A Non-Athlete’s Thoughts on Olympic Athleticism

There are two things I know about myself. One, I am not an athlete. I identify with Princess Mia Thermopolis’ views on athleticism: I am a rock-climbing, yoga-doing, horseback riding, synchronized swimming kind of girl. (Well, not synchronized swimming, but for the sake of movie-quote accuracy…) Two, I stand behind our Olympic athletes with a mixture of patriotic pride and… well, envy. When my feelings about the Olympics are two of the seven Deadly Sins, what could go right?

I know it’s coming every four years. I sit patiently through the inspirational ads on television that say your daughter will be an Olympic gymnast too if you buy Brawny paper towels. I speculate about which female athletes will get the glamorous “Vogue” treatment—she has the current world record in the 50-yard dash and she looks great in “pre-fall” couture! And then in late July, John Williams’ theme becomes permanently stuck in my head as I bite my nails over running, jumping, flipping, diving, swimming, kicking, dribbling, spiking and boxing demigods. I’m sorry if I seem snarky—I love this dog-and-pony show as much as the next person. (Speaking of ponies, I’m a huge fan of Mitt’s beautiful dressage mare. Rafalca Romney 2012!)

But I can’t be the only person who is watching and thinking about what could have been. Compare the Olympics to the Academy Awards, another dog-and-pony show of people who have worked hard to entertain us. Hollywood still seems untouchable when you watch the Oscars, yet almost all the advertisements during the Olympics have the theme of “This swimmer/volleyball player/soccer forward/gymnast was a civilian just like you, who got here because of all his/her hard work.” And I think, “Maybe if could have worked that hard…”

I’m 21, an age where a lot of “could have beens” start to show up, but it’s also an age where people think there’s still time to take something up. I could have been a med student if I hadn’t lost my confidence in math, but I can always learn math with courses on iTunes U. I could have been a mechanical engineer if I had built more Legos instead of playing elaborate stories with the little yellow figurines, but I can always watch YouTube videos about applied physics. And I could have been an Olympian if I liked any sport well enough to work really hard in it . . . but my time seems to be up for that, since most athletes peak or have hit their peak by my age, the amazing Dana Torres notwithstanding.

But would I have really worked that hard? Probably not. I played soccer in the 4th and 5th grades and had a lot of fun, but not many gains were made in my athleticism. Besides having little aptitude for much of the strategy that comes with team sports, I had to be honest with myself and say that I was playing because my best friend was playing, and I just wanted the one-on-one hangout time by the sidelines. I couldn’t even tell you the rest of my teammates’ names—Rachel? Kate? Brittany? Danielle? Jessica? Those sound like athletic names. I did like running, though, so I joined cross-country in middle school, and in eighth grade I joined the track team as a long-distance runner. However, I made the humiliating discovery that everyone can see my numerous “walk breaks” when there are no woods around. I haven’t participated in an organized sport since.

A few years after I dropped out of sports, I realized I was doing them for the herd mentality. It seemed like everyone my age had found a sport they liked and, darn it, I was going to find my organized sport, too. This was also about the time when there was a crackdown on childhood obesity by encouraging kids to play sports. I think those campaigns were honorable, but missed the point. Everyone can find exercise they like, but not everyone needs to find a sport they like. I’ve found exercise I like (see first paragraph) and I’m all the better for it. It wasn’t until late high school that I realized that people can and will tell me what to do and what I need to learn, but at the end of the day I’m going to spend my free time doing whatever I want to do.

I have to remind myself that the message to take away from the Olympics is not, “Why didn’t you work as hard as we did?” but “If you’re meant to do something, you’ll do it. You won’t make excuses. You won’t quit after one bad experience. You’ll learn from your mistakes and persevere.” I’m not meant to be a great athlete, and that’s okay. I’ll live vicariously through these graceful, strong people the same way I live vicariously through the glamour and sassiness of the Sex and The City women. I don’t really want to be single in New York City and I don’treally want to travel the world just to do the 50-meter freestyle: I’m pretty sure I just want Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe collection and Natalie Coughlin’s physique. But what it comes down to is winning two golds of my own: one in Staying True to Myself and another in Doing What I Love.

Although there’s one aspect of an Olympian’s life I could get behind: eating 6,000 calories a day sounds pretty awesome.*

*Caveat: You have to train seven hours a day, six days a week. But . . . eggs benedict, chicken alfredo, and donuts!

You can read more from Grace Cummings on her blog.

(Image via Maxisport / Shutterstock.com).

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