On July 27, seventeen thousand athletes from 205 countries gathered in London to march in the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer Olympics. Yet with only approximately 300 gold medals being contested, the vast majority of those participants had no hope of returning home Olympic champions. They were fulfilling their Olympic dreams just by marching in under the flag of their country.
One such athlete was Kieran Behan. He was the only Irish gymnast to have ever qualified for the Olympics, and yet just by walking in the opening processional he will already be defying seemingly insurmountable odds. Twice.
When Behan was ten years old, he had to have a benign tumor removed from his leg, and a mistake made in monitoring his circulation immediately after surgery resulted in severe nerve damage. He was told he would never walk again. From his wheelchair he watched the gymnastic competition at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and told his mom and dad he wanted to do that.
With the help and encouragement of his family, Behan battled back from that injury, and within fifteen months was able to get back on his feet. Shortly thereafter, an accident in the gym while training resulted in an injury to his vestibular canal, the organ in the inner ear that controls balance and orientation. The damage was so severe that Behan would black out if he tried to watch rapidly moving objects. He had to learn how to sit up, how to feed himself. He was once again told that he would never walk again, let alone return to gymnastics.
Again, his family rallied around him, and after 18 months he returned to school, walking with the aid of a cane. He didn’t stop there, though. He continued to press on until he was able to return to the sport that he loved. And at a January 2012 Olympic Qualifying Meet, his performance on the floor exercise—a series of high–flying, twisting and flipping tumbling passes—earned him a berth in the 2012 Olympic competition (“The Olympian told he’d never walk again”, nbcolympics.com).
There is something about the Olympics. So many people from so many countries with so many inspiring stories. We watch to see if the favorites can fulfill expectations, to see if the underdogs can surprise us, to cheer for those who are victorious just by being there. And to see feats of physical prowess that boggle our minds.
Like Ray Ewry. As a participant in the Olympics in 1900 in Paris, Ewry competed in events that are no longer contested—standing long jump, standing high jump and standing triple jump. He was able to high jump 5 feet 5 inches with no running approach, and to leap over 11 feet from a standstill. In four consecutive Olympics he was not only unbeaten, but unchallenged.
His athletic ability is even more impressive when you find out that, like Kieran Behan, he spent time in a wheelchair. Ewry suffered from polio as a child and was told when he was seven that he would never walk.
A therapist prescribed a series of leg exercise for him to strengthen his legs. Dreaming of the day when he would be able to leave the confines of that wheelchair behind him for good, Ewry poured himself into those exercises, which were similar to plyometric workouts used by athletes today. He was determined that his legs would be strong. And he worked his way, past just walking, to ten Olympic gold medals (“Ray Ewry wasn’t even supposed to walk”, Eric Adelson, sports.espn.go.com).
For some, physical challenges are not their only obstacles. Oksana Masters was born in the fallout zone of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. She was abandoned at birth by parents she never knew, who probably felt incapable of dealing with her multiple severe birth defects. Masters was placed in the custody of a Ukrainian orphanage for disabled children. Starvation, freezing temperatures and unimaginable abuse defined the first seven years of her life. She dreamed of finding a place where she would be accepted, where her physical differences would not make her a perpetual castoff. Masters says of that time, “Hope was all that kept me alive. I kept thinking someday I would have a mom.”
One especially hungry night, Masters and a friend snuck into the closed kitchens in search of bread. When their “caretakers” entered, Oksana hid and was undiscovered, but her friend bolted and was caught and beaten to death while Oksana watched from her hiding place.
Her young life’s bleak outlook changed in 1992 when she was adopted by Gay Masters, an American speech pathologist. In the USA she underwent multiple surgeries, and ultimately had both of her legs amputated below the knee. She wanted to participate in sports, but didn’t find one that fit her until she discovered adaptive rowing as a teen. It helped her deal with the memory of those powerless years. Masters says, “I could not control my life in Ukraine. I also could not have a voice of my own and a voice to step up when I was helpless. But once on the water, especially out in the single, I get out of it what I put into it.” In 2010 Oksana set the US women’s trunk and arm rowing record for 1000 meters, rowing the distance in 4 minutes 34 seconds. And this summer Oksana will represent the United States at the Paralypmics in London as one of the world’s best female rowers (“Child of Chernobyl”, Scott Wade, leoweekly.com).
How did Kieran Behan, Ray Ewald and Oksana Masters overcome the decks stacked against them to achieve their dreams? What would their lives have been like if they had lived them according to the limitations others foresaw for them? What separates those who achieve their dreams from those who never do?
A dream is really just a goal we think we can’t achieve. Maybe you dream of starting a business or getting out of debt, running a marathon or getting a college degree, losing weight or traveling. Perhaps only a kid can sit in a wheelchair and dream of being an Olympic gymnast, but no one ever accidentally does anything great. Big achievements are made by those who aim high, and then maybe a bit higher.
In his booklet Seven Laws of Success, Herbert W. Armstrong wrote:
...most people have no aim—they are merely the victims of CIRCUMSTANCE. They never planned, purposefully, to be in the job or occupation in which they find themselves today. They do not live where they do by CHOICE that is, because they PLANNED it that way. They have merely been buffeted around by CIRCUMSTANCE! They have allowed themselves to drift. They have made no effort to master and control circumstances.
The first law of success, I repeat, is to fix the RIGHT goal. Not any goal. One could set a goal in which he had little or no interests and drift into inaction. The right goal will arouse ambition. Ambition is more than mere desire. It is desire plus incentive—determination—will to achieve the desire. The right goal will be so intensely desired it will excite vigorous and determined effort. It will fire one with incentive (pg 9).
“You can do anything you put your mind to” is a popular self–esteem boosting cliche. What most people never mention is that what you set your mind to do might be really really hard. Most dreams require sacrifice. It is not enough to just set your sights high, your work ethic has to match your ambition. Television “talent” competitions always display a sad number of people whose parents or friends have told them they are amazing singers or dancers, when in fact, they are not. They haven’t put in the work, taken classes, or studied. They set themselves up for failure by trying to fast forward past the work.
The fulfillment of dreams goes to those who choose to be like the man in the arena that Theodore Roosevelt described:
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
Anyone who sets out to fulfill a dream will encounter setbacks. You have to be able to keep your eyes on the ultimate goal and keep a positive attitude through negative circumstances. At the very least, you have to be able to grit your teeth and hang on. Sir Winston Churchill’s speech to Harrow School has been quoted many times on the topic of perseverance: “Never give in, never give in. Never never never never. In nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
Be willing to admit when a dream is no longer worth the cost. You have to be open to the “convictions of honor and good sense” telling you that a change must be made. There is nothing wrong with adapting what you are aiming for if you find you no longer want the same things as much, your priorities have changed, or the dream isn’t what you thought it would be.
Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson decided to give up her dream of competing that year in London. Struggling with a knee injury, she finally decided to retire just days before the US Championships, saying, “I'd like to be 30 and have kids and run around with them. It became more about my future life than this...one moment. I'm looking at the bigger picture of things” (“Shawn Johnson retires”, Associated Press). Good sense convicted her that competing in another Olympics was not worth crippling herself for the rest of her life.
When the torch was snuffed out at the end of the Olympic games that year, most of the athletes left without medals, but with the satisfaction of a dream achieved. A dream that required the courage to dream big, the dedication to do the work, and the perseverance to stay the course through obstacles and set backs.
Not everyone can be an Olympic athlete, but everyone can channel the power of a dream to change his life for the better.
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