Olympic sized challenges sometimes offer Olympic sized stories of the human spirit. These three stories from the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China offer hope for heart, grace and grit, with a good bit of persistence and kindness folded in. Two stories show us how to manage haters, stay in the game when things get hard.
Eilieen Gu won 2 Gold medals and a Silver in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic snowboarding jump events. She was born and raised in San Francisco to a Chinese-American mother and a European-American father and spent her summers in China since childhood. She chose to ski for China in the 2022 Olympics, to honor her mother and promote winter sports in China where millions of people had no knowledge of winter sports.
The 18 year old Gu was criticized for being bi-racial, not representing America and switching to the Chinese team, and for having her heart in two places. She had something to say about her critics.
“I definitely feel just as American as I am Chinese. I’m American when I’m in the US, and I’m in Chinese when I’m in China. Both continue to support me because they understand my mission is to use sport as a force for unity. Through skiing, I hope to promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations. Sport is something that can connect people from all over the world, and that is a force to unite people as opposed to divide. We are all out here together pushing the human limit.”
When asked about haters, trolls and dividers, she said “No matter what I say, if people don’t have a good heart, they won’t believe me, because they can’t empathize with people who do have a good heart.”
Whatever the critics say, this teenager won Olympic Gold by doing a free ski trick only one person had ever done before, and one she had never tried or practiced. The competition at the women’s 2022 free ski events was intense, and she had to up her game. She visualized it, saw it in her head and she did it. “I’m happy I was able to push through and turn that pressure into fuel.” She followed her heart, and she won. Eileen will be attending college in California, representing companies in the US, China and across the globe, and continuing to live with heart for the world.
Eileen showed us freedom with true heart.
Shaun White has three Olympic Gold medals from five Olympic games. He is considered the greatest snowboarder ever and was America’s hope for 2022 snowboarding medals. At 38 years old, he was one of the oldest competing in the games. The Beijing games were his last snowboarding competition. He was retiring and he hoped to go out with a medal. The first of his three half-pipe runs were mediocre. In his second, he ramped it up and got a great score, although it just wasn’t quite enough and he knew he had to do better in his third run, But he crashed his last run and his hopes for a medal. He got up from his fall and rode down the rest of the run, taking his helmet off and raising his hand in cheer with a big smile on his face. When got to bottom of the half-pipe run, knowing he was in 4th place and not getting a medal, he fell to his knees. He put one hand on his snowboard and the other on the snow and said “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”
He was interviewed afterwards.
“Everybody was asking me what my legacy in this sport has been, and I’m like, ‘You’re watching it. These younger riders, they’ve been on my heels every step of the way. To see them finally surpass me is, I think, deep down what I always wanted. To be beaten, to finally walk away without feeling like, ‘I could have done this…’”
Shaun showed us freedom with true grace.
Mikaela Shiffrin is considered the greatest ever women’s alpine ski racer. Only 26 years old, this US skier has set many records including several as the youngest ever in several categories. At 18 years old, she was the youngest slalom champion in Olympic alpine skiing history, and currently, she is the third most winning World Cup skier of all time. Shiffrin comes from a family of ski racers and she was scheduled to ski in six Beijing Olympic racing events in 2022. But, she ran into challenges.
Her mother and father accompanied her to most of her races across the planet. Her mother was her coach at the Beijing Olympics. She was very close to her father who had used his photography hobby to track her life. He wasn’t in Beijing because two years before, on February 2, 2020, shortly before the pandemic shut down the world, he died suddenly in an accident. She was devastated and put her ski career on indefinite hold which caused her to fall out of first place in the 2020 World Cup tour and end her 3-year winning streak as the world’s top female World Cup skier. She couldn’t imagine skiing without his support and love, and thought she would never ski again.
With the help of her family and friends, and the courage of her spirit, she found a way. She restarted her career in the 2021 World Cup tour, and while winning impressively, she didn’t regain her top spot. Then came the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and trouble.
She was the only woman scheduled to ski in six different Olympic events, a remarkable feat in itself. However, in the first race event she crashed after only 11 seconds on the course (usually about a 90 second run). On her second race event she crashed in the first 5 seconds. After that crash she sat on the snow for 20 minutes trying to sort it out, and being comforted by her mother who came and sat next to her on the snow.
After the second crash she was asked about her father. “It does give me perspective, but right now, I would really like to call him. So, that doesn’t make it easier. He would probably tell me to get over it. But he’s not here to say that, so on top of everything else I’m pretty angry at him too.”
Mikaela Shiffrin rarely crashes. In fact she has remarkably crashed only 16 times in the last 10 years. It was crushing.
“Right now I just feel like a joke.”
Her troubles weren’t over.
She finished her third and fourth races, in 9th and 18th placed. On her fifth race, she crashed for a third time, leaving herself only one chance left to earn a medal at the Olympics, if she chose to try.
“There’s going to be a whole chaotic mess of crap that people are saying about how I just fantastically failed these last couple of weeks in the moments that actually counted,” she said. “I don’t really understand it and I’m not sure when I’m going to have much of an explanation. I can’t explain to you how frustrated I am to not know what I can learn from today.”
“Frustrated to not know what I can learn from today”
Shiffrin’s six Olympic events each involved quite different skiing styles and technical skill. In The slalom courses require a balance of speed and sharp turning, while the downhill is an all-out speed event. Depending on the event, alpine racers reach speeds ranging from 40-100 mph. Most skiers specialize in one or the other styles. Shiffrin is considered most skilled in the slalom events, but she crashed in the first three of the four slalom events she skied in.
The last event was the team slalom event. Unlike all other types of alpine ski races, which are purely based on individual performance, the team slalom event involves a team of two women and two men. These 4-person teams do four races against another team. In each of the four races, two skiers race down a course side by side around slalom poles. One lane of the course is marked with blue poles and on the other with red poles. Each team gets to race each color-lane two times, so each team has two races in the blue and two in the red lanes. The first to the bottom wins. If there is a 2-2 tie, then the two fastest scores of the man and woman from each team are combined and the fastest combined score wins the tie.
The US team’s first race was against Slovakia, and Mikaela Shiffrin was the first to ski for the US team. Racing in the red lane all eyes were on her. Could she complete the course and even win her race? And she did, she finished and won! Two other US teammates won, so with their 3-1 victory they advanced to face the Italian powerhouse team who were favored to win.
Against the Italians, three of her teammates beat their opponents. Shiffrin lost in a photo finish ending by only 2/100’s of a second (.02 seconds). In that run, Mikaela was in the red lane. The two lanes are supposed to be equal, but they weren’t. The blue lane was faster. In fact, other than the Swiss racing the Chinese (an unfair matchup), the only racer to win a race in the red lane that day was Mikaela Shiffrin in her first race against Slovakia (a highly skilled team). The US beat Italy 3-1 so they advanced to face Germany in the semi-final race.
Against the Germans, the US needed to win both of their races in the blue lane, and they hoped to win one race in the red lane, or have the fastest times in the blue lane. Shiffrin had a great start, she was flawless and fearless, holding nothing back. In the red lane though, her chances were thin against one of Germany’s best. She lost, but by only a tenth of a second. Most racers in the red lane lost by half to almost a full second. Shiffrin wasn’t skiing with fear and she wasn’t holding anything back. Whatever she needed to learn from her previous five let-downs in the last two weeks, she had figured it out. Hearts sank when the other US female team member, racing in the blue lane, crashed and lost her race. The US was out of the race for Silver or Gold.
That left the US to battle Norway for the Bronze. The Norwegians were tough, they had more 2022 Olympic medals than any other country. Shiffrin ran her race again in the red lane. She poured it on, skiing with all her skill, heart, and wild abandon. But her opponent had enough of an edge in the blue lane. She finished the race, but just not quite fast enough. US skier River Radamus skied the last race against the Norwegians. The score was US 1 and Norway 2. Radamus had to win, and he had the blue lane. His Norwegian opponent in the red lane took off like a bat out of hades and had the lead. He kept up with Radamus the whole way down putting the pressure on, but the Norwegian pushed it too hard in the red lane and he crashed out in the third to last turn. Even though the score was 2-2, the US team’s combined score wasn’t enough and the Norwegians won the tie breaker with the fastest combined score.
When Radumus crossed the finish line in that last race, Shiffrin new they came in 4th before Radamus even came to a complete stop. He was crushed, head down, and she was the first of the team to reach him, hold him, touch her helmet to his, hold his face and give him a big smile and a hug.
“And that is how it ends for Mikaela Shiffren and company, in her third Olympics!” exclaimed the American announcer.
But oh no, that isn’t the end of this story
Many racers in the team slalom event crashed. Not Shiffrin. She persisted, figured it out and overcame.
After coming in 4th in the team slalom event, the four members of the US team stood together as they were all interviewed in the freezing cold and windy -3 Fahrenheit temperature. Someone gave them a blanket and Shiffrin made sure all three of her teammates were covered, even if she didn’t quite fit under the blanket. Her teammates brought her under the cover. Shiffrin was interviewed last.
“My teammates are what carried me through these Olympics. I get that people will say we came up short. But the thing is that, to have this kind of depth on our team coming from the U.S., competing in a European-dominated sport… I can’t emphasize enough how unbelievable it is for us to be here and be in the hunt for a medal.”
Then she turned to face her teammate River Radamus, who won all four of his races in the event, and she turned the focus from her to him. “River, I mean, we’re watching you at the bottom there, and the fact you’re skiing so strongly, you’re giving us hope, that’s the biggest win you could give us.”
Before the team slalom event, Shiffrin was almost defeated. She thought about giving up her spot on the team and leaving China. But she didn’t quit. “I decided to stay because I wanted to compete with my teammates.”
“Every single person on Earth goes through some kind of hardship and you just need to get up. It’s the most important takeaway from the last couple of weeks for me and it has nothing to do with the Olympics” she said.
A lot of people attacked Mikaela Shiffrin for her losses, calling her all sorts of brutally unkind and hateful things. She responded by staying focused on a belief in herself and kindness for others. “I have had a lot of disappointing moments at these Games. Today is not one of them. Today is my favorite memory.”
Shiffrin wrote on her Twitter feed:
“Self-pity, sadness…let the turkeys get you down. There will always be turkeys. Or get up, Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Get up because you can, because you like what you do when it’s not infested with the people who have so much apparent hate for you. Just get up.”
Mikaela Shiffrin had the freedom to walk away and avoid a sixth Olympic event. She had the freedom to stay and fight side by side with her friends.
Mikaela showed us freedom with true grit.
Thank you Eileen, Shaun, and Mikaela for showing us how.
Images from Wikipedia
From NBC coverage of the 2022 Olympics