I’ve been dipping in and out of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, being loose and cavalier with the performances of people’s lives, treating them like any other TV entertainment. Here and there, I catch a figure skater, a snowboarder, a downhill skier, a luger, doing his or her thing. Some of these individuals make me breathless, they are so incredible; others gut me when they fail.
I love the winter games, in part because I loved skiing when I was growing up as part of one of those Texan families that went to Colorado during winter and spring breaks. I was kind of good when I was young and fearless, and I miss that kind of endeavor, the thrill of it. But the bigger part of me is like what I imagine to be the biggest part of the viewing audience: people agape at stunts we can scarcely imagine being possible, much less pulled off by mere mortals. It is like magic, but it’s real.
It is spectacle in its purest form. We are in awe of the height, the speed, the artistry. But it is also story. And it’s story of “other.” This is something I wish we could adopt elsewhere—a curiosity (not judgment or anxiety) about people who are different. Olympians are surely quite different from most of us. Is it easier because we admire them?
I’m not very competitive, never have been. So that’s part of the mystery for me. I’m also fairly risk-averse and cautious; I define a middle-aged mindset. I don’t have the discipline for even trying to be best at anything. I like to “oooh” and “aaah” like anyone. I like to hear about how these athletes arrived in this moment. These people’s trajectories—their journeys—are so unusual.
I heard snowboarder Chloe Kim’s dad took her to the slopes starting at age 4. I suppose when you’ve been doing something regularly since just after mastering walking, that makes it a whole lot easier. But there are others who started much later, and with less familial zeal. So I wonder about those who simply tried something and loved it so much, they became obsessed, because a person would have to be obsessed to love anything enough to train the way these people do.
Obviously, it’s a tremendous honor to be chosen, another to win. Commentators talk about sacrifice, what athletes went through to be there; competitors suffered injuries, illnesses, financial strain. They were rejected over and over (think skater Adam Rippon), but didn’t let it get them down—they worked and worked and worked some more just to be able to compete, to represent, to show they were worth it. They likely had to forgo friendships, romances, vacations, other careers. What else fell by the wayside so that their one specific area of focus could be nurtured over all else?
There are “redemption” moments like Godfather of Snowboarding Shaun White’s gold medal in halfpipe this year after missing the podium altogether in the 2014 Sochi events on top of dealing with something like 62 stitches in his face from a terrible accident last year. He threw his board and cried like a baby when he saw his final, amazingly high score. His dad said he had never seen him cry. No one could have written that moment better.
There is one American-Asian skating pair who are siblings. I am equal parts envious of their closeness and freaked out by the way they are inseparable. How do they date after spending most of every day of their lives working together so hard, trusting each other with their very own bodies, looking into each other’s eyes as if they are lovers? It’s weird. And they are brilliant.
There are fierce and mean competitors, and there are those who are so eager to lift each other up, supporting the sport as much as anything and basking in the joy of being with others of their kind. Like the biathletes who practically tied (which is crazy in that long, slow sport), with one barely crossing the finish line ahead of the other, the tip of his ski a few inches beyond; the definition of photo-finish. You would think the guy a few inches back would be mad, but no—they celebrated together. Another guy who won gold pulled Mr. Silver and Mr. Bronze up onto the podium with him. Talk about a sort of brotherhood.
On the other hand, I watched a guy who had broken his neck last year attempt glorious ski tricks and suffer a fall so nasty it made my intestines clinch just watching it, and he was hauled off the mountain by paramedics. What happened to him? The cameras panned away and we never heard his fate. I hope in four years we hear he’s back, or we don’t, but we know he retired to do something else that he loved. I hope he’s OK – in body and mind.
I do wonder why all of it is worth the risk. I’ve talked to enough elite athletes to know that the risk is part of the reason they do it, but I don’t know if that will ever exactly make sense to me. There is a deep, compelling, complicated mix of admiration, excitement, cringe, and mystification in these Olympic athletes.
What does it mean to be a person who loves what they do so much that it is worth everything to get 28 seconds to prove yourself to the world? What does it mean to ache toward that slim chance at extreme glory, at ultimate achievement, biggest bragging rights ever?