How you can be an Olympian without being an athlete

Be an Olympian

For the past week, I have been watching the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Even though the Winter Olympics is the redheaded stepchild of the Summer Olympics, I love Olympians.

I have been watching snowboarding, skiing, and my favorite — figure skating. Personally, I am not much of an athlete. Even though I have completed six marathons and one half marathon, I am not much of a runner. I have no aerobic capacity whatsoever. I am more like a turtle who refused to quit. If a serious runner saw my marathon times, they would laugh.

However, I was a ballet dancer for 17 years, and ballet is far more athletic than most people realize. But I never thought I would become an Olympian. I remember the first Olympics I ever saw. My friend Lori and I watched the 1984 Summer Olympics on her small color television in her bedroom. We cheered as Mary Lou Retton scored two perfect 10’s for her vaults. Mary Lou was not much older than I was at the time. I marveled at how someone so young could be the best in the world at one thing. I admired Mary Lou for dedicating her life to one sport. So Mary Lou, this blog is for you!

How you can be an Olympian without being an athlete

1. Practice every day

Olympians practice every day. In order to be great at anything, you need to practice. No one wants to hear this because everyone is always looking for an easy way out. ‘A get-quick-rich scheme.’ With the exception of winning the lottery or inheriting a mass fortune, getting rich quickly is not reality. Just like an entrepreneur growing a business, if you want to be an expert at something, you have to do the time. You have to put in the hours.

Author Malcolm Gladwell believes to be successful in any field, you must practice the specific task for 20 hours a week for 10 years, which results in 10,000 hours. Though many people don’t believe the 10,000-Hour Rule holds true for every skill, I’m sure Olympians would agree putting in the time to master their sport makes a huge difference in their outcomes.

Most Olympians begin their sport at a young age and most practice every day during competition season. Can you imagine doing the same thing day in and day out from the time you were three years old? When I became serious about ballet, I auditioned for and was accepted by a performing arts charter school. I went from two ballet classes per week to two ballet classes every day Monday — Friday. I loved it. The only reason I didn’t pursue ballet as a profession was because I was not good enough. I did not have natural talent.*

2. Possess natural talent

Olympians possess natural talent. I believe everyone has some talent in some capacity in some arena. The trick is figuring out what your talent is. Where do you shine? Most Olympians discover their talent at a young age, but not everyone. Sometimes, we don’t figure out or recognize our natural talents until later in life.

U.S. aerial skier Kiley McKinnon did not begin competing until high school, which is late for an Olympian. A former gymnast and skier, McKinnon did not do aerials until Olympian Mac Bohonnon, a former friend and schoolmate, reached out to her on Facebook. Bohonnon invited her to try the sport at a camp in Lake Placid, New York. She loved it. Now, they participate in the same competitions including this year’s Olympics. Bohonnon jokes that he gets credit not only for his medals but for her medals, too.

As for me, I have always loved telling stories. However, I loved ballet so much that I never thought about becoming a writer. Unlike most people who stressed over term papers in college, I never did because writing was easy for me. In fact, I was accepted into USC’s School of Journalism, but I changed my major when I realized how much I hate the news. (I only applied to the journalism school because it seemed like a safer bet than being a theatre major.) When my writing professor encouraged me to submit one of my essays to the Los Angeles Times, I balked. Even though he thought it was good enough, I didn’t view myself as a writer … until I wrote and produced a play in 1999.

Writing something from scratch and seeing my characters come to life on stage intoxicated me. Though my play received mixed reviews, I didn’t care. What I realized was acting was merely interpreting someone else’s work, but writing was creating your own work. That act of creation felt not only rewarding but also powerful. To see other people interpret my work, my words, and my characters lit me up in a way acting never did. At the age of 26, I discovered — unlike dancing or acting — writing was my natural talent.

3. Give up everything else

Olympians give up everything to focus on their sport. If an athlete practices every day, they may spend 3–8 hours a day working on their sport. We all have the same 24 hours in a day. With a prioritization on mastering their sport, athletes are forced to eliminate other people and activities.

  • Olympians often give up any kind of social life.
  • They may give up going to school (in lieu of home school).
  • They may give up on having a romantic relationship (until later in life).
  • They may give up being with their family (to train elsewhere).

If you want to win, you have to focus. I don’t think we average people have to give up everything to get what we want, but we do have to manage our time wisely. In this video 15 sacrifices you need to make if you want to be rich, the narrator suggests you give up:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Hobbies
  • Sleep
  • Entertainment (e.g., watching TV)
  • Pride

Olympians spend years toiling away in the hope that they may one day win an Olympic medal. So … what are you willing to give up NOW in order to get what you want LATER?

4. Work through failure

We all fail but Olympians fail on a much bigger and broader stage than most of us ever will. When I watched American Maddie Bowman tried to defend her 2014 gold medal in the freeski halfpipe, my heart broke. Bowman didn’t do well in the qualifying round. During the actual event, she fell on all three runs wiping out on her last attempt. She didn’t bother to hide her tears from the cameras.

Between the Olympic games, most athletes are competing in national and international events. However, the Olympics have a special meaning: every four years athletes have an opportunity to show the world they are the best in the world at their sport. When they win, people cheer. When they lose, people cheer … their competitor. Either way, millions of people are watching them. They may cry tears of sorrow; they may cry tears of joy. They may not cry at all.

But the hard part isn’t holding back the tears. The hard part is getting back on the ice the next day. Or in the halfpipe. Or on the hill. Olympians know the key to success is not winning every time but getting back to their sport after failing.

You have to realize: you will fail. If you have never failed at something, then you are not reaching far enough. You have not pushed yourself to the limit. “It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not lived at all. In which case, you fail by default,” Author J.K. Rowling, Harvard Commencement Speech, 2011.

You will fail and that’s okay. Just be sure to fail forward.

5. Manage your nerves

When Olympians fail, most of the time it has little to do with their ability. If asked, they will tell you it was their nerves, especially in a sport like figure skating. When a figure skater takes the ice, they are performing a routine they have done hundreds of times. They are executing jumps they have landed hundreds of times. The Olympics is not the time to attempt a new skill. Figure skaters may take more risk, but they will not try a quadruple toe loop or a triple axel for the first time at the Olympics. Even if it appears sloppy, trust me, they have practiced their routine hundreds if not thousands of times. It’s not their technique that fails them; it’s their inability to manage their nerves.

For example, figure skater Mirai Nagasu became the first American woman to land a triple axel in the Olympics. During the team event, she shined and helped the U.S. receive a bronze medal. However, when she performed her short program in the individual event, she fell on the same triple axel. The one she had landed just days before. Why? Nerves. Unfortunately, that one fall has ruined her chance at receiving an Olympic medal.

Most people experience nerves in their life. In fact, the number one thing that can kill a job interview is appearing nervous. I have always been confident during job interviews because they were easier than auditions. Even if I was nervous, I never allowed my nerves to show. Auditions, however, were tougher. I would experience that strange butterfly-in-the-stomach sensation, which unsettled me.

Looking back, I wasn’t able to manage my nerves because I lacked confidence. I wasn’t the best actress in the world. I was good but I wasn’t great. Though I possess incredible comedic timing, I almost never got auditions for comedic roles. Instead, I became typecast as the ‘smart chick’ in dramatic film and television roles. I was the cop, the lawyer, the scientist. When something more interesting came along, I became too nervous. I am no Meryl Streep; I am dreadful at accents. I was the kind of actress who was good at portraying an extension of myself (e.g., Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise). The beauty of a job interview is you can and should be yourself. The best version of yourself, but still you.

Whether you’re competing for an Olympic medal, auditioning for a film role, or interviewing for your dream job, you have to manage your nerves.

6. Lose with grace.

When Olympians lose and they often do, the best ones lose with grace. Unfortunately, many athletes are sore losers. Though she was the favorite in 1994, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan failed to capture the gold medal. She was caught on camera criticizing gold medalist Oksana Baiul, “Oh come on, so she’s going to get out here and cry again. What’s the difference?” Suddenly, America’s sweetheart was no longer sweet. (People need to remember: the cameras and microphones are always on!) The best losers are able to congratulate the winners. You didn’t lose because that person beat you. You lost because you didn’t do your very best. Or your very best wasn’t good enough that time.

When ice dancers and siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani frowned (before the medal ceremony) because they received a bronze medal for their performance instead of a gold medal, I saw sore losers. They did their very best but this time their very best was not good enough to beat the French and Canadian teams. It wasn’t even close. The Shibutanis don’t have as difficult of a program; therefore, they were never going to get as high of a score. They did not do anything wrong during their performance; their competitors outskated them. When that happens, you need to lose with grace.

People always remember the winners, but they also remember sore losers, too. Check out Samuel L. Jackson’s sore loser “Shit” moment after he lost the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor to Martin Landau.

7. Take a break

Sometimes, athletes — even Olympians — take a break from their sport. It’s rare but it’s true. Many times a break is necessary due to injuries but often athletes need a break to assess their next move. To decide if they want to continue training for another four years for a chance to compete in the next Olympics.

This year, the best example of Olympians taking a break and coming back with guns blazing are Canadian ice dancing champions: Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. After winning a gold medal in Vancouver (2010), they earned a silver in Sochi (2014) unable to defeat the American team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Then, Virtue and Moir did something unheard of in sports — they took a break. After that disappointing silver medal, they did not compete for two years. (I find it hard to believe that they never stepped on the ice.) When they decided to make a comeback, they wanted to earn gold. And they did. With five medals (three gold, two silver), they are the most decorated and successful figure skaters in Olympic history.

You don’t have to be an Olympian to need a break. If you work hard, you are bound to burnout eventually. I have a history of overdoing it, breaking down, and recuperating. It’s not a pattern I recommend. It’s better to catch yourself before you burnout: recognize your personal symptoms of burnout. Stress causes me to lose weight no matter how much I eat or how little I exercise. It’s bizarre. I feel like the harder my brain works, the more calories I burn. So for me, weight loss (without intention) is a sign I need a break even if it’s only for a few days. A mini vacation of 3–5 days often helps me reset my mind, body, and spirit, especially if I go to the beach.

Want to be an Olympian? Well … all you need to do is

  1. Practice every day
  2. Possess natural talent
  3. Give up everything else
  4. Work through failure
  5. Manage your nerves
  6. Lose with grace
  7. Take a break

*Though I never became a ballerina, I appeared on stage with the Kirov Ballet in 1992 when they were in Los Angeles. Also, I danced at almost every theme park in Southern California making numerous appearances at Universal Studios in several different shows.



Originally published at Andrea Wilson Woods.