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Editorial: Defining the Olympic spirit

These Olympic games may be the perfect distraction — and contrast — to the political embarrassment that has otherwise dominated the national news.
Rather than seeing the worst of ourselves as reflected in Mr. Trump — his insults, sarcasm, put-downs, exaggerations and pathological lying — the nation sees the best of itself in its Olympic athletes.
There’s American swimmer Maya DiRadio, who won four medals in these games, swam over to console teammate Missy Franklin after her last place finish in her semi-final competition in the 200-meter backstroke, and event in which she holds the world record. Franklin, who had won five medals (four gold) in the 2012 Olympics as a 17-year-old and stole America’s heart, was left with just one gold this year — in the team 200 free-style relay She vows to come back in 2020.
There’s 19-year-old Katie Ledecky with her pile of gold medals in the 200-, 400-, 800-meter freestyle (including a new world record), plus others and putting her name in multiple record books, being as humble and gracious as anyone could hope their daughter or son could be.
There’s Michael Phelps, of course, dominating the news with his five goal medals and a silver in these games, adding to his record 28 Olympic medals (23 gold, three silver and two bronze) sometimes being not so humble, but give him a break — he just set records that no other man or woman has ever done in the Olympic games.
And then there is Simone Manuel, the first African-American to win a gold medal in swimming — an accomplishment made all the more relevant when viewed in light of the nation’s Jim Crow laws of the 1950s, a racially charged practice that dominated the southern mindset through the 1960s and through the latter half of this century in some parts of the nation. But there was not a tinge of reflection or remorse on Simone’s part — all that was history; she was just as proud and excited as she could be to represent America in these games and be on a team with such other great Americans. That’s progress on so many fronts.
There’s all-around Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian, along with the entire U.S. women’s gymnastic team, who have dominated the sport in recent years as few other teams have ever done.
And there are lesser-known stories. American Michelle Carter won gold in shot put on her last throw besting her dad who had won silver in the Olympics two decades before. And there are stories like Vermonter Laura Graves, who led her team to bronze in dressage, a touching story of a North Fayston mother and daughter without much means, pursuing a dream in a world in Florida (America’s equestrian training grounds) that shows the extent some Olympians go to just to be able to compete.
And there is more to come. It’s Day 10 of 16 for the games in Rio, when end Sunday, Aug. 21. There’s more track and field; volleyball where two-time Olympic champion Kerry Walsh Jennings and her partner April Ross were headed into the quarterfinals this weekend in the hopes of advancing and having the chance for a three-peat. There’s golf, track relays, lacrosse, rowing, biking events and much more right through next week — and all with stories that are as heart-warming as they are inspiring.
But what’s it all about? It is worth spending a moment contemplating what makes these athletes so worthy.
Certainly they all have drive, discipline, determination and big dreams, but more importantly, they are willing to make incredible sacrifices in their lives to pursue those dreams. And they have the guts to persevere and maybe come up short; they have the depth of soul and character to push past all reasonable limits of pain and exhaustion to do their best; and they have embraced an ability to give everything they have within themselves when competing.
Consider the story of 43-year-old Kristin Armstrong, now a three-time Olympic gold medal winner of the women’s individual time trials in cycling. After winning her first gold in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, she retired from the sport to become a mother, but then returned for the London Olympic games in 2012 to successfully defend her title. In coming back for a third Olympics, she became the first-ever American woman to win the same individual event at three consecutive Olympics as well as being the oldest female cycling medalist of all time.
And it hasn’t been easy. She’s had several hip surgeries since winning her first Olympic gold; she works full time as a community health director back home in Boise, Idaho; and she balances a family life in the midst of it all. But it is her willingness to endure hardship that seems remarkable. In a 30-mile race against yourself, the undulating terrain, the weather and the clock, you have to gut it out. Every sport has its challenges, but in the longer-distance races, you have time (44.26.52 minutes to be exact) to dwell on the pain, while maintaining an average pace of 25 mph — and yet winning by just 5.5 seconds (a huge lead in any other race, but just a momentary let-up, just a moment of self-doubt or of not wanting to hurt so much, over a 44-minute race.)
“I hurt so bad out there today and when my coach keeps on telling me to go deeper and deeper, I have to keep on telling myself that I can go deeper and that this is a result I have to live with,” Armstrong said after her gold-medal ride. “I have always loved that we were all born with the power to believe and to believe in ourselves,” Armstrong said later. “You can set a goal and you can go accomplish anything you want. It doesn’t matter your age; it doesn’t matter where you’re from… I think that for so long we’ve been told you should be finished at a certain age. And I think there’s a lot of athletes out there that are actually showing that’s not true.” Of her willingness to push herself, Armstrong noted in a television interview that what motivates her during a race is knowing that she has to live with her effort the following day. “Can I go to sleep that night knowing I gave it my all,” she said, that she left nothing to spare, but put everything on the line?
That’s beyond talent and skill, that’s the Olympic spirit and it’s why these games produce such amazing stories.
Angelo S. Lynn

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