We asked Olympians to share their most important life lessons
Who's ready for Tokyo!? The biggest and most exciting sporting event in the world is kicking off in just under 200 days. The Olympics are still the Olympics regardless of what year they are held in, and we can't wait. Every four years, we are absolutely amazed by the unbelievable athletic performances, the passion, the unity and the spirit that accompany the Games, and Tokyo 2020 won't be any different, even if it's taking place in 2021. The Opening Ceremonies are set to start on July 23, 2021!
In anticipation of the upcoming Olympic Games, we asked Olympians to share their most important life lessons with us, and they shared some incredible wisdom. We hope you can take something from these amazing athletes and their experiences!
Tonja Buford-Bailey represented the U.S. as a track and field athlete. She made her first Olympic team—the 1992 Games in Barcelona—at just 21 years old. She went on to compete in the 1996 Games in Atlanta, where she earned a bronze medal, and later, the 2000 Games in Sydney.
"The biggest lesson that I learned about myself is how resilient I am as a person," she shared. "I was always fast, I could always beat people on the track, and I always had a killer instinct when the gun went off, but I didn’t really realize, even throughout that period of time, that I was as resilient and mentally strong as I was until I started hitting roadblocks."
Although Buford-Bailey may not have fully recognized her own mental fortitude until she began training for the Olympics, that strength came from her childhood. "There was not a workout in the world that was going to be tougher than what I had already experienced," she revealed.
As a middle child in a family of six kids being raised by a single mother without many resources, Buford-Bailey often felt that she had to be twice as good at everything she did. "I always felt like I had to overprove myself," she remembered. "I’ve got to make sure that I’m not just average, I’ve got to be above average. And those are things that I mentally made myself aware of. In anything that I did, I had to be twice as good." That was the second lesson she shared with me—don't settle for average. Buford-Bailey needed to be above average when she delivered papers at 4 a.m. to help out her mother. When she supported her ill sister. When she got herself to college. When she made her first Olympic Team. And now, surmounting obstacles as a black female coach. "You can’t just settle for average. Average is never good enough."
The third lesson Buford-Bailey shared with me has to do with trusting your intuition. She overcame the struggles of her childhood and earned incredible success as an athlete, leader, and mentor despite the expectations others had for her. "If you would’ve thought of all the people on my track club ‘who was gonna be the one?' no one would’ve picked me," she admitted. But her resilience and determination, coupled with her ability to trust her instincts and keep herself on the right path, helped create her future.
"It could've been one little thing, and my life could’ve been totally different. Just one little thing could’ve happened. One thing. One thing could’ve changed everything. And it wouldn’t have been hard for it to happen." So why didn't it? Maybe a little luck. But mostly, Buford-Bailey beat the odds because throughout her life she trusted her instincts, heeded her intuition and made smart decisions that kept her out of danger. She reflected on observing her peers make choices that led them down bad paths—the same paths that most people expected her to take as well.
"That’s not something I wanted to do," she reflected. "I chose not to do that. Those are decisions that you end up making in the process of trying to get out. There’s a lot of people that didn’t make it out because they made a bad decision." Buford-Bailey is a big believer in the importance of listening to your inner self.
So what happens when you're mentally strong, you trust your instincts, you beat the odds, and you start to accomplish things? You begin to truly believe in yourself. Hence, Buford-Bailey's last and perhaps most important life lesson: "It took me a long time to really come within myself, and no one else helped me do it, I had to do it on my own."
Talking to Buford-Bailey now, it's hard to believe she was ever anything shy of confident, outspoken and powerful. But like many young girls, she used to be timid, insecure and unsure of herself. "The level of confidence and self-esteem that I had at [15 or 16 years old], I would say, out of a scale of 1 to 10, would’ve been a 2." But as she continued to trust herself in her pursuit of success, Buford-Bailey gained confidence in both her athletic abilities and her voice. She learned to ask more questions and call out her teammates and advocate for her needs. "There’s that level of stepping outside of yourself and really trusting who you are as an individual. And that’s so hard to do, and it takes time. It really takes years and time to develop," Buford-Bailey reflected. "It wasn’t an epiphany or something; this was over a period of time of growing, growing, and growing confidence."
Her parting words? "I learned those lessons for myself. I didn’t learn them from anybody else."
Heather Pease-Olson was a member of the 1996 and 2000 U.S. Olympic synchronized swimming teams. Pease-Olson and Team USA won gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games and placed fifth in Sydney in 2000. "The difference in those two experiences really humbled me and showed me that it’s about the process," she revealed. "It’s about the grit and the determination that you learn trying to achieve small goals all along the way." Pease-Olson is proud of her gold medal and all of her successes, but she believes her losses have ultimately taught her more about herself and helped her develop patience, familiarity with discomfort and the ability to rebound and rebuild.
"Everybody just thinks that winning the gold medal is the pinnacle. In our country, having the gold is the symbol of your success," she noted. "When I really thought back on my entire career as an athlete, I probably lost more than I won, and yet everybody who’s close to me knows ‘Oh, you won a gold medal, you were so successful.’ But there were so many things along the way where I wasn’t successful, and I didn’t succeed or stand on the podium and still got back up."
Her advice to the rest of us? Refuse to stay comfortable. "Day in and day out, push a little farther and a little farther past that comfort zone." And ultimately, don't be afraid of failure—embrace what it can teach you.
Kerry McCoy competed for the U.S. as a wrestler at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and the 2004 Games in Athens. When asked for his most important life lesson, McCoy shared that he's realized "the most important things are the relationships and the support network that you have." He credits his parents, coaches, and teammates with creating a supportive environment for him at every stage in his competitive life. In an individual sport like wrestling, McCoy explained, the majority of the work you put in to be successful is purely individual and self-motivated. "I didn’t have someone that was setting the clock," he added. The opportunities to train and improve were always available, but difficult to capitalize on alone. Thus, McCoy shared that he relied very heavily on his support network, oftentimes without even realizing so. Teammates would work out with him even if they were not preparing for a competition themselves. Coaches provided him with resources and connections to help him stay motivated. His parents supported him incessantly. "They were always there supporting me, and I just had to be self-motivated enough to put myself in position, and then they would help me move to the next step."
And now that he's had the opportunity to reflect on the people that helped him make it to the Olympics, he hopes to provide young athletes with the same support. "That support network is really the foundation. That is something that I’ve really been able to cherish looking back, and also something I want to pass on to the next generation," shared McCoy.
"When I coach, when I mentor, I always try to give [my athletes] that encouragement and give them that support, because I always feel like that's what I had."
McCoy also shared a second life lesson with me. "It really is all about the journey," he stated. In preparation for the Games, he was only focused on a singular goal: he hoped to win a gold medal. However, when he arrived at his first Opening Ceremonies, he realized that "it didn't matter how many medals you had won before, how many Olympic teams you made, whether you were a professional athlete, whether you were a first-year athlete… we were all together competing trying to be the best that we could be under the Olympic flag." He added that "being able to represent something bigger than yourself" was the most special part of his Olympic experience.
"At the end, whether you win a medal or not, whether you place or not, is something that will be based on that day or that time. The fact that you made that team, that you represented your country and your family under the Olympic flag, that's something that no one can ever take away."
He's excited to watch the journeys of the next generations as they work to become a part of that special legacy.
Katie Bam is a two-time Olympian field hockey player, representing the U.S. in London 2012 and Rio 2016. Although she is proud of all of her career accomplishments, she acknowledges that she's learned a lot from her failures as well. "When I trained for the 2008 Olympics, I definitely could have made the team, but the biggest thing that held me back was that I was so worried about making mistakes that I made too many mistakes," she admitted. And from this experience, Bam learned her most valuable life lesson. "I had to open and honestly reflect with myself as to the things that I could change and needed to change," she shared. "Only control what you can control. There are things that are out of your hands. Selections are out of your hands. If you do everything that you possibly can to the best of your ability and you're not selected, that's the coaches’ choice."
Bam expressed that this realization changed both her career and her entire outlook on life.
It allowed me to go and train for the next two Olympics worry-free," she explained. "I made sure that the next time I went into training for the Olympics, I wouldn't leave with regrets."
Bam's second major life lesson was one she learned going into the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio: "Even when you find things difficult, you always will get through them." She explained that the team training leading up to Rio under a new, more intense coaching staff, was "the most difficult thing" she had ever done, but she got through it and kept that lesson with her. That experience gives her faith that she can get through anything else in life, too. She created what she calls her "Five-Minute Rule:" "If it won't matter in five years, or if you won't reflect and find this to be a significant moment in five years, then you shouldn't worry about it for more than five minutes." Controlling what she can, living without regrets, and believing that she will overcome any challenge she is faced with are the keys that helped Bam make two Olympic teams and continue her pursuit of excellence. She encourages all of us to learn from the lessons she and others have to share, because as she heard a speaker share once, "Life is too short to learn all of your own mistakes."
We hope you found some things you can take away from the lessons these Olympians have shared as we get ready for Tokyo. Are there any life lessons that you've learned from watching or playing sports? Leave us a comment on social media and let us know!
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