Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Trials

Suppose for a moment that, from a very young age, you are aware of being different. Maybe it's just a feeling of bewilderment. Why can't the other kids do what you can do? Why are you able to run faster, jump higher, exert greater power and for longer, than they can? Why can you catch and throw with power and precision while your peers seem to struggle with the simplest things? What makes YOU so coordinated while THEY can barely walk and chew gum at the same time?
Chances are you just don't think about these things very much. You take it for granted, like breathing or having a doting grandma. Going through life the first and only time, we always sort of assume that other peoples' lives are pretty much like ours, until we discover otherwise. And it's natural to also think that your athletic gifts will be sufficient to prevail over your competitors.
As we continue this little "what if?" you've progressed in the sport you finally feel most comfortable in. Of course you have benefited from coaching at ascending levels, training to make yourself faster, more resilient, tougher mentally, even down to the things you eat day by day.
The goal of all athletes in your sport is to compete in the Olympic Games. The sport, while attracting competitors from many nations, is not, however, one that generates adulation from all fans or coverage by all media. The public can name only a handful of competitors in your sport, who still work hard, but benefit from fame in their own countries and enjoy an advanced standard of living. Your life's goal is to qualify to join this group.
Next step? The Olympic Trials, final barrier to competing with all the world's elite at the Games themselves. But if your country is like the US, there will be many fine competitors present, all with the same goal.
Every sport has it's own qualifying process: wrestling, boxing, shooting, martial arts, rowing, kayaking, swimming and diving, track and field and the others. All share the inevitable moment of separation in which the qualifiers are finally elevated from their inferiors. Often the difference is the merest fraction of a foot, a second or a referee's call for or against. I saw the finish of a two-day heptathlon competition last week in which the difference between qualifying and going home was that a woman had started to celebrate her winning performance about two steps too soon at the end of a half mile race. The following runner at that moment was able to make up half a second in the race, and received points which gave her the team spot. It easily could have gone to the other woman, who still won the RACE, but not the competition.
To me, the pressure of the Trials would be enormous, but some athletes are well known for being able to do their best under what we would consider the most stress. Almost none of us will ever know what it's like to qualify for the Olympic Games, which get underway in Beijing next month. But my hat's off to those who make it, and for the example they set at being at their best with the whole world looking on.


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