Olympic mettle

I’ve not always been a fan of the Olympics. Not being particularly athletic or overly interested in sports, they always seemed to be a non-event. That was until, a few years ago, a friend and colleague told me how much the athletes’ dedication, incredibly hard work, and personal sacrifice inspired him and his wife.

And so, I started watching. At first, with disinterest and skepticism. Then, with curiosity. Later with attachment. And now, with awe.

Yes, there are carefully choreographed opening spectacles with parades of athletes bursting with national pride. And there is the generally good-natured rivalry between teammates who cheer each other in nearly selfless joy.

But it’s the stories inside the events that speak to the mettle of which these young athletes are made.

Snowboarder Kevin Pearce and brother David. Click on the picture to watch an NBC story about Kevin and his family.

There’s the story of Joannie Rochette, the Canadian figure skater who lost her mother just two days before her walk onto the ice. Understandably shaken, but undeterred, she won a bronze medal.

And there’s Kwame-Nkrumah Acheampong, the 33-year-old, one-man ski team from Ghana. Nicknamed “snow leopard” because the animal is as uncommon as a skier from Ghana, his skiing career started only five years ago.

And Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, a man who faced down addiction and pain to become the first skier to land “the hurricane,” a wrap of five twists into three somersaults that takes place 50 feet in the air. For Speedy, it was a silver medal.

Most Olympic stories are not just about an athlete. They are the stories of people who, through their own sacrifice and support, make another’s achievements possible. Take Kevin Pearce, whose half-pipe moves are compared to those of fellow snowboarder Shaun White–this Olympic’s gold medal winner. Kevin, who couldn’t compete due to a serious injury he suffered on December 31, 2009, now fiercely struggles to talk again and to regain the use of his limbs. It’s a slow, slow process. But it’s his brother, David, born with Down Syndrome, who has provided an unexpected perspective on Kevin’s recovery. “We learned patience from David,” his mother said, remembering that it took him three years to learn to put on his seatbelt.

For many Olympians, there will be medals. For all, there will be memories deeply etched in Vancouver’s snow.

But for Kevin, brothers David, Andrew and Adam, and parents Pia and Simon, there are no medals, no snow, only love.

And, perhaps that is the best metal of all.

May 3, 2010 UPDATE: Kevin is making a remarkable recovery, has been released from Craig Hospital in Englewood, CO, and awaits the real victory of returning to his home in Norwich, VT. His doctor says he’ll be able to make another return: to snowboarding!

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Of greener grass and the proverbial fence

Winter’s weeks-long grip on the South has relaxed a bit of late. Temperatures, which have barely peaked above the 40s in what seems like forever, have climbed into the 60s much to the delight of children and adults playing in the parks and strolling along walking trails. It won’t be long before tulips push through the soggy ground and the local soccer fields turn green.

For some reason, this change of scenery reminded me of an expression I first heard from my dad when I was probably five years old. We were engaged in one of those “I wish” conversations where you want what you don’t have. After wishing things into the ground for several minutes, he looked at me and said, “Son, you know they always say that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” To me, this confirmed that fences were meant to deprive animals of the good fortune of better grass “over there.” In this case is was in the neighbor’s pasture.

My five-year-old logic said that if you took the fences down, horses and cows wouldn’t have to be jealous of another’s better fortune and could move wherever they perceived the greener grass to be. Admittedly, it wasn’t the most practical of solutions.

Despite my childish logic, his point didn’t escape me. Nor does it today.

But we do seem to live in a world that, just beyond our grasp, is slightly better than the one in our hands. We long for warmer weather in the throes of winter and more moderate temperatures during the summer. Or, we’re on the prowl for better jobs, friends, houses or lovers. And, because greener/better is always “over there,” we never quite find it.

Another take on the greener over there proverb came to me awhile ago as I was waiting for a friend to arrive at her office. As I waited patiently, one of her office mates began describing the strong odor of solvent coming from another office in the building. She complained about the thoughtlessness of the landlord and the lack of ventilation, how she’d had to cancel classes during the week and how miserable the situation made her. Despite my suggestion about not letting this take her joy away, nothing would shake her angry words about the problem in which she seemed firmly anchored.

Largely, her story is the same drama in which, at times, we act. Becoming so enwrapped in a situation, we cannot choose a different scene or better context. We see and experience only the moment in all its horrifitude. (That’s a new word.)

In my own experience, I find it’s difficult to see how stuck we really are. But others often see what we don’t, that we have options, choices and potential. Potential that goes unrealized as we look and relook at the same problem, seeing the same evidence over and over again.

Is there a way out? Almost always. Here are three questions that help:

  • Is there another way to look at this problem/situation/event? Think of it this way: How would someone completely unconnected describe it?
  • Am I letting this define who I am and how I think about myself? It’s a case of choosing a new script or a new role to take on.
  • If I can’t change the whole picture, is there a part I can change?

My dad’s admonition about the grass being greener on the other side is a good reminder that where we are often looks more bleak than where we aren’t. The idea of moving “over there” is, of course, tempting but not always practical.

Yet the grass remains under our feet. How we look at it is largely up to us.