The Olympic Promised Land
Yet sometimes failure is as important as victory. For every athlete who prevails on the highest stage, many thousands fall short. Sometimes the difference between them is not a matter of talent or effort, but of the vagaries of time and circumstance.
Of the gymnasts my age who were generally regarded as the most talented, three were eliminated by spinal fractures and several more were undone by successions of lesser injuries. Most broke down on the road to Olympic glory -- and only one made the Olympics. Many who were less talented, but who survived the gauntlet of injuries and attrition, made the Olympic team instead. As it turns out, half of being successful in gymnastics is being healthy enough to show up.
I am one of the left behind, one of the damaged and defeated. I write this not to curry sympathy. Rather, I write it because I think it is important that a gymnast can fail in his ultimate goal, and leave the sport with a permanent injury, and nonetheless feel such gratitude that he would do it all over again in a heartbeat. I did not make the Olympics; I broke my neck.
Yet I see these things as the will of God, and the will of God is not without reason.
* * * * * *
I am often asked whether I regret my gymnastics career. Perhaps I should. Friends have said, "You must be angry with God." I never was. "Just wait," they warn, "you will be." Fourteen years have passed, and I am still waiting.
To be sure, I wonder what might have been. On at least four occasions, I had been ranked first in the country for my age group. I had won several national titles as a junior. I was just transitioning to the senior ranks when I was injured, four months prior to the Olympic Trials in 1996. Sooner or later, I would have contended for national titles and spots on the Olympic team.
And to be sure, my injury has led to many seasons of pain. It is one thing to endure the acute agony of a broken bone or a torn muscle or tendon. It is another thing, an altogether different matter for the mind and the spirit, to look down the long barrel of your life and see that it is rifled through with pain all the way to the end.
There are three reasons why I thank God for my gymnastics career. The first is simple: gymnastics gave me extraordinary experiences that expanded my horizons and strengthened my character. While my schoolmates flirted in the Taco Bell parking lot over burritos and watered-down Pepsi, I traveled nationally and internationally, performing on stages great and small. Through injury after injury, I discovered what it means to learn from defeat and persevere through adversity, to establish goals and achieve them as a team.
Many things I will never forget. National team camps at the Olympic Training Center. Winning the all-around title at the junior national championships in 1992. Representing the United States at the junior Pan American Games in Brazil. Competing for Stanford as a freshman and winning the NCAA title as a team. The friendship of my childhood coach, Greg Corsiglia, the support of my parents, the way my father dreamed my dreams with me.
I cannot wish I had never done gymnastics, because I hardly know what kind of person I would have been without it. It felt, when I left gymnastics, as though the larger portion of my identity had been amputated.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.