Once again, recliner-deep into the 2016 Olympics, it hit me. I’m way more comfortable being a sedentary spectator during the winter Olympics than I am during the summer games. Never having had skates or skis successfully strapped to my feet for a significant lapse of time, I watch the downhill and ice competitors with the same awe as I watch birds in flight. They are graceful, powerful, fast—but fly too far out of the realm of possibility for me.
Somehow I can’t distance myself as far from the summer events. I do, after all, own Nikes. And even though they aren’t parakeet yellow, which seems to be the official color of the 31st Olympiad, I do put quite a few miles on my pair. I got pretty close to record speed in them once, too, when I had the wind—and a four-foot garter snake—at my back. I also own a pair of spiffy Spandex bike shorts, and a swimsuit styled for function more than form. Sometimes, when I reach peak performance, I even wear all my all-terrain gear for different events on the same day.
“Not bad for someone who had a Mark Spitz poster in high school,” I told myself back in July. No marathon sessions in the sand chair for this girl! When I’m not out finding new ways to get vertical, I’m pedaling cross-country in my signature sport: mountain triking. Returning indoors to full-sized mirrors, I’m seeing a better, more robust version of myself in my sixties emerging. “What a treat it will be to settle back and catch up on the Olympics,” I said. “I’m out there every day, too, giving it my best shot.” Then I saw Simone Biles, Kerri Walsh Jennings, Mo Farah, and Michael Phelps, Micheal Phelps, Michael Phelps. “Another four years,” I said, “and I’m still a sluff.”
I am, however, a totally inspired, romantically patriotic sluff. I find the fifth NBC replay just as thrilling as the live gold-medal clincher. And by the time the Star Spangled Banner plays, my lips are quivering.
Never the most agile, athletically gifted girl in the arena, I’m cursed with the kind of ego that thrives—and destroys itself at the same time—on comparison. So while I find the Olympic performances breathtaking and uplifting, I do tend to regain my equilibrium with a staggering, deflated sigh. A near waste of skin, I sit back and watch with the same mixture of aloofness and utter fascination I adopted in grade school. Sidelined on my sofa like I’m back on those bleachers, I escape to the safety of where I’m most active: my head. I start pondering things like: What differentiates Olympic potential from average, all-around ability? What, exactly, separates Mary Beth who could prance across the balance beam in seventh grade, flipping her perfect pony tail without flopping onto the gym floor, and Mary Lou Retton? Not the coaching and the hours of trial and failure, the everlasting will to succeed and a body to back it up—I mean before that. Are you born a swimmer or diver or hurdler, knowing that someday—if you put your mind and heart into each attempt—you’ll be the best in the world? Or is it more of a gradual awakening? You dare yourself to jump across the creek without falling in, then try half the length of your lawn and, eventually you’re long-jumping the equivalent of a school bus?
Whatever the discovery process, it’s apparently what the athletes put behind their God-given potential that places them so far ahead of the pack. Years of strain and sweat. A desire to reach their inner limit and the guts to convince themselves, day after day, that they still have a micro-second or a millimeter left to go. I’ve been puzzling over this “right stuff” question since the ’92 summer Olympics, when I remember studying Lynn Jenning’s face after she crossed the finish line of the women’s 10,000 meters. Everything she had went into those last laps, bringing her into third place. The bronze medal was hers! She looked ecstatic, relieved, fulfilled. “That’s it!” I said. “I’d be outta there. Job well done, time to kick back.” I was wrong, of course. She came back for more in ’96. And so did Carl Lewis, even though the NBC broadcasters kept referring to his “last Olympic appearance” four years earlier. “You don’t get the kind of gleam Carl has in his eyes unless you’ve got a fire burning deep down that isn’t ready to die out yet,”they said.
Twenty years later, that fire-burning analogy was still haunting me. Way back when I first heard it, I remember thinking: “If I start right this very moment applying Olympic determination to the gifts the good Lord granted me, I’d probably be the next Nora Ephron. Keep toughing it out in my one-room office, never waylaid by writer’s block or a sluggish economy and, another four years from now, I’ll be a best seller.”
The 2016 torch was barely lit and, there I was, making bizarre mental comparisons, wondering when I let my fire get snuffed, imagining the stellar view from first-class I could have had on a ship that sailed long ago. But why? Why, in this game I play with myself, do I elevate my mental prowess, my writing gift, to the top of the medal stands, while the rest of my anatomy stays securely slumped in my typing chair? And why the heck do I revert to seventh grade, focusing on Mary Beth on the balance beam instead of Debbie in the wheelchair? Wouldn’t it be better to regress to a time when I let the Olympics inspire me without self-deprecation? Like the 1976 Summer Olympics. All I had a mind to do back then was concentrate on Bruce Jenner. Not his times or his distances in the decathlon…just Bruce Jenner. Woah, never mind, can’t go there either, I decided. Best file that one away as a really interesting story for my future grandchildren!
Part way through the women’s gymnastics events, I realized if my inner critic had a face, it would look like Martha Karolyi, the US women’s team coordinator who’s always glowering in the stands. Did she ever smile, do a victory dance, a righteous fist pump? Not from what the cameras showed. Pan up into the stands and, there she was again, scowling and shaking her head for each tenth-of-a-point the women fell short of absolute perfection. How did they keep giving her their all, I wondered, when she just kept giving them the stink eye?
Simone Biles, Martha’s golden girl, helped set me straight. “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps,” she said. “I’m the first Simone Biles.” Amen, sister! Be your personal all-around best. Put your own yardstick ahead of the media’s. Embrace the judging and the scoring and the infinitesimal comparisons between almost-the-best and the best in the world without letting it suffocate who you really are!
Competition is good, I realized. Without it, there’d be no sports, no Red Sox championships, no Olympics, no Mark Spitz posters. Life would be as bland as store-brand vanilla ice cream, as tedious as a roomful of those New Age Moms who want every kid to get a prize just for showing up to the party and not biting anybody. Except I wouldn’t even have the relativity to be annoyed, to want different flavors. The challenge is how to incorporate healthy comparison into my own journey to the finish line, to take away pointers from others pursuing their dreams in ways that push me to be the very best first and last Joy Clough.
During the second half of the summer Olympics, I shifted my focus to my own A-game, on the thrill of victory more than the agony of defeat. I cheered the times I managed to pull out of a disastrous double full twisting front flip to stick a perfect, upright landing on my walking path. I honored Bald Mountain as my Olympic pinnacle, paid tribute to my record-breaking snorkel strokes, looked forward to perfecting my stadium sprints to the front of the next U2 concert. And, as I saw Martha Karolyi finally smile and shed a happy tear, I did too—mind, body, and soul.