Shayna Schmidt | March 10, 2018

Another Winter Olympics has come and gone, filled (as ever) with triumphs, defeats, close shaves and surprise wins. For any pro athlete, getting to the Olympics at all is an outstanding achievement. But for the rest of us mere mortals, it can seem a bit like the moon: we admire and even celebrate those who reach it, but would laugh at the thought of going ourselves. 

And it’s true – we can’t all be Olympians. Most of us have neither the time, energy nor (let’s face it) freakishly good genes to make it that far in any sport. But are these outstanding men and women really just freaks of nature? Is it really just their genes that make them superstars? The short answer is No. Their talents and genes aside, what really makes them Olympians is qualities like mental strength, adaptability and a willingness to try. And these qualities are open to all of us, regardless of our genes or upbringing. Consider two of this year’s most exciting contests – the men’s snowboarding halfpipe and the women’s bobsleigh event.

“Nothing like a good comeback”

If you’ve been keeping an eye on this year’s Games, you’ll likely not have missed Shaun White’s gold medal-winning performance on the halfpipe. With only one run left in the final, facing a formidably talented youngster 12 years his junior, he needed to land a combination of literally death-defying tricks which had never before been landed. And he did it, winning his 3rd gold Olympic medal and – incidentally – the USA’s 100th Winter Olympic gold.

How did he do it? Obviously, practice is key – he has been snowboarding since he was a child, and even patented one of the tricks he performed in the final. But was it really that simple?

Well, it turns out that this win was by no means assured, even without his opponent Ayumu Hirano’s brilliant efforts. Though a two-time Olympic champion, Shaun had not won a medal in the halfpipe since 2010 – and after an uncharacteristically poor showing in Sochi 2014 he’d even lost his love for the sport. Then, after deciding to try again and hiring a whole new support team, he ended up splitting his face open during a training run in October 2017 while doing the exact same trick he later did in the final. Some of his 62 stitches were still in when he competed four months later! 

What on earth possessed the guy to keep going? In an interview on TODAY Tuesday, White explained that his 2014 defeat and subsequent injury actually motivated him to get back on track rather than give up. As his coach said, he chose to “overcome that fear and lay it down on the world stage”, and in doing so achieved a “legendary” victory. Without that mental strength and determination to get back up he would never have returned to the Olympics, let alone give his – and perhaps the – greatest performance in the event’s history.

Of course, we may not be a white male Californian with 25 years of practice in our chosen field. Perhaps we can identify more with the half German, half Gambian Mariama Jamanka, this year’s Olympic champion in the women’s bobsleigh category.

“We made her come and get it”

For most of us, what we know of bobsleigh comes from Cool Runnings, a classic film (very) loosely based on Jamaica’s first Olympic bobsled team. The sport requires teamwork, precision and nerves of steel, especially from the captain – and as ever, the favourites usually win.

Mariama Jamanka was not the favourite to win this year. In fact, quite the opposite: in a widely read pre-Olympic forecast she was barely mentioned. So how does a virtually unknown former discus and hammer thrower suddenly leap to the top of a different sport, edging out two- and three-medal-winning veterans?

Well, don’t ask Mariama – she was as surprised as the rest of us. But think about this: how did she get to the final in the first place?

  1. She was willing to try new things. Mariama had originally trained as a hammer and discus thrower, but when she realised she had reached her limit in that sport she decided to drop athletics and take up bobsleigh. And despite having to start again, it paid off: after 5 years of hard work she reached Olympics.
  2. She refused to focus on the difficulties. She was described as an “upstart” who was “without a single victory of any international significance on her resume," and she faced both the current world champion and a double Olympic gold medallist. Yet she revealed that far from being nervous, she was actually quite relaxed and unconcerned by the apparent impossibility of her win. Instead she had set a reasonable goal of reaching the top five and doing her best after that – and it worked. 
  3. She followed through to the end. Even after her third, record-setting run was beaten by a mere 0.04 seconds, she refused to give up: and although her opponents were almost flawless, Mariama proved just that little bit better.

So what’s the point?

Here at Livekick, we know that most of us can never be Olympic medalists, just as most of us can never be astronauts (no matter what our eight-year-old selves might think). But that’s not the point. The point is that we don’t need spectacular genes or a charmed life to be successful, whether in our life, profession or our fitness regime. What really counts is being willing to get back up after setbacks; to try new things if the old things don’t work; to set goals for ourselves, even high ones; and to not give up until we reach them. As great British statesman Winston Churchill put it: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

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