Two Olympic Lessons

Is anyone else out there feeling sleep-deprived due to the Olympics? Do any of you get emotional when you hear the stories of the athletes? This year's Olympic competition has all of "usual" surprises - in the pool, on the gymnasts' floor, and, new to these festivities, ill-advised tweets. However, I'm still waiting for the quirky, endearing, tear-jerking moment from left field...or track and field...or the pool. I adore the moments when something happens that makes me love sports all over again. Or when an athlete teaches us an enduring lesson that applies to our lives.

Lesson One - Digging Deep

One of my favorite moments comes from the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. That's when swimmer Eric Moussambani (which is fun to say!) came to the games from Equatorial Guinea to represent his country in the 100 meter freestyle. The only problem with Moussambani's preparation for the games was that his tiny West African country didn't have an Olympic-sized pool... which is understandable considering his country is roughly the size of Delaware. When Moussambani wanted to train, he either went to a hotel pool or swam in the Atlantic Ocean and braved shark attacks (which I presume would make him a faster swimmer... assuming he survived). Still, Moussambani arrived in Sydney FOR THE OLYMPICS never having swum in an regulation pool of 50 meters in length.

So, during the fifth qualifying heat of the 100 meter freestyle, Moussambani was poised to race two other swimmers, both decked out in those (now banned) ultra-high-tech, textile bodysuits. Moussambani wore a simple blue Speedo (from a West African version of Walmart, no doubt). Long story short(er), his two opponents false-started before the first gun. Then, in an unprecedented episode, the same two swimmers false-started again, which disqualified both of those swimmers. The confused judges discussed how to handle their one-swimmer race. They determined in order for Moussambani to win the heat, he would need to actually swim the 100 meters (one length down and back) to move on to the semi-finals.

After the starting gun, Moussambani flopped into the water and spent the next one minute and 52 seconds swimming a painfully laborious 100 meters. The average Olympic athlete swims this distance in 50-60 seconds. Witnessing the first 25 meters of Moussambani's solo jaunt, everyone realized that he wasn't in the games for the "hardware." In fact, based on his dog paddle style stroke, a barely-existent kick, and twisted flip turn, the fact that he survived the distance without drowning was an amazing accomplishment.

Still, what happened next was pure Olympic gold.

At first the crowd laughed at Maussambani, then they noticed he needed help. Slowly the swell of Olympic spirit and desire to see the underdog succeed blew up the Sydney Aquatic Center. The crowd of 17,000 roared their encouragement, willing Moussambani through the full 100 meters...even uncontested. As the story goes, some judges were so worried for Moussambani, they kicked off their shoes in case they needed to dive in and rescue him.

I'll let the video below show you the rest of the story. Take a quick look:

So, in one minute and 52 seconds, Eric Moussambani made history and was left "feeling good and very happy."

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One my favorite postscripts to this story is that Moussambani went on to swim in the next heat against a full pool of racers (who didn't all false start.) During the introductions to this heat, Moussambani walked out to a thunderous ovation from his new fan base. He flashed a huge smile and gave a big wave... and proudly wore his own ultra, high-tech, textile bodysuits that had been donated to him.

The Moussambani swim ultimately shows us a few principles about digging deep that we can apply to our lives:

  • Even if you don't always feel like you belong, get on the block and dive in. Chances are, you're there for a reason.
  • Don't jump in just because everyone else is doing it. Discretion and patience just might take you farther than others.
  • Never underestimate the power of encouragement.
  • The suit over the body doesn't make much of a difference. The heart in the body does.
  • Be happy when you've finished, even when you barely survive.

Lesson Two - Lean on Others

The other moment I love is the well-remembered story of British runner Derek Redmond in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Throughout his career, Redmond had set British sprint and relay records, but had consistently battled injury and disappointment on the track. He missed the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh with a hamstring injury and withdrew from the 1988 Seoul Olympics minutes before his first heat having failed to recover from tendinitis. The following summer, still plagued by injuries, he came close to giving up the sport altogether.

Still, all of the pistons were hitting as he trained and prepared for what would likely be his last chance for gold on the Olympic track in Barcelona. One of his greatest opportunities was in the 400 meter semi-final (roughly one lap around a standard track). The 400m is a fast race demanding all a runner has from the starting gun.

Again, the video tells the story best. Take a look... and, um, you may want to grab a Kleenex before you do.

I've watched that video probably twelve times, and I can't keep a dry eye. Powerful. Here are of the lessons I see:

  • Even when we're at the top of our game, sometimes something breaks. It's not fair, but it does. Decide now what you'll do when a moment like that happens. Will you crumple on the track or stand up and keep hobbling? Your decision today will make all the difference then.
  • Even when our disappointment or pain is oppressive, the will to compete can trump it... even against our better sensibilities.
  • The man that ran on to the track to help Derek was his father. I love that he would not be denied in the pursuit of loving and supporting his son. It reminds me... Let nothing stop you from helping those whom you love when they are in need. Jump a wall. Brush off an official. Just do it.
  • Be quick to lean into the people who care for you.
  • Sometimes finishing well is better than winning. (Do you remember who actually won this race?)

Me neither.