The most memorable moment in my interview with Olympic Gold medalist, rower Taylor Ritzel was when she said, unexpectedly:
Winning is exciting and something I strive for—but for me, I really value how we win the race. I am disappointed when we don’t race to our potential. I’m more proud that, as a collective group that day at Eaton Dorney, we threw down the best race possible… that’s what I’m really excited about.”
Watching the Olympics from Opening to Closing Ceremonies here in London, the same question repeats in my mind, “Why are we so entertained by sports?” Why do we feel so attached to certain athletes and teams, our hands sweating with nerves and our voices hoarse from cheering? Why do their races and games become our own? My mind ran over memories of being awed by an inspiring athletic moment, and one by one, I pieced together the glue that tied each story together: We want to disprove the notion of the limit.
But before explaining this, let me say first that there is, I believe, a difference between a person who wins a race and a champion.
The act of winning a race is mechanical. Inheritance is passive, and whether we’re born with a set of lungs that can motor a small boat or a VO2 max that can power a village is out of our control. That, and it’s easily argued that people prefer winning to losing. It’s hard-wired into us from some unknown, perhaps primitive, desire to survive. So, if you coupled some passive genetic luck with our hard-wired desire to win, you get an athlete that can cross the line first in a race.
But watching those who are born fast or tall or strong or flexible isn’t why we care about sports. In fact, if that were all that athleticism entailed, we’d be the 99% who just couldn’t be bothered that some fortunate man or woman got the right random combinations in the massive human gene pool. No—there’s something else. There’s some kind of essence that gives the spirit of the athlete, some kind of attitude that makes art out of an activity, controlled discipline out of strength, and a kindred spirit out of a stranger on the television.
For Taylor, a member of the U.S. Women’s Eight Boat, the hardest part of the Olympics going in was the expectation of being the favorite. She explains:
We had six women in the boat that medaled and won in 2008. They knew what to expect, and our coach has been around since 2000. For someone new, it was really intimidating. The hardest position to be in is coming in as the favorite, because anything but winning could be considered a failure. That is really hard mentally, since there’s nothing wrong with medaling. But, we were the top in the world in the finals, and I know how competitive we all are. If you let those emotions get the best of you, it could turn negative quickly.”
For weeks before arriving at the Olympic Village, the U.S. Women’s Eight boat was sheltered from media and the public—their coach insisted on a black-out period. The girls trained with their heads down and focused intensely on the expectation and goal that had been set out for them: another gold medal in London.
For Taylor, pressure to maintain the win wasn’t new. As a sophomore at Yale University, she became the stroke of her boat in a sport she had only picked up a few years prior (Taylor had her heart set on swimming, before she faced some disappointing recruitments and eventually began rowing) and was expected to lead the Bulldogs to another National Title. She followed through on that expectation. However, after that summer in 2008, two National Titles added to her impressive record, Taylor decided to take a break from rowing and travel to Uganda for work.
There, alone, she experienced a world away from sport. Upon returning, Taylor watched the Beijing Olympics on the television and remembers, “…at that point, I knew I had to try to make the Olympics in rowing. That was the moment I realized how much I missed it. I had always wanted to go to the Olympics—like any athlete growing up. I had remembered each of the games: 1996, 2000, 2004. At the time, I just thought I would make it for swimming.”
Now, living her childhood dreams, Taylor recalls the sounds of the crowds at Eaton Dorney, the rowing venue in London. She remembers the cheering as the highlight of the entire Games: “Getting to race at that venue was just unbelievable. Our coxswain turned up the microphone as loud as possible, but even starting at the 750 meters to go mark, there was a lot of noise. She tried to gear the race up for the sprint, but we couldn’t hear anything because of the fans. It was an unbelievable place to race. The energy and excitement was incredible.”
But it wasn’t all excitement—the race was a grueling test of pain. Taylor explains,
When I first started rowing, I couldn’t believe you had to go through that pain. There is no slowing down. And so, for me, there’s that moment when you hit a wall. In that race, into 750 meters, which is not even halfway, I was dying. I was pushing it. But I know we trained for this, and one of my favorite feelings is when I feel excited and prepared to really go through that pain and push through it because I know I’m going to a new threshold. You can control that pain and challenge yourself. It’s scary, but it makes racing so fun. You know everyone else is hurting just as much… there’s not anything physiologically different. You get to see who is tougher.”
Going into the race, the women’s head coach had explained that Canada, their rivals all year, had completed a faster time in the heats and therefore, the American Eight were the underdogs. So they began the race mentally preparing to fight for every painful inch on the water. Their fight paid off, and Taylor says, “Coming into the 250 meter mark, I was assessing where Canada was and focusing on winning. Right before the line, I knew we had it. Knowing that we were going to win was such a cool feeling, and to be honest, I was in so much pain, I was really looking forward to that line.”
Not all moments, however, were so black and white between pain and elation.
For Taylor, in a quiet moment before the race, an unexpected song played on broadcast and brought her back to bittersweet memories of her mother. Taylor’s mother, whose dream was to see her daughter at the Olympics, had passed away of cancer in November of 2010, just months before Taylor’s graduation from Yale. Throwing herself into training and looking forward to her goals, Taylor wanted to give her mother what she knew best: continued strength and perseverance. “The way my parents handled my mom’s sickness was different than the way other people handled it,” Taylor explains. “I think throughout the whole cancer process, they looked at it as a challenge: ‘We’re going to fight. We’re going to fight it like this.’ They went to every chemo session together. I was at Yale at the time. I spoke to my parents every day. They wanted me to finish school and race at the World Championships that year.”
In fact, it was after the Olympic win that old family friends began to approach Taylor and tell her stories about her mother’s strength. “All these things that I didn’t know about her are coming forward. There’s this one story where she walks into an all-male corporation based in Denver. She sent in her resume, applied for the job, and didn’t hear back. So she walked into the building, through reception, and into the boss’s office and said, ‘You need to hire me, and here’s why.’ He did.”
Strength is an attitude; perseverance, a belief. The same strength is harnessed to reach a goal despite tremendous personal challenges as is to test a physical limit, understand the pain, and prove that neither the limit and nor the pain exists. The difference, then, between a champion and someone who races to win is that a champion is constantly testing a limit, an internal battle. Not for glory or attention, but something to share with the rest of us, to say to us, “You, too, can break these mythical boundaries.”
This is why we watch athletes with the passion we do. This is why their stories become our own, why we treat them as our friends, why we invite them into our lives. We are constantly looking for the hero that will inspire us, whose achievements on the track, the field, or the water is an allegory for a greater test of the human spirit.
This is what I call the essence of a champion, and this essence is not something that is hard-wired or given to us. It’s learned, minute by minute, through all the hours alone in the gym, on the track, or in the water. It is the champion who says, “I want to win, but I care most about how I win. And if I cannot win, I want my journey to be a story.”
During these Olympics, we have ushered in a new definition of a role model, and we have shown that challenges were made to be met and records achieved so that we could have something new to strive for.
Taylor, and all the other athletes competing in these Games, thank you for being our ambassadors.