It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the glory of the Olympic games. I attended them for the first time four years ago in London with my family. We were all in awe watching these athletes — whether or not they won medals — demonstrate to the world what a lifetime of passion, dedication and sheer grit can produce.
There’s that four letter word again.
I think every Olympian has a few things they can teach us about grit. Extraordinarily focused and determined to realize the goals they have set for themselves, Olympic athletes are not satisfied with anything less than putting forth their very best effort. It’s inspiring to watch them pursue their dreams.
One of the last gold medals awarded at this summer’s Rio Olympics went to Claressa Shields, a 21-year-old middleweight boxer from Flint, MI. She is the first American boxer to win two straight Olympic titles.
Claressa’s story is one of survival — but not necessarily survival in the boxing ring.
Claressa escaped poverty and a troubled childhood — her father was in jail until she was nine years old and her mother was an alcoholic. Claressa bounced between 11 homes by the time she was 12. She remembers going hungry and has spoken about being assaulted as a child. She transformed all that heartache into the strength of a world champion boxer.
“I was one of those broken kids,” she told the Detroit Free Press. “Felt like my life was never gonna get better.”
Following her Olympic medal ceremony, Claressa reflected on her tragic past at a press conference where she was named the tournament’s most outstanding boxer.
“I have been through a lot in my life,” she said, “but I want to inspire people, and I want to give people just a little bit of hope. Because I remember when I was one of those kids who didn’t have any hope. And just when I got just a little bit, look how far I’ve been able to come!”
Life shouldn’t have to be that hard for anyone — Olympian or not.
According to those close to her, Simone Biles’ personal history is critical to understanding the gold-medal gymnast’s superhuman talent.
She didn’t follow the typical path to Olympic glory like other athletes of her caliber, whose skills are nurtured and supported from a very young age by their parents. Born to a mother who was hooked on drugs and alcohol, Simone never knew her father who had long abandoned the family. She was in foster care until age five when she and her sister were adopted by her maternal grandfather Ron and his wife, Nellie.
Simone taught herself to do back flips off her family’s mailbox before she even took a gymnastics class.
Said her mother Nellie, “She’s a survivor. She’s been a survivor from a very, very young age.”
A survivor who so impressed her fellow U.S. Olympians that they chose her to carry the flag at Rio’s closing ceremonies.
Then there were the two female runners who proved that even if you fall, you pick yourself up and finish what you started.
When New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin tripped and stumbled to the ground during the women’s 5,000m race, she caused another runner, Abbey D’Agostino of the U.S., to tumble as well. But instead of getting angry, Abbey helped lift her competitor to her feet and urged Nikki to finish the course with her. When they reached the finish line, they embraced in what was one of the most poignant moments of the games.
While neither of these two athletes won a medal, they didn’t leave Rio empty-handed. The International Fair Play Committee honored them with the Fair Play Award, which recognizes athletes who exemplify sportsmanship at the Olympic Games.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the Olympics, it is that grit proves anyone can come out ahead regardless of your advantages or disadvantages.
I hope all the Give Something Back scholars were watching at least some of the Rio games this summer. I hope they recognized these athletes for more than the commercial endorsements and fame that will likely come their way. If we, too, push ourselves beyond our limits we can have the successful and rewarding lives we all deserve.