Monday, August 6, 2012

How do you light an Olympic-sized flame?

No, I don't mean that huge cauldron that is lit from a torch flame carried worldwide and remains burning until the conclusion of the Olympic Games. I mean the flame that makes good great. That makes nominal phenomenal. That makes some people push themselves to the limit - and then some.

I mean the fire that sits in the bellies of athletes like Missy Franklin, who at the ripe old age of 17, has won four gold medals. FOUR STINKIN' GOLD MEDALS. When I was 17 the closest I had ever gotten to gold was panning for pyrite on a family vacation in the Smoky Mountains.

What about Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee runner from South Africa? What ignited the spark inside of him that made him even think, "Wow. I have no legs below my kneecaps. I think I'll become a track and field star and train to compete in the Olympics."

Or my beautiful, self-effacing niece, Carling, who virtually came out of the womb in fifth position, and now in her early 20's, is a corps ballerina dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen. THAT'S IN DENMARK, PEOPLE.

Back in the days of Greece, a sacred flame was lit from the sun’s rays at Olympia, and stayed lit until the Games were completed. This flame represented the "endeavor for protection and struggle for victory." It was first introduced into our modern Olympics at the 1928 Amsterdam Games. Since then, the flame has come to symbolize "the light of spirit, knowledge, and life."

What I want to know is, how is one born with "the light of spirit, knowledge and life"?

What is it that is so different about these individuals - that their passions burn so brightly at such an infantile age - burn so fiercely that they know nothing but to do what they do. Initially to some, I'm sure it seemed cute and just a little obsessive. When Missy Franklin was little, she was probably known as "our little fish - look at her! We just can't get her out of the water!" My niece may have knocked over a lamp or two in her early days twirling around the living room. But at some point, probably shortly after a mom signed them up for a swimming lesson or a dad proudly dropped them off at their first dance class, somebody out there did a double take and said, "Hey. This kid's got something."

Something. What is that something? Talent, for sure. Undeniable. We all have talent of some sort. But do you see me competing in the 100-yard short story dash? Nope. There's gotta be something else. Something else that turns good into great. Something else that turns a smoldering ember into a flame that burns so bright it can never be extinguished. Is it some DNA string in their genetic makeup that makes them prone to these lofty aspirations? They certainly don't all come from wealthy, well-known homes. In fact, those feelgood Olympic profiles that tug at your heartstrings are usually about struggling athletes whose parents scrimped and saved and went without so their son our daughter could achieve their dream. Or they've overcome some huge obstacle, like an  illness, affliction or tragedy. Could it be that adversity breeds greatness?

It has to be more than just that. More than just talent. More than simply genetics, or adversity. What makes an 8-year old girl decide she's going to devote the rest of her life to being the best tennis player in the world? What makes a teenager turn his back on a normal high school life to swim eight to ten hours a day for a chance at a dream he may never attain? What makes a young gymnast move away from her family to train with a coach on the other side of the country? What makes a double amputee decide he's going to RUN, for God's sake?

It has to be a combination of all the right things. Commitment on crack. Ambition amped. The mother of all motivation. The stars in their internal universe in perfect alignment. All wrapped up in one tiny human being who comes into the world just like the rest of us. But somehow, not at all like the rest of us.

If I could have a tenth of what drives these individuals - to instill in myself, or my kids, for that matter, it would be magical. To have that one thing that becomes the reason you wake up in the morning, that drives you throughout your day, and leaves you hungry for more when your head hits the pillow at night - to KNOW that it's YOUR ONE THING. I just can't imagine.

It's easy to get wrapped up in the Olympics and the stories of these "ordinary athletes". But they're not ordinary, no matter what they say. They have that true passion - that one thing - that makes them extraordinary. And I admire not just the Olympic athletes, but anyone with a true passion - whether that passion is sports, medicine, philanthropy, the arts... whatever fire burns like a torch in your belly. Realize that the light you carry inside you is a rare gift that you were given for a reason you may never know. Keep it burning bright, and keep those of us with just a flicker inspired and motivated just the same.

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