Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Falling Down

It's painful to watch athletes fall in the Olympics. They’ve spent most of their lives training for an event that lasts only minutes (or only seconds in some cases). In many of the winter sports at Sochi,  falls are difficult to avoid. I've seen speed skaters, leaning into turns at impossible angles, whose skates slip out from under them and send them crashing into the wall. I can't imagine how much it would sting to fall with the world watching when you are among the best in the world.

In two of the sports I participated in as a kid—ice skating and gymnastics—I fell a lot. Once, in gymnastics, I was doing a vault that is basically a flip using the vault (feet bounce off the springboard, hands land on the vault and push off, feet land on the mat). While I was upside down with my hands on the vault, my hands were too close to the edge, and they slipped off, so my back slammed down on the vault. It hurt, I was embarrassed and frustrated, and I probably cried, but I knew I should get back up and try again so that I wouldn’t be scared of the vault forever. So I tried again--and made the exact same mistake. My back came crashing down on the vault again. But only a few people were watching me, and I never thought I'd be a world-class gymnast. I don’t remember what happened after that—whether I did it a third time and succeeded or whether that was my last vault of the day—but I know I did the same vault over and over later, and I was a slightly tougher girl after that.

Fast forward to college, where I was still not destined for the Olympics, but I was a serious athlete: a rower. When I was a senior, my team was introduced to the concept of weightlifting until failure. We had lifted weights before, but it was usually a certain number of sets, with 20 or 30 reps per set. Now, the University of Michigan's professional weight trainers had determined that, based on what we wanted our muscles to be capable of, our weightlifting should change. We were supposed to lift enormous amounts of weight, but for only a few repetitions, until our muscles failed--until we physically could not complete another rep. It was a new concept: If we didn't fail within 6 to 8 reps, we weren't lifting enough weight, so we'd have to pile on some more. Each time we made our way around the weight room, we taxed several muscle groups until they were spent.

It was the first time failure had been my goal. It changed my outlook on failure--it seemed less scary. If I could get stronger by failing on purpose repeatedly, I realized failure shouldn't be my biggest fear.

I loved lifting until failure, as I loved my whole experience competing as a collegiate athlete: pushing myself to the brink, past what I thought I was capable of.

Now, I realize that failure is necessary sometimes. If you haven't failed, you haven't tried hard enough. And, as my cross country coach used to say, anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

The athletes at the Olympics are the best in the world. The courage they needed to get where they are, and the courage it must take to get up after a fall with your country and the rest of the world watching, is astounding. The fact that they made it to the Olympics and put it all on the line is immeasurably impressive, regardless of whether they fell down or fell short of their goals.

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