Olympic Dreams Deferred

I didn’t leave my house for two days. The pain of missing the Olympic trials paralyzed me. I didn’t speak with family or friends when they called. Didn’t feel like explaining, justifying, rationalizing, or any other “‘ing” as to why I wasn’t going to Oregon.  God I’m tired of this feeling. Is the writing on the wall? Am I not good enough? Is it time to hang it up? I should quit. No. I’ll try again next year.

And that is what I’ve told myself year after year – “Next year.”

Who am I? I am a body in the lane next to your favorite athlete. I am the second fastest runner in the world on a relay of no importance (the 4×200). I am the provisional qualifier versus the automatic qualifier. I’m a sports and travel agent, accountant, driver, nutritionist, assistant, and coach. I’m an elite athlete in waiting.  I am on the cusp…where I’ve been for what is getting to seem like an eternity.

I’ve been successful at every level, from middle school to college. I earned a scholarship to the University of South Carolina, where I won a national title and set a school record that has held for ten years. But all of that pales in comparison to the idea of accomplishing the next big thing, the real thing, the only thing, really: qualifying for the Olympics.

 The life of a budding, “on the verge” elite track athlete borders on the lines of incredulousness and hope. If you’re successful, it’s a clear indicator of desire and skill. But, if unsuccessful, it’s a sign that you’ve wasted years and sometimes a decade of your life, wasted your family and friends’ support and gone through girlfriends and therapists (mental and physical), all while trying to reach what begins to appear like an unattainable goal.

I’ve seen the most gifted athletes turning to more structured means of making a living – banking, law, “case of the Mondays”-inducing office work – rather than deal with the tribulations of the sport. Meanwhile, other athletes almost “breakthrough,” only to become complacent, frustrated – or both – and quit.

For some, the desperation gets the best of their moral codes. How desperate? One athlete robbed a major food chain. He was caught within 24 hours. Another would steal nutritional supplements from the health store that actually employed and sponsored him. That’s just scratching the story-surface.

Here were college graduates of reputable schools, with the potential of earning a modest salary – and no criminal history – succumbing to robbing and stealing for a shot at a dream; a dream that hears no cries and takes no prisoners.

However, although the track’s body count has accumulated (especially when sponsorship dollars aren’t involved), it hasn’t been as rough for all. The elite athlete’s story is one of perseverance – ignoring the distractions, avoiding the pitfalls, leaping the obstacles and reaching their goal. Tyson Gay could have been that dude robbing the supermarket.

I have spoken ad nauseam with peers – Olympic medalists and World Champions – on what it takes to make it. Two words run on a loop: Hard work. Sounds cliché, right? But sometimes it’s that simple. That simplicity, however, can be maddening.  A close friend who won Olympic gold even gave me this nugget: “God blesses hard work.”  Thanks, friend. I’ve only been working hard for…20 years or so. 

And if the narrative is only hard work, then why didn’t the other elite athletes qualify?  I concede to the following: Sometimes will trumps talent, fate trumps preparation, politics trumps all, and sometimes you either have it or you don’t.

This year I didn’t have it, but according to Forbes, 10,000 athletes did.

Although it is more bitter than sweet, I find myself glued to the television watching nonstop Olympic coverage. The bitterness slowly fades, however, replaced by fandom as the dramatic overtones loom over each segment.

Soon – any day, even – I will become motivated, determined and inspired. I will coax myself to realize, again, what I was born to do. To be continued…

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