Lessons From An Olympian

I am a huge sports fan. I love just about all sports at all levels mainly because I love competition. Athletes are compelled to train hard, to sacrifice, to take a risk in order to test themselves against a competitor. A true athlete is willing to accept the outcome – win or lose – knowing they gave their all and the best competitor won.

What can be more compelling than that? To me, the greatest of all athletic and competitive endeavors is the Olympics. There are few greater honors in sport than to represent yourself, your team, and perhaps your country on the Olympic stage!

A few weeks back I got to attend a key note speech by a US Olympian. His name was Johnny Quinn and he competed as a member of the US Bobsled team. His story was one of triumph, tragedy and perseverance. It was entertaining and at times compelling. BUT – that’s not what I’m here to discuss!

Last weekend my team and I volunteered at the SPECIAL OLYMPICS in New Jersey and it was one of the greatest afternoons of my life. I’ve volunteered before with this amazing organization but this time I was with my team and that made it all the more special. Additionally the event was one of my favorites – FOOTBALL! Well, it was flag football but that doesn’t matter!

On this day I was given the honor of being the game announcer. It was awesome because I was able to be right in the action. I would call out the player’s names, give them nicknames, and applaud their accomplishments. The looks of joy on their faces as they heard their name recognized was truly heart warming. I’d be lying to say there weren’t several moments where I held back a tear. In fact there were so many incredible and touching times that I could write a book!

However there was one time specifically that brought it all home for me and that is what I would like to share. One of the teams had a young man, we’ll call him “John”, who was about 6’4” and was a presence on the field. At first look he was intimidating but once you watched him you realized he was the prototypical gentle giant. John was the center on the offense – the player that hiked the ball to the quarterback at the start of each play. Typically in football a center stays on the line and blocks to protect the quarterback after he snaps the ball. However, in flag football he can also go out for a pass!

John’s team had a play where after he hiked the ball he would run out about 5 yards, turn around and catch the pass. Why not? As I said, he was 6’4” so who could defend him?! Every time they ran this play John would successfully catch the pass and immediately look to the sideline. At the same time I would hear a woman’s voice say ‘RUN’. I figured it was just a fan cheering him on.

After observing this over and over I had to think there was something more going on. After he caught one of his passes I turned and realized that he was looking at his mom! She was the one that was yelling ‘RUN’. Not only this, she was pointing in the direction he should go! When I looked back at John I saw him take off in that direction usually for a big gain or a touchdown! It was a winning formula. Plan, receive direction, execute, repeat!

On one of the next plays I saw John snap the ball and run out for his pass. I thought – here we go again. Like clockwork he ran his 5 yards, he turned, he caught the pass and he and I looked over at mom. This time, however, I heard her yell RUN but oddly she didn’t POINT!! I looked over at John and never the less he took off running – IN THE WRONG DIRECTION!! The other team didn’t know what to make of this and just let him go. His team and fans were yelling for him to turn around but it was too late. He crossed the goal line and the other team was awarded a safety…. 2 points…. and took the lead!

What happened next sent me over the edge. With tears in my eyes I watched BOTH teams surround John and cheer him on. They were telling him it was ok, he did good, he was still a winner. It was by far one of the most touching things I have ever experienced on an athletic field. I will forever remember that moment. So…. what did I learn from it all?

1. It’s OK to Ask For Help.

John knew that after he achieved step 1, he needed help to get to step 2 (thanks MOM!) No matter how big our shoulders are, none of us stands alone. To truly be successful in this game it requires a team! As the acronym suggests Together Everyone Achieves More!

2. Action is critical!

In the world today there is so much talk. Everyone is an expert. Everyone knows the winning formula. How many of these ‘experts’ are willing to take action – to take a risk – to put it all on the line. When John caught that pass and heard RUN – undoubtedly he was looking for direction.

However when it wasn’t there he had a decision to make. Shrink down and stand still or take a risk and go for his goal! He chose the later. Sure he didn’t go the right way but he took his shot. I don’t know about you but I would rather take my shot in this world and LOSE than play it safe because I want to win.

3. We All Have the Power to Add or Subtract!

When John ran the wrong way and scored for the other team, his team could have been livid. They could have told him he messed up, put him down, cast him aside. They didn’t. They lifted him up, told him it was ok, encouraged him to fight another day!

When our team or our loved one makes a mistake are we quick to judge, to criticize, to put them down? What does that accomplish? Perhaps, like John’s team we, and the team are better served by doing just the opposite. One bad play – one mistake – does not necessarily write the story!

So What is the End of the Story?

The other team took over after the safety and all they had to do was run out the clock. One first down and it was over. John’s team dug in, rallied around him and made a defensive stand. With under a minute to go they stopped the other team and got the ball back! 40 seconds on the clock and John’s team had a chance to win the game – and the GOLD medal!

As you might expect they marched down the field and on the final play they threw the ball to John in the middle. He caught the ball and he looked to the sideline for MOM. She was sure to yell AND point in the direction he should go. John took off running for the end zone, the winning score and the gold medal! As he crossed the goal line the fans cheered and the whistle blew.

Everyone thought it was to signal the end of the game. It was. But it was also to say there was a penalty on the offense. The score didn’t count and John’s team didn’t win. The game was over but both teams hugged and cheered reminding us all what it’s really all about.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am all about winning. I believe in meritocracy and I know that outcomes and results matter. However, if even just for the day, I saw a softer side and I am better for it!

President of The Abs Company
An aspiring personal trainer, Sean Gagnon started interning at a health club, and the owner of the clubs was so impressed by his work ethic that he offered him a partnership opportunity years later to help run his gyms and become involved with fitness products he was selling. Under The Abs Company, they've sold products via infomercials and in retail that have become household names: The Ab Roller and Ab Coaster, which have generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to date.
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