Life Lessons from a Young Olympian

You may not own a gold medal, but all of us have a few things in common with Monica Puig, the surprise winner in women’s tennis at the 2016 Olympics.

Puig arrived in Rio knowing full well she’d done poorly against the sport’s top players. So how could she beat women she’d lost to previously, and who’d gone on to win major events like the U.S. Open? One of those big names would take out the young upstart representing Puerto Rico because that’s what happened in the past.

Therein lie lessons one and two for the rest of us:

1 — Don’t assume that Shakespeare was right. What is past is not always prologue. Puig chose to view her past losses as opportunities. She roared forward fueled by positive energy, which paid enormous dividends. By the time she reached the Olympic finals, she was a different player. Hence, there was no reason to expect the same result as the last time she played her opponent.

2 — Puig also had to deal with a traveling companion that drops in on most everyone now and then, a manipulative big mouth named Self-Doubt. “Coming into this week,” she conceded later, “I had no idea I would be here at this moment with the Olympic gold medal around my neck.” Puig chose to stare down and crush her gremlin. She likely decided that her opponents were enough of a challenge. Fighting them and self-doubt was a waste of precious resources.

The smart money had been on Germany’s Angelique Kerber. Kerber was the reigning Australian Open champ, and had beaten Puig twice before. The last time was a rout. Further, Puig walked on court knowing the match had brought Puerto Rico to a virtual standstill. No one was in school; no one was working. Everyone was watching Monica Puig, the first unseeded finalist since 1988, when tennis returned to the Olympics.

So most assumed Kerber would win. When Puig took the first set and then faltered, dropping the second, everyone knew it would be Kerber wearing gold at the end.

But it didn’t play out that way. En route to the title, Puig had stunned the tennis world — and maybe herself a little — by taking out French Open champ Garbine Muguruza, and two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova. She was rolling.

And then came the second-set stumble. In that moment, Puig said the crowd helped. They chanted, “Yes, you can. Yes, you can!”

Later, Puig said, “They got me to believe that, yes, I can, and yes, I could, and yes, I did!”

The last two lessons, then, are these:

3 — Don’t buy into the common wisdom. How easy it is to believe the so-called experts, a list that could well include peers, mentors, and even friends. Imagine if Puig had listened to naysayers who said she’d never beat the game’s best.

4 — Be fully present, especially when facing a tough challenge. For Puig, being present in that third and deciding set meant tuning out extraneous noise and dialing up her best tennis. Later she would talk about the importance of being more and more mentally prepared for each successive match.

When the dust cleared, she was a 6–4, 4–6, 6–1 winner. The champ. The first woman to represent Puerto Rico at the Olympics to ever win a medal. And the first man or woman from the Puerto Rican team to take home gold.

One of the first things she did was call home. And so, a bonus tip. Never forget to thank mom. Said Puig, “My agent gave me the phone and I just screamed, ‘Mom, I did it!’”

P.S. Last weekend, Kerber had a chance to claim the number one ranking in women’s tennis. She lost in the finals in Cincinnati to Karolina Pliskova. She had beaten Pliskova in their last two meetings. Puig did not play, but expectations are she’ll be full present for the 2016 U.S. Open, which begins this weekend.

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