I knew a girl that trained for the Olympics. She got permission to cut out early from school to spend eight hours in the gym. Her parents were insanely rigid and no one really invited her to play dates or to have ice cream sundaes. She couldn’t come anyway because she was training. She was always training. Her father died young. I always thought he bottled all the angst and misery and fear of watching his twelve-year old girl fail or turn or miss a handoff and one day he just couldn’t take it anymore. He put a gun to his temples and blew it all away. Just tiny bits of stress scattered into the ether.
In a tiny way, amidst the cheers and clapping and proud faces, I see the pain in the eyes of all those collective Olympians, their young hearts beating rapidly under their overbuilt bodies with sparkles on their eyelids. After all – the brass ring of winning looms so high. Some of these tiny girls – leaping and hopping and tumbling on a national stage before their sixteen birthday – don’t even have arms long enough to reach out and grab it. They haven’t built up the maturity to handle the fleeting moment when the edges of their fingers touch it, but it slips past their grasp. It reminds me of Gollum in Lord of the Rings, wanting something so bad it becomes a longing that’s seared into you. After a while it’s nothing but an empty, haunting noise in one’s twisted throat.
The announcer introduced a young Romanian. Her eyes had that steely gaze of one who knows exactly what she wants. She had won silver four years earlier, but not grabbing that ring had left a hole in her heart. I wanted to clasp that poor girl into my arms. I wanted to hand her journals of pink butterflies and banana splits and afternoons lounging around under oak trees reading mystery novels. I wanted to give her back a childhood and tell her it’s just a silly piece of metal, coated with only shreds of worth. But her stare was so unyielding. It was a hopeless cause.
She mounted the balance beam so assuredly. She had done this so many times, and in so many ways. Through injuries and bad days and being yelled at. When she was hungry and longed for a day off and when her legs were pinching and burning and red like fire.
And then she fell.
It was just a simple turn – the announcer said. But there she went, cascading down in slow motion to the padded mat below, chalk puffing up around her tiny feet as she hit. She rose slowly, as if her life’s work had been for naught. As if all she ever wanted had come crumbling down around her feet. The grief was printed on her face. Her arms rose to the beam again to climb back on, but it was a dead baby now.
Her eyes haunted my dreams that night. I thought of how one might not ever recover such an epic failure. These are champions. They overcame great hurdles in their rise to glory. And yet there is that looming dread of going home empty handed. The oiled finger that couldn’t grasp the ring. The missed opportunity that would never again present itself.
As I was telling my husband about it that night, he stopped reading and thought about it for a moment. He said he felt failure was an overused word. We might miss opportunities, or do things we regret, or take paths that might later need redirection. “But failure is final,” he said. “And it’s not over until the end of the game.”
I thought about our lives. The raising of our children. The tenuous bonds of marriage and friendship and being the one others count on. Our eyes grow so focused on being good at it, and choosing the right paths, and winning. Sometimes there is that moment you almost let it overtake you. Like the father who put the gun to his head and gave in.
But God expects more than this. We are all built to be champions. And someday, there will be that second we step onto that balance beam and our feet fall flat underneath us. It is that moment we must find the inner strength to rise again. Through the grief. Through the defeat. Through the brokenness. We must stand proud and tall on that beam, and with all the energy left in our tired bodies we must clap those hands together, look high to the sky as our backs arch in beauty, and land squarely on two feet. We will regroup. We will not let this define us. We will dismount after the fall.
If you look closely enough, you’ll see a shiny little ring dangling from your fingers. Funny thing is, by then it doesn’t seem to matter.