The Olympics Games are an event that I have always followed with enthusiasm. Over the years, I had the privilege of watching France’s Equestrian Jumping team win the gold medal in Montreal in 1976. I also tuned in to cheer on the Dream Team in 1992 when the U.S. team took the gold in basketball. In 1996 I admired the Czech Republic’s Jan Železný as he won a gold medal and set a new world record of 98.48 meters in the javelin throw in Atlanta.
However, I must admit that because of all the political brouhaha surrounding the Beijing Games and the ongoing marketing circus that now characterizes the Olympics, I was only moderately interested in watching the event this year.
Still, when the Olympic Games opened on August 8 and I saw some of the 10,000 athletes representing 205 nations during the opening ceremonies in Beijing, I quickly put my reservations aside and was able to enjoy the spectacle that the competition presents.
While all the athletes deserve praise and recognition for their hard work and achievement, there are two competitors that I would single out for special praise at this year’s games. In my mind, Lopez Lomong, the Sudanese-born, American track and field athlete and American swimmer Michael Phelps embody the true spirit of the Olympics and each made history this summer.
These two young men, both born in 1985 on two different continents, shared the same dream of gold. But while their ultimate destination was Beijing, each athlete had his own challenging journey to arrive there.
Watching Phelps and Lomong compete in Beijing, I felt that we can all get inspired by their accomplishments and learn some useful tips from them, both in sport and professionally, to help us achieve our dreams.
For the readers who may not yet know the personal stories of these two athletes, allow me a brief summary.
At the age of six Lopez Lomong was abducted by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. He managed to escape from Sudanese soldiers by running barefoot for two days and two nights. He then spent the next ten years of his life in a Kenyan refugee camp before being adopted by American foster parents in Syracuse, New York. He qualified for the 2008 Summer Olympics in the 1500-meter event last year.
When Michael Phelps was in kindergarten, his inability to sit quietly prompted his teacher to comment that he was not gifted. School didn’t seem to interest him. His poor grades showed a lack of focus and seemed to confirm the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder given by the family’s physician. At the age of 9, Michael was put on Ritalin, a stimulant used to treat hyperactivity. Luckily, Michael was born to a family of swimmers (At 15 his sister Whitney was ranked first in the US on the 200-meter butterfly). By 10, he was ranked nationally in his age group. And when Michael was 11, his swim coach Bob Bowman, who still coaches him today, detected Michael’s potential and predicted an Olympic future. Last October the swimmer’s chances of competing at the Olympic Games were jeopardized when he slipped on a patch of ice and broke his right wrist.
Looking at the challenges both athletes had to overcome to reach their dreams, here are some keys ingredients that we can all put to use to make our dreams come true.
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. – Goethe
The American architect Daniel Burnham once said “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood”. Lopez and Michael had made big plans for the 2008 Olympic Games and followed through with them.
Lomong first came up with his plan after being inspired by Michael Johnson’s victory in the 400-meter event at the Sydney Olympics. Despite living in a refugee camp in northern Kenya at the time, Lomong never let himself be discouraged from believing that one day he would run as fast as Johnson.
Phelps’s ambition was to outdo Mark Spitz’s achievement of seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics. After eight gold medals and seven world records, Phelps’s next long term goal is to have the same impact on the sport of swimming that Michael Jordan had on basketball and Tiger Woods had on golf.
Rule your mind or it will rule you. – Horace
1964 Olympic gold medalist Don Schollander once wrote that “Psyching out is part of the game. You’ve got to be able to take it and you’ve got to be able to do it. In Olympic competition, a race is won in the mind.”
Michael Phelps has been described by The Baltimore Sun as “a solitary man” with a “rigid focus” at the pool prior to a race. “Michael’s mind is like a clock,” said his mother. “He can go into the 200 meter butterfly knowing he needs to do the first 50 in 24.6 to break the record and can put that time in his head and make his body do 24.6 exactly.”
When asked if winning the most gold makes him the greatest of all time Phelps replied: “I have no idea, I just get in the water and swim. That’s the only thing I think about.”
We are what we repeatedly do, excellence then is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle
At age 12 Phelps willingly got up everyday at 6:30 for 90-minute morning practices and would continue to swim 2 to 3 hours every afternoon.
While vision and focus are keys to success, discipline is the glue that keeps them together. The most difficult challenge related to discipline is that just telling someone to become disciplined doesn’t work.
As sports psychologist H.A. Dorfman writes in his book The Mental ABC’s of Pitching “You can’t just urge someone to be disciplined; you have to build a structure of behavior and attitude. Behavior shapes thought. If a player disciplines his behavior, then he will also discipline his mind.”
“Self-discipline is a form of freedom,” continues Dorfman. “Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear — and doubt.”
The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well. – Pierre de Coubertin, founder of modern Olympic Games
Olympics athletes have a passion for excellence: “I didn’t want to compete to make history, I wanted to compete to be the best” said five-time Olympic medalist Nadia Comaneci. The challenge after the games are over is to channel the same drive into another worthy goal.
When Michael and Lopez were growing up, these two boys shared a passion for what many would believe they would never achieve. During the Beijing Games, each athlete showed the world that with passion and discipline, any obstacle can be overcome.
The long-term consequence of their achievements goes far beyond the games themselves. When an athlete achieves what was once considered unthinkable, it makes every barrier suddenly look vulnerable.
Lopez and Michael will be remembered for raising the bar higher. In doing so, they have helped the rest of us believe that as long as our dream is big enough and as long as we work hard to make it become a reality, nothing is impossible.
Originally published in Prague Leaders Magazine.