(ED. Note: This story originally ran on NBCOlympics.com on Feb. 23, 2014.)
SOCHI, Russia – This one’s personal. Our oldest daughter, Elizabeth, was born five months before the 2002 Olympics. That was my first Winter Games. I walked around Salt Lake City with a little box that had a picture of Elizabeth and a button which, when pressed, would play a recording of her laughter. I had to press that button every time I went through security to convince guards it wasn’t a bomb.
Our youngest daughter, Katie, turned one the day after I left for the 2006 Torino Olympics. She turned nine as the Opening Ceremony went off in Sochi. We celebrated over Facetime; I called to wake her up and I watched as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
For three weeks, I’ve wandered bone-tired around Sochi and Adler and Krasnaya Polyana while watching sports, and I’ve often thought about one thing: What can I bring my daughters? Sure, I’ve got some nesting dolls and silly Olympic souvenirs that cost a fortune and Russian tchotchkes of various colors and shapes. But the question again: What can I bring back that won’t just clutter their rooms?
What can I bring back to them that actually matters?
Lesson No. 1: Try new things.
Nobody expected Sage Kotsenburg to be much of a factor at these Olympics. He’s a snowboarder. His event is slopestyle, where the snowboarder has to gracefully manage several obstacles and then pull off three fantastic jumps that will dazzle the judges. Leading into the Olympics, the judges were not dazzled by Kotsenburg. He had what followers called a “down season.” He didn’t seem too bothered. He wasn’t snowboarding for judges. He was snowboarding for the feeling he called “super stoked.”
“What can I bring back that won’t just clutter their rooms? What can I bring back to them that actually matters?”
His Olympic goal? “To make snowboarding look cool and get kids stoked on it.”
So when he went on his second run, he got it into his head to try this trick –he called it a 1620 with a Japan Grab – that he had never tried before. Never. Not even in practice. He just felt like he would land it, you know?
And he made it. He landed this awesome new trick. And he won the gold. But it wasn’t the medal that made it cool. It was that he tried something because … he wanted to try something. All your life, there will be things you don’t think you can do. But you won’t know, not really, not unless you go for your 1620 with a Japan Grab when the feeling is right.
Lesson No. 2: Be joyful.
The happiest person I saw at these Games – and maybe the happiest person I have seen in my entire life – was a woman named Noelle Pikus-Pace who won the silver medal in an event called skeleton. In skeleton, the athlete gets on a sled FACING FORWARD and slides and skids around an absurdly fast and treacherous track of ice. I can only imagine it is some strange mix of exhilaration and insanity and pure terror. Pikus-Pace had missed one Olympics because of a bizarre injury involving a bobsled and had missed a medal by a blink of an eye at another Olympics. Then she walked away so she could, in her own words, join the PTA and bake cookies and be supermom.
But then, she and her husband, Jansen, decided, hey, let’s try one more time. So they did. Jansen built the sled. Noelle did the sliding. They made it to Sochi. Before her final run, she wrote herself a little note: “This is it. Don’t get scared now.” And she won the silver medal.
And she was so happy — wildly, crazily, absurdly, wonderfully happy. Silver? Gold? No medal at all? Who cares? She could not stop smiling or laughing. She could not stop hugging everyone. It wasn’t the medal that made her happy. It was the feeling. She did it! They did it! She knew they could do it! Her 6-year-old daughter, Lace, and 2-year-old son, Traycen, were clomping around just like you did at their age, and they were ringing little bells someone had given them, and Jansen was bonkers with triumph, and Noelle was posing with the official letter from the Olympic committee that said “Dear Medalist” — her proof that she had actually won a medal. If joy were power, they could have lit up Times Square.
“I hope there’s a girl out there, let’s say a 15-year-old girl, who watched and thought ‘that skeleton looks cool! I want to do that!’” And Pikus-Pace, still 15 in her mind, just kept on smiling like it was best day ever, which, of course, it was. Until tomorrow.
Lesson No. 3: Take your time.
One of life’s challenges is that you always want to rush. You will want to move to the next thing. This happens to everybody. Just remind yourself to stop, focus and concentrate on doing your best. Force yourself to take your time. That can be the small line between getting an answer right or wrong, between beauty and the ordinary, between something you did and something for which you are proud.
Take T.J. Oshie, the U.S. hockey player. He gained worldwide fame for his shootout prowess – that’s when a hockey player goes one-on-one with the goalie. He made the game-winning shot against Russia (and two shots that tied the game). Most of the players rush the goalie, hoping that some combination of speed and intimidation and power will carry the day. Often it does. Oshie does it differently. He glides around the ice, lackadaisical almost. He takes his time, and he looks for a small opening … and looks … and looks. He seems willing to wait as long as necessary and it is his combination of patience and rhythm and vision that creates art. Don’t rush. Don’t get careless. Time is there to be used.
Lesson 4: Follow your dreams, no matter how silly they might seem.
Emily Scott wanted to skate at the Olympics. Gregory Carigiet wanted to luge at the Olympics. They had these dreams most of their lives. And there were countless times in their lives when that seemed impossible. Last year, when American Scott’s funding was cut, she applied for food stamps. Last year, when Switzerland’s Carigiet had run out of money, he sold his car. Then he sold his motorcycle. He said he would have sold his shirt too.
All the while, people shook their heads. The Olympics? It’s time to let go of such childish dreams. This will happen to you too. Elizabeth, you want to be a writer and a fashion designer. Katie, you want to be a soccer player and a teacher. Those dreams might change, but don’t let anyone else – Daddy included – change them or dampen them. These are your dreams. These are your lives.
When Emily made it here – and her father arrived shortly after – she was so happy to be competing. She didn’t win a medal. When Gregory made it here, when he slid down the track and realized this was the Olympics, he was overwhelmed. He didn’t win a medal either. As glorious as the dream had seemed, the reality was even better. It was worth it. That’s the point. It was worth it.
Lesson 5: Don’t let other people judge you.
There’s a lot of judging at the Olympics. A lot. Of the nine gold medals the United States won, seven were judged sports (depending on 4-man bobsled results). People who judge how well athletes snowboard and ski, how well they land on jumps, how gracefully they skate, how cool their tricks look in the air. The judges are stern and picky and often inscrutable. That means impossible to understand.
But, in the end, those judges don’t define you. In the women’s figure skating final, three skaters – Italy’s Carolina Kostner, South Korea’s Yuna Kim and Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova – all skated their hearts out. Each one of them performed beautifully, bravely even, and while people would argue about what medals they deserved, the important thing was the near-perfect skating. They lived up to their own ambitions, and that’s what matters.
In your life, I can promise, you will sometimes be praised for something you know you didn’t quite do as well as you could. And you will be criticized at times when you gave everything and believe you did well. It will be surprising sometimes, frustrating other times, but in the end you should try to live up to your own ambitions. That’s what lasts.
Lesson 6: Lose with grace.
Shani Davis is probably the greatest 1,000-meter speed skater who ever lived. He has won two gold medals in the 1,000, he has the world record and he has most of the fastest times ever recorded. He came to Sochi looking for his third gold.
He did not come close. He finished a shocking a distant eighth. He was confused and despondent. Later, at the 1,500-meter race – he’s awfully good at 1,500 meters too – he finished 11th. He just could not get his speed going.
He could have come up with excuses. That’s the first temptation of losing: excuses. The U.S. team did have people who complained that suits slowed them down. He could have blamed someone else. That’s the second temptation. You will see people do this all your life. Shani chose the third option. He simply took the blame.
“You will lose sometimes. It hurts. It is bitter. But it is also over. Do what Shani did.”
“I’m a professional,” he said. “I’m one of the best speed skaters in the world. I just didn’t have it.”
“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste the death but once.” That’s Shakespeare – from Julius Caesar. The same can be true of losing. What you find with the excuse makers, those who insist on feeling cheated, those who blame others — they will keep losing the same race again and again and again.
You will lose sometimes. It hurts. It is bitter. But it is also over. Do what Shani did. Remember that you’re good. Accept that you lost. And then, go on.
Lesson 7: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.
As a father of two daughters, what I want more than anything is a world without barriers. In truth, I used to think some barriers mattered while others didn’t.
For instance, I never got too riled up about Augusta National not having any women members. Don’t get me wrong: I thought it was stupid and sexist and worthy of non-stop scorn and ridicule. But, in the end, I didn’t really care. Augusta National membership is not of my world. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t want my daughters to join that club even if Augusta National would have my daughters as members.
But over time, I started to think about it in a different way. There just shouldn’t be ANY barriers. Augusta National is probably most important golf club West of St. Andrews. Golf is a game for everyone. They should (and now do) have women members.
In the same way, it had exactly no impact on my life – or my daughters’ likely future lives — that women’s ski jumping wasn’t an Olympic event. But it was wrong. It was a barrier. And so a couple of American women – Lindsey Van and Jessica Jerome – led an involved, often painful, and ultimately successful effort to get ski jumping into these Olympics. That was inspirational.
I was there for the first Olympic women’s ski jump. It was such a cool event. Lindsey Van was once the best in the world, but that time passed and she did not medal. Neither did Jessica Jerome. But they won.
Lesson 8: Be yourself.
Lindsey Jacobellis, the awesome snowboard cross star, came to another Olympics trying to win gold. In snowboard cross, riders race through this crazy course at the same time. There are crashes and wild turns and all sorts of nuttiness. She’s a legend in the sport. She’s won almost every big event. She never won at the Olympics.
She had the gold medal all but locked up eight years ago in Torino but on her last jump she wanted to have some fun so she tried this little trick where she grabbed the board in midair. When she hit the ground, she fell. She won the silver instead of gold.
People have tried to make this into a tragedy. She missed gold! All because she had to show off!
Well, yes, she did show off. It was silly. But it was only that, silly, and Jacobellis refused to let other people define how she was supposed to feel about it. She refused to let people turn her fun into a national tragedy or a life-altering disaster.
Instead, she kept snowboarding, kept having fun, kept winning, kept loving her life. When she crashed and lost in Vancouver, she did the same. When Jacobellis crashed and lost here in Sochi, she did the same. She adopted one of the stray puppies. She said it was kind of a bummer losing. But she will keep on snowboarding. Because she loves it, no matter what others may say, gold medal or no gold medal.
Lesson 9: Always try your best.
That’s our family motto. Always try your best. In the women’s figure skating final, there was a Japanese skater named Mao Asada. She was the silver medalist in Vancouver. She was the only woman to even attempt the difficult triple axel jump – I don’t know exactly what a triple axel jump is, I just know it’s very hard to do.
During Wednesday’s short program, Asada attempted her triple axel … and fell. It was crushing. She skated as if in a fog. She fell again soon after. She was supposed to do a jump with three rotations and did one instead. It was a skating disaster, and the judges’ score of 55.51 put her in 16th place.
It was so bad that, back in Japan, the head of the 2020 Tokyo organizing committee griped that Mao Asada is “always falling at the most critical time.” It was a cruel thing to say, and word was that during warm-ups Asada was discouraged and repeatedly falling and in no condition for her evening free skate.
So when she came out for Thursday’s free skate, there was no medal hope. There was no making up for her short program. It looked like it would be a sad thing.
Instead: It was one of the most inspiring things I saw in Sochi. Mao landed her triple axel right away. And it animated her. She landed her next jump sequence perfectly, and she started to skate more quickly, and she skated a virtuoso performance. The Russian crowd – so difficult to draw out – burst into cheers.
The whole skate wasn’t for anything but pride and love and another chance to skate on the world stage. And she skated the best performance of her life. When it ended, she broke into big, beautiful tears of joy and relief. And then she had the biggest smile.
In many ways this was my favorite moment of the Olympics. If I could bring back one thing from Sochi for our girls it is this lesson. Always try, even when it seems pointless. You never know when you might do something beautiful.