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Articles > Gold Medal Lessons for Life

By Rabbi Mitch Smith

For 2 weeks every four years millions of Americans are riveted to their television sets, as they follow the pageantry and excitement of the Olympic Games. The thrill of these contests, whose motto is "faster, higher, stronger", was in watching individuals who have dedicated their lives to reaching the heights of human athletic performance, and knowing of the intense dedication that has led them to this moment.

Taking note of athletes who strive to reach their best, we can find a message for each of us. The men and women who took their place on the Olympic winners' podium made their way there because of certain values, strategies and practices which I believe can help all of us to make life fuller, more joyful and more meaningful. As we usher in the Jewish New Year, a time of soul searching and introspection, we can benefit from their example, and their "Gold Medal lessons for life".

One of the athletes who most captured the attention of viewers was Dan O'Brien, who won the gold medal in the decathlon. Not only because this is one of the hallmark events in the Olympics, earning the winner the title of the world's greatest athlete, but also because four years ago, O'Brien failed to even qualify for the Barcelona games. This, to an athlete who trains so rigorously for one purpose, can be devastating. Deprived of his chance in '92, Dan O'Brien didn't give up. For four additional years he continued to train so that he might reach this moment.

After winning the Gold, Dan O'Brien told of a meeting several years back with former decathlete Milt Campbell. At a track and field clinic, Campbell asked the assembled, "How many of you have formulated some personal goals?" Numerous hands went up. "How many of you have written your goals down?" was the next question. Nearly as many hands stayed up as before. "How many of you", continued Campbell, "have your goals with you in your pocket?" Every single hand was lowered. O'Brien took his cues from this experience, and kept close sight of his goals every single step of the way. His relentless pursuit of his dream took him to the winner's podium this summer.

For 18 months before the 1984 Olympics, Linda Thom wrote in her diary every single night, "I am the 1984 Olympic Gold medallist in Ladies Match Pistol." She pictured herself on the podium after her victory, as the national flag went up, her country's anthem being played, and being interviewed by reporters. Somewhere deep in her core was a belief that she could do it. Thinking about her daily goals and dreaming her dream nourished her determination, her confidence and her belief in herself as a champion, and her dream came true.

A couple of years back, Wichita State University bowling coach Gordon Vadakin mandated that all his bowlers write the phrase "Intercollegiate National Champions" on a piece of paper and carry it wherever they went. The punishment for being caught without the inscription: an instant 50 pushups. At season's end, his team went on to win their third consecutive national title, and the ninth in 17 years.

Each great human accomplishment begins with some kind of vision or dream. God called Abraham to leave his native land and all that he had come to know, to forge a new future, and a new nation. God called to Moses in the vision of the burning bush - challenging him, too, to leave the comfort of home and hearth in order to take the mantle of leadership and be the one who would bring the Israelites out from Egyptian bondage.

Centuries later, the journalist Therodore Herzl decided that the time was ripe for a return of his people to the ancient homeland, where Jews would find refuge after centuries of persecution. Many laughed at his lofty hopes, but he kept steadfast, saying: "If you will it, it is no dream". Today the State of Israel is a home to many that have suffered, and a source of pride to all that have cherished the dream.

Our dreams are the bridge between the physical limitations of our lives and the unlimited flight of which the human spirit is capable. Our dreams are what give our life meaning and direction, just as their dreams give purpose to these athletes.

Like the practice of writing downs one's life goals, our sages encouraged people to have written messages to themselves in their pockets. They said that each of us should have 2 such messages, and look at them every day. On the first piece of paper it should say: "For me the world was created". The second one should read "I am but ashes and dust". We should hold ourselves in such high esteem that we are asked to imagine that the entire universe, God's glorious creation, was put here for our benefit alone. But at the very same time, we should picture ourselves as the humblest of creatures in this vast expanse of existence. Neither to permit ourselves unbridled egoism, nor unrelenting despair, but finding the proper balance of self-love and humility.

To keep the proper sense of balance, of proportion, serves us not only in gymnastics, but also in life. Few of us will know the pressures that were faced by Kerri Strug, as she vaulted her way into Olympic history. Failing to land on her first vault, and tearing some ligaments in the process, she gathered every ounce of strength, courage, and determination as she readied herself for her last attempt, the one that earned her and her teammates the first Gold Medal in the history of women's gymnastics. When later she was asked how she managed to keep herself so highly motivated during the many years that she was constantly in the shadow of her more famous teammates, she replied: "I always made sure that I enjoyed what I was doing, And I always demanded of myself the very best effort I was capable of."

Like Kerri, there is much in our lives that we cannot control. We cannot control other people's opinions of us, even though there is much we can do to affect them. We cannot control our fate in the workplace, although here, too, many of our actions can have some good or bad impact. We can - and should - strive to do the very best of which we are capable, but at the same time we needn't feel responsibility for things beyond our control. Olympic athletes have become champions by learning to focus on what they can control, and to dismiss the rest.

When we are able to let go of the standards that others expect of us, dismiss thoughts of what other people have achieved or acquired in their lives, and focus on simply giving the best effort of which we are capable, and finding enjoyment in what we do, then - like Kerri Strug - we, too, can give a strong accounting of ourselves.

During these Days of Awe we are asked to reflect upon the meaning of our lives and the worth of our accomplishments. Like an athlete on the day of competition, we are held accountable on the Day of Atonement. We ponder what we have made of the time allotted to us. We do well to be guided by the same considerations that serve the champions. For all their success, elite athletes never define winning as the measure of their worth, nor think of losing as failure. They consider themselves winners because they have lived up to self-selected standards. As Amy Van Dyken, winner of four gold medals in swimming, put it: "My goal was to perform my best times ... If that got me the gold, then great! If not, I still would have accomplished my goals." Carl Lewis, winner of an incredible 9-gold-medals, said the same thing: "I don't worry about winning or losing. I run my race, and as long as I can compete at the level I know I'm capable of, the rest is going to take care of itself."

For those of us who too often define success in life by the size of our bank account, or the size of our house, rather than the size of our heart, or our commitments, their words are of exceptional value.

For some athletes, attaining the heights of Olympic success was indeed a dream come true. Standing on the Olympic podium, having a Gold Medal placed around one's neck, and knowing that the Star Spangled Banner was being played in honor of your accomplishments, has been called the greatest moment in an athlete's life. But any moment in life, even the most ecstatic, is fleeting. Today's gold medallist becomes tomorrow just another citizen. Some, like softball gold medallist Dr. Dot Richardson, took up where she left off as a Los Angeles physician. Others continue in their sport, or find themselves at the beginning of a new venture. What each of them must cope with is that now the spotlight has faded, the glory has subsided, and their Olympic status is relegated to history. No longer pampered or given adulation and super-star status, many of them find that they must begin again to search for their sense of self, since athletic performer was an all-encompassing identity - the thing that made them feel worthwhile, the thing that friends, the public, even family members had rewarded them for.

Mark Lenzi was an Olympic medallist in diving in the 1992 games. He returned home to Miami and waited for the phones to ring, for the endorsement offers to come in, for the supposed rewards of his achievement. When none of this occurred he fell into a cycle of depression, left his sport, and entertained thoughts of suicide. He had presumed that the goals he had accomplished, to which he had sacrificed so much over the years, would carry - should carry - certain automatic perks. When this didn't happen, he was unprepared to cope with it. He discovered what we all must, that life doesn't always go as we feel it should.

Anne Frank, the young girl whose stirring diary touched the world's heart, was one of millions who found their world torn asunder when the Nazi nightmare intruded upon their lives. Each individual forced into hiding or taken off to the death camps was forced to find a way to survive, a way to find new meaning in life, new strength of character, new hopes and goals. Each of them, simple people not much different from you and I, adapted to new circumstances, never giving up hope when life as they had known it was turned on its head. As the Yiddish proverb says: "Mann tracht und Gott lacht". Man plans and God laughs.

While most of us have neither stood on the Olympic podium, nor experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, all of us can relate to the need for having to start again. Losing a job as downsizing casts its pall upon the economy, separating or divorcing after years of marriage, losing a loved one to illness or tragic accident, sometimes just moving to a new community.

For athletes, a career-ending injury, the bitter luck of tripping during a race, failing to make a qualifying heat after years of training, or simply the inevitable facts of aging - can put an end to a dream. Faced with such a loss, those athletes who have believed - who have been encouraged by others to believe - that their value and the worth of their life lay in their athletic accomplishments, have often turned to drugs, depression and despair. But the real champions - on and off the court - are those athletes who have been resilient, who have developed other facets of their lives, who have come to realize that people are not defined solely by their accomplishments, or their job titles, but by the essence of their inner selves. These athletes have fared well even when life dealt them hard blows.

The late tennis star Arthur Ashe surely epitomized grace, courage, and wisdom in difficult days. When surgical complications led to his contracting the AIDS disease, which took his life, he commented, "Should I blame life for the bad things that have happened to me - which I didn't deserve, and not equally blame it for the good things?"

Like Arthur Ashe, most elite athletes accept responsibility for things, rather than looking for a convenient scapegoat. They take the initiative in making things go their way as much as possible. Rather than dwell on negative thoughts, the "what if's" or "if only's", they are very adept - through a lot of practice - at dismissing negative thoughts from their mind and keeping focused on the positive. They know that you can dwell on a negative thought, and replay it over and over, until it does every bit of damage possible. Or you can replace it with an encouraging thought, stay focused in the present, call upon whatever stores of self-confidence you have, and in the end, remember - like Kerri Strug - to simply give 100% and find enjoyment in what you do. Some call it emotional resilience. Some call it maturity. Some call it mental toughness. Whatever we call it, it can serve each of us as well as it serves every athlete that ever experienced a setback, from Kerri Strug to Dan O'Brien.

Some of the most exciting Olympic moments were those provided by our teams. One of the teams that drew a great deal of interest was the U.S. woman's basketball squad. In previous go-arounds, the American women have always failed to reach the gold. This year's squad had a great deal of talent, but beyond that, came to epitomize the very spirit of teamwork. Team work can outweigh even raw talent, as was proven by Yevgeny Gomelski, the former head coach of the Soviet women's team in the 1992 Barcelona games, who later made aliyah and coached Israel's National Women's Team. He considered his '92 Russian squad not necessarily the most talented, the most physical or the most dominating. But he decided that all these barriers could be overcome by playing as a team. Basketball is, after all a team sport, and so he decided that whoever played most consistently as a team had the best chance of winning the gold medal. And he made sure that it was his squad. The lesson did not go unnoticed by the U.S. women. Four years later, it was outstanding teamwork as much as exceptional talent that brought the gold home for this team.

We all give lip service to teamwork, but not all of us are ready to put the idea into practice. Teamwork isn't just helping others when it is convenient, or patting someone else on the back when things are going our way. Team work is feeling a part of something that is larger than oneself, and feeling compelled, because of this feeling, to sacrifice some of one's own immediate goals for the goals of the team. It is realizing that each one is needed, each one has a unique and vital role to play.

Sure, sometimes, we are inconvenienced, or given a back-up role or find ourselves in the shadows cast by others. But when that feeling of belonging looms large in our mind, these things don't seem to matter so much. Somewhere inside each of us is the desire to be part of a team. I don't think there was a single athlete of any nation, whether competing in a team or an individual sport, who, upon seeing his or her flag raised aloft, upon hearing his or her country's national anthem played, didn't feel that this is what it was all about for them - not personal glory, not endorsement opportunities, but to stand on the winners' podium representing their country, and feel the elation or being part of something larger than themselves.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Jewish voice of this century, said: "Judaism is not only a certain quality in the souls of individuals, but primarily the existence of the community of Israel. What we do as individuals is a trivial episode; what we attain as the House of Israel causes us to become a part of eternity. The Jew does not stand alone before God as an I to Thou... it is as a member of the community that he stands before God, as a We to Thou."

It is this community consciousness that pervades our thoughts and our prayers during these Days of Awe. It is this spirit, this attitude, which should intensify in each of us the feelings of identity with the hopes and destiny of our people. For it is in this way that we overcome the limitations of our own mortality, the finiteness of our individual existence. As we contribute to and draw from the ongoing drama of the Jewish people, we rescue our individual lives from oblivion.

To be the very best in life, we can take our cue from the Gold Medal athletes. If we dream dreams for ourselves, if we summon the dedication and commitment to those dreams and take the steps necessary to achieve them, if we take responsibility for our circumstances and summon the positive thoughts and self-confidence, if we define success on our own terms and not those which society dictates, and if we cast our portion with something larger than ourselves, then we can hold our head proudly as we take our place on the gold medal podium of life.

Mitch Smith is a Reconstructionist Rabbi based in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is also a certified sports psychologist, who has worked with Israeli national teams and various professional American athletes. This article originally appeared as a Rosh Hashanah sermon in 1996.

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