Olympic Lessons

Baseball Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” Though it’s often cited as one of Berra’s legendary malapropisms, it’s applicable to snowboarding, especially the first days of learning. Yes, there are physical challenges. But the biggest challenge may be in your head.

ESPN.com has published several articles this Winter Olympics season that illustrate the importance of having the right attitude. Here’s a brief introduction.

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The U.S. has never won an Olympic medal in biathlon, and medals at any world event for American athletes are a rarity. It wasn’t until 2017, for example, when a U.S. man, Lowell Bailey, actually won a world event. His teammate, Susan Dunklee, became the first American woman biathlon competitor to win any sort of medal (a silver) at a world event as an individual. They’re part of the U.S. team for the 2018 Winter Olympics, and ESPN’s Bonnie D. Ford has a profile of both: Lowell Bailey and Susan Dunklee lead a U.S. biathlon team poised to break through.

The two have spent years toiling in their profession, there’s something keeping them going other than instant, positive feedback. “Sometimes,” Dunkee said, “you have to cross a critical threshold of seeing things are possible and starting to believe it.”

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“Winter athletes from hot places” always draws interest, and Tom Hamilton delivers with “Listen up: Pita ‘the Topless Tongan’ has a serious message.” Pita Taufatofua was born in Australia but now lives in Tonga, an island in the South Pacific. He’s spent all of 12 weeks skiing on snow (and some more weeks using roller skis), but he worked his way into the Winter Olympics.

An official with the Royal Tonga Ski Federation seesTaufatofua as a role model: “We want something consistent, durable. We want to open doors, we want to recruit Tongans, Polynesians, to do the sports they love.”

For his part, Taufatofua says “I learnt  … the power of the human spirit to go on when times are tough.” That was a good lesson. He took up cross-country skiing — not in spite of the difficulties it would pose but because of them. “I needed to find the most difficult thing I could find,” he said, “and on a personal level it was cross country skiing. I’m not a distance athlete, I don’t know much about snow but I’m learning.”

He makes a point that beginning snowboarders should take to heart: “I do this publically, I succeed publically. But I also fail publically as well but I show people they can fail, and still be happy when they fail and get up and laugh, try again and maybe fail again. That’s the message.”

Yes. Try. Do. Repeat.

(In case you’re curious, he did complete the race, finishing 114 out of 116 competitors and more than 30 minutes behind the winner. See “‘Shirtless’ Tongan skier finishes 114th in cross-country skiing.”)

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Hamilton writes another article in the same vein, “Olympic dreams are made in next-to-last and last place, too.” In it, he discusses two men who compete in skeleton races, Anthony Watson, who is from Jamaica, and Akwasi Frimpong, a native of Ghana who now lives in the Netherlands.

“Watson is also motivated by proving doubters wrong,” Hamilton says, recounting Watson’s fate at the hand of bullies in his youth. As for Frimpong, he has three motivations, including this: “It’s more than just winning something, it’s about your struggles as well.” He adds, “I want those people back in my country to dare to dream, and it is summed up in my quote: If failure was the last step then there wouldn’t be something called success.”

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Remember Lindsey Jacobellis? Sure you do. She’s the American woman who was going to win the first Olympic gold medal ever awarded in snowboard cross — until she didn’t. She struck out in the 2018 Olympics, too, though she has in her career many wins and podium places at World Cup events as well as the Winter X Games. See “USA’s Lindsey Jacobellis fails to medal in snowboardcross event.”

Though Jacobellis failed to win through the usual way, she’s known for a failed attempt at what many people call “showboating” at the end of the 2006 finals at the Turin Winter Olympics. That’s when an almost-guaranteed gold medal turned to silver. But she doesn’t seem to mind her reputation: “It definitely brought more attention to the sport,” she said of the incident. “How often do you remember the second-place medalist?”

After this year’s event, she said that giving back to the sport — which she’s done through the years — is important and that not winning an Olympic gold medal doesn’t define her. Perhaps it does in the public eye, but those in the sport know better. I suspect she does as well.



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