Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Gabby Douglas, Michael Phelps ... and me

I’ve never been an athlete. Suffice it to say I’ve never even really tried to become an athlete. Some truths, as they say, are self-evident, and for me, that was one of them. Good speller? Yes. Good kick-ball teammate or tetherball partner? Nope. Not if you don’t want to lose.

But I’ve always loved the Olympics – to the point that if I had two weeks’ PTO to blow, I’d take time off and watch the coverage all day long. Bob Costas’ bad plastic surgery, be damned; I’m not looking at you anyway, Bob. I’m looking at the tears and the falls, the parents in the stands. The high-fives, the hugs. The drama.

When I was growing up, we were an Olympics family. The first Games I remember watching were in ’72, the year the terror unfolded in Munich. I still remember seeing the grainy pictures of the gunmen in the woolen ski masks. But equally vivid are the memories of Olga Korbut doing that backflip thing from the higher of the uneven bars and Mark Spitz with his seven gold medals fanned out across his chest.

Then came 1976 and Nadia with her perfect 10. From there, the years, and the athletes, run together, but when I think of family vacations, I flash back to the five of us spending our evenings huddled around some little hotel TV if the Olympics happened to be on while we were away from home.

Globally shared experiences are a little difficult to come by these days, but the Olympics do tend to facilitate a few every two years. No matter if we happened to be watching “Dance Moms” or “Breaking Bad” for a little while, we all turned back to NBC to watch Gabby clinch the all-around and Phelps accept his final gold medal. And we all talked about those experiences the next day.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to possess the grace of a world-class athlete. I’ll never know, but for a scant two weeks every other year, I can imagine, and I can choke up at the sight of a runner with blades where his feet should be or a 16-year-old girl who spent two years with people who weren’t her family so she could see if she had what it took.

She did, and I’m in awe of her for refusing to be scared away by the voices that tell us all, “Don’t bother. Most people will never be that good.”

Even when they’re not that good -- 1,000 times more talented than I’ll ever be, but still, in Olympic frame of reference, not good enough -- I’ll watch them, and like many people, I’ll wonder “What if?” What if I had tried to become a pathologist in spite of my dad’s warnings that “people who aren’t good at math can’t be doctors”? What if I had, as a young person, stopped making mix tapes and laced up a pair of Nikes?

I wouldn’t have made it to the Olympics, but maybe I would have gotten a taste of what it’s like to push yourself harder than you ever thought possible. It’s on my bucket list to do that -- someday, in some way.

No, I’ll never know the feeling of gold around my neck. The upside, though? I'm equally certain I'll never be asked to stare into the face of Bob Costas.

1 comment:

  1. I still can't figure out why I watched the Olympics and decided I wanted to be a sports writer, instead of watching the Olympics and deciding to be an athlete. I think it's because I loved the stories and I wanted to be someone who told them one day.

    But it's also because of the Olympics that I wanted to see the world. The world was a much larger place when we were kids, and everywhere seemed so far away. But to hear the languages and see all the flags and meet (via ABC) the people from all these faraway places was awesome, in the true sense of the word. And it made us kids think, if the grownups didn't, that these people from the countries we were supposed to hate were worthy of our admiration.