During the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia these past two weeks, I enjoyed the story of the Canadian mogul skier Alexandre Bilodeau. He won the gold four years ago skiing the moguls in Vancouver, Canada. He repeated his win last week in the same event by once again winning the gold. When asked who his hero is and what motivates him to continue to try and be the best in his sport, Alexandre makes no bones about it – he credits his older brother, Frederic. It is plain to see that these brothers love each other. Frederic can never be the athlete that his younger brother has become because when he was very young he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The parents were told that he would no longer be able to walk by the age of 12. Today he is 28 and is still walking. In fact he has been in Soshi cheering on his brother in his now successful quest for his second gold medal.
In the 116 year history of the Olympic Games, there are athletes who are heroes of mine. First was Jim Thorpe. Jim was one of the greatest all-around athletes ever to grace a field or stadium. Prior to the Olympics Jim played baseball, basketball, and football. He made the 1912 U.S. Olympic Team and sailed off to Stockholm, Sweden to compete in the games. But he was competing in track and field. He won gold medals in the decathlon and the pentathlon. Thorpe was such a versatile athlete that he was declared to be “The Greatest Athlete in the World” by the King of Sweden who handed out the Olympic medals at the end of the games in 1912. Thorpe endured a number of challenges, having been born and raised as an Indian on an Oklahoma reservation. Despite this, he overcame the latent prejudice and hatred that was still in evidence during his lifetime.
Jesse Owens, an amazing athlete, single-handedly destroyed Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany by summarily beating the German athletes in track and field. Owens’ grandparents had been slaves, and his parents were share-croppers. Coming from such humble beginnings, his rise to international athletic celebrity status speaks volumes about his talent and character. During the award ceremony for one of the four gold medals he earned in Berlin, the German athlete who came in second place raised his arm in the Nazi salute during the playing of the U.S. National Anthem, no doubt attempting to besmirch Owens’ achievement and to ridicule the United States. Owens made his own statement by raising his right hand in an American military salute. It has been reported that Hitler refused to shake hands with Jesse, but Owens thinks otherwise. "Hitler didn't snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram."
Al Oerter won the gold medal in the discus throw in four straight Olympics: 1956 – Melbourne, Australia; 1960 – Rome, Italy; 1964 – Tokyo, Japan; and 1968 – Mexico City, Mexico. He was the first Olympian to successfully defend his gold medal three times in a row. Sports injuries, and a near fatal car crash, always seemed to place him in the “underdog” status going into the Olympics. But he always rose to the occasion, despite at times having to endure excruciating pain.
It was the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia when a little sprite of a girl, all four feet, eight inches, named Kerri Strug captivated the world with her guts and determination. Having failed to rotate fully on the vault, she seriously injured her left ankle during the awkward landing. She still had one more jump in the team competition, so she hobbled her way back to the starting line. Kerri then ran full bore down the approach and hit the springboard with both feet, launching herself onto the vault, flipping in mid-air and then sticking her landing. The pain she endured must have been horrific. But this jump helped the American women’s gymnastics team win the gold. She was in terrible pain, so her friend and coach, Bela Karolyi, carried her from the stadium.
Derek Redmond is my final Olympian. This British athlete was competing in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain in the 400 meter sprint, a race that was his specialty. About half-way through the race he came up limping, having torn his hamstring. The physical pain was undoubtedly enormous, causing him to collapse on the track. The disappointment he experienced was another kind of pain, particularly because he had been favored to win the gold in this event. Medical assistants were immediately at his side, but he waved them back. He then rose to his feet and began hopping on his good leg, having every intention of completing the race. Tears were streaming down his face as he painfully hopped along. His father stood just inside the barrier from the stands. Seeing his son struggling to finish, dad jumped the barrier, ran to his son’s side and with an arm under his shoulders helped him complete the race. As father and son struggled toward the finish line, the crowd rose to their feet, cheering and shouting in admiration for this young man who would not quit.
It is people like Thorpe, Owens, Oerter, Strug, and Redmond, and just last week, Bilodeau, who inspire me with their grit and courage both in their athletic pursuits, and in facing the challenges of daily life. I’m not suggesting that these are perfect people. What I am suggesting is that these are people who have simply refused to allow life to beat them. And for one glorious moment, they allowed us all to join in their triumph.