audience of millions, zooming in on your reaction, followed by someone sticking a microphone in your face and asking how it feels to lose in one of the biggest moments of your life.
And by the way, keep in mind that Olympians can totally whiff on winning a medal after a flawless run or routine. No mistakes, no errors, no slips, no falls, not even a stumble. That's because the margin between a gold medal and no medal is often a tenth of a point or a tenth of a second. Imagine your boss telling you that you're fired for being three-tenths of a second late to a meeting.
Compared to your life
There's a particular moment in figure skating I find excruciating to watch. First of all, let's face it, in ice skating it's all about the jumps and landings. Everything else is elegant filler. It's the same thing in much of women's gymnastics. It's not fair, but that's how it is. Whether the skating competitors are women, men, or pairs, I feel for them when they fall.
Because in figure skating after a fall, you have to get up and keep skating with a beaming smile and finish your routine even though you want to get up and skate directly to the nearest exit because you know you lost the competition before your backside even hit the ice. In other words, you've got to get up and act like nothing happened, like no one saw what everyone just saw.
There's something about that moment that makes me look away. A courteous and collective denial to hide what the skater and audience knows and feels--that falling = failing. At least in this sport, especially in the Olympics.
I'm grateful that life is not typically so ruthless a judge. I'm grateful for grace--not the kind of grace that describes my movements, but the kind of grace that cushions my falling. I need such grace. I need to know that my flaws aren’t permanent and that my fallings and failings are painful but not fatal.
Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Franklin, (www.ramonpressontherapy.com) the author of multiple books, and a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He can be reached at [email protected].