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For the last two weeks, much of the world has been transfixed by the athletic brilliance on display in Rio de Janeiro. How can you not be, really? Speed. Strength. Skill. Flexibility. Teamwork. Nerves of steel. Sheer grit and determination. Mothers winning races while their youngsters watch. Athletes medaling in their fourth or fifth Olympic Games. Competitors not yet old enough to drive a car dominating the world in their chosen sport.
As you watch the Olympics, impossible feats are made to look effortless:
- Two somersaults with a half twist in mid-air on a tumbling mat? Seen that.
- Four flips off the diving board before you slip into the pool? Seen that, too.
- The butterfly? I swear, watching Michael Phelps, it seems like anyone could do it.
So my daughter and her friend tried at the pool yesterday. (Relax! The butterfly, not the dive.) Neither of these two super-fit, high school athletes could do even two strokes. It was actually hilarious. And telling.
When we watch the Olympics, we are watching the end result of years of practice. Actually, describing the practice that goes into setting the all these records and winning all these medals in years doesn’t do it justice. We are watching the end result of hours and hours of practice, six or seven days a week, twelve months a year for years. We are watching the end result of an undiluted lifetime of practice. In the language of the opening quote, we are watching Chapter 10 of these athletes’ stories.
Now, my daughter and her friend didn’t waste a single moment comparing their “Intro” (I’m not even going to call their attempt at the butterfly Chapter 1) to Michael Phelps’ Chapter 10. They were just goofing off on a super hot day. But you can bet that the kid who was first runner up for a spot on the USA Men’s Olympic Swimming Team did. I hope, after the heat of disappointment cooled, that he was able to see that he may just be on Chapter 7 or 8. I hope he can sense the growth and potential still budding within him.
This type of comparison doesn’t just happen watching world-class competitions such as the Olympics or Wimbledon or the Super Bowl. It can happen in a yoga class or Spanish class or at a high school crew regatta. It can happen to writers when reading a masterpiece. It can happen to musicians when listening to the organist at church. Think of what you love or what you think you might love. I suspect you’ve had a moment or two when you’ve been awed by someone else’s skill doing exactly that.
A quick yoga example. Years ago, a friend and I practiced next to a woman who was serenely flowing through Ashtanga’s third series. At the time, I was still hard at work on the first series and had never seen someone so flexible and so strong. She looked like she was floating on her mat. To borrow my friend’s very apt description as we drove home, she looked like a human rubber band. When we sat up after Savasna at the end of the practice, the woman looked at me and groaned, “Oh boy. I was sooooooo stiff today.” I could barely contain my giggle as I said, truthfully, “I know just what you mean.”
And, though I didn’t know how what I’d witnessed could possibly be categorized as “stiff,” I did know exactly what she meant. There are days when, while I can do everything I always do on my mat, everything hurts. When I fight for every fraction of an inch of depth. When I have to take ten breaths rather than my typical five in each posture. When what I do as I sit up at the end of my practice is groan.
As I realized my shared connection with the “human rubber band” next to me, I could see the possible fruits of my practice and I was inspired. Even today, years later when I’m still nowhere near ready to begin work on the series of postures she was doing that day, she continues to inspire me. In revealing a glimpse of her frailty and “human-ness” as well as her obvious greatness, she taught me to see past Chapter 10 to all the chapters of work that preceded it.
It was that day that I first considered that whether we’re on Chapter 10 like Michael Phelps or the super-bendy woman in yoga class, or Chapter 1 like my daughters or me, we’re doing the same thing. We’re seeking joy in our chosen endeavor. We’re looking to those who are further along than we are for guidance and inspiration. We’re focusing with all our might. We’re pouring ourselves into what we’ve chosen to do – body, mind and spirit. We’re working for the simple pleasure of doing the work. We’re hoping for growth and change. At the same time, we’re pleased just to be able to do what we do.
And that’s as good as a gold medal (almost) in my book.