Jon Schafer: Embrace the struggle
February 5, 2014
This week, the final roster for the Sochi Winter Olympics Games was announced. For everyone involved, it was a life-changing experience.
In the unfortunate American media style of form over substance, there will be an abundance of human interest pieces about many of those selected for the team, but despite this overindulgence of feel-good stories that seem to monopolize the coverage of an otherwise spectacular event, the most fascinating stories of the Games often are never told: the stories of not making the Olympic team.
As the CEO of a nonprofit foundation for athlete development, I have had a first-row seat for the Olympic selection process for dozens of extremely talented athletes; some of the athletes my foundation helps support will be going to Sochi. Others will not.
What makes this entire process so compelling, however, is that regardless of whether an athlete is going to Sochi, the story remains largely the same. It is the story of individuals sacrificing everything for a goal they know they may not achieve. It is the story of preparation, perseverance, triumph and tragedy that can only happen when people are dedicated to a pursuit for all of the right reasons — reasons rarely reported or rewarded these days.
As the media clamors about the medal count and corporations trip over themselves to best leverage fresh-faced American Olympians to increase market share in burgers and soda (products, ironically, most of their temporary spokespeople never touch), you likely will only hear about the athletes who win medals.
While medals certainly are the ultimate goal, the Olympic creed clearly states the importance of participation — a message that sadly seems to be getting more and more lost.
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There exists, however, yet another level — a broader, more fundamental, yet remarkably more complex one, and it is simply participating in the process.
The decision to put yourself in the mix for an Olympic spot when you know you have an excellent chance of making the team is fairly easy (especially when an Olympic appearance almost certainly guarantee will you the aforementioned lucrative corporate sponsorships). But what if your chances of selection are not great? And even if you do make it, you likely still will be penniless after the games, as your sport is not well-funded in America?
Are you still willing to go all-in? Are you willing to defer college for four years? Eight years? Indefinitely? Are you financially and emotionally prepared to spend five or more months each year in Europe, away from family and friends? How much are you willing to pay for an incalculable ROI that may in fact never materialize? This is the most compelling story of all. It is a story that plays out every Olympics, summer and winter, and has done so for years. Yet, it rarely is told.
For every athlete who makes it to the Olympics, there are more who were close. Very close. But not close enough. Did those selected train harder, longer or smarter than those left behind? Maybe. But maybe not.
Many selection decisions come down to 10ths or even 100ths of a second, margins so slim that the number of variables at play can be mind boggling. And this just the objective criteria — people who lost qualifying races by photo finishes. But there also are legions of contenders who missed the cut in a manner even harder to swallow — subjective criteria.
I've lost races by 10ths of seconds, and it is difficult to stomach, but I'm not sure if anyone can accurately describe the feeling of being on the cusp of representing the United States of America in the pinnacle of international competition, then hearing a coach or sport governing body tell you that they believe someone else "just seems better." This is a very real, and in some cases, a very unfortunate necessity in the selection process, but that does not make it any less brutal.
I will be following the games in Sochi with great excitement, cheering on all of our athletes every step of the way, but with each and every event, I also will be thinking of, and cheering for, all of the great athletes I know that are home.
It is easy to root for everyone at "The Show," but I believe it is almost more important to root for everyone who barely missed it.
These athletes will be watching the Olympics from their couches in Colorado, Minnesota, Utah or parts unknown, steeped in the knowledge that they were only 1/100th of a second from being in Russia with a chance at that coveted medal.
Four such candidates, Sylvan
Ellefson, Matt Liebsch, Jeremy Teela and Brett Denney, missed the U.S. Cross Country, Biathlon and Nordic Combined teams all for different reasons and all by the narrowest of margins. The day this was announced, Sylvan posted a message on Twitter with the hash tag, "The road goes on forever and the party never ends." In my mind, this is the mark of a true champion.
Jon Schafer is the CEO of FBD Racing, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to the development and enrichment of athletes in all stages of their careers. He lives in Steamboat Springs.