It’s taken 25 years, but I’m finally ready to admit it to myself: I am never going to win a gold medal at the Olympics.
No waves from the podium, no teary-eyed anthems, no Wheaties boxes. The dream is over.
I’m not sure what made me hold on so long. I knew relatively early that I’d never be the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, and I wrote off a professional basketball career at the first sign that I’d inherited my father’s short, mule-like legs. But something about the Olympics seemed attainable, however irrational that was.
Every two years, I’d watch the Olympians do their magnificent thing; I’d watch the country rally around them; I’d watch them talk to Bob Costas. I’d watch and I’d visualize. I never worried about the how, just assumed there would be a when.
As I grew older and more aware of the increasing number of events not cut out for me, I wondered not what I would medal in, but instead how I would manage to say “Hi, Mom” during the opening ceremonies. Even at age 21, when an illustrious Midwest collegiate rowing career was the only faint hope I had, I’d picture my boat crossing a Beijing finish line to chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” as I drove to practice every morning.
I think that latent everyman’s hope is part of the Olympic draw. Of course, few picture themselves playing on the Dream Team or racing against the likes of Michael Johnson or Usain Bolt; these athletes are demigods closer to Olympus than Olympia, Wash. But that coxswain from Minnesota, that water polo 2-meter guard from St. Louis, that shot-putter from suburban Milwaukee? We hear nothing about them in the four-year, pre-Olympic fever; our introductions little but an NBC puff piece and a Home Depot commercial. We forget in their relative anonymity that these athletes dedicate their lives to their craft, and the “Hey, in a different life, that could’ve been me” slips into our head. And boy, does it ever suck us in.
But now, I watch coverage of the trials and lead-up to the games, and it strikes me that a great deal of Olympians are younger than I — a new trend, though one that won’t ever reverse. Even if my athletic prime has not yet come, the time it’d take to cultivate Olympic-level skill would put me past it. Assuming that’s even a level I could attain, a dubious prospect at best.
Yeah, that “different life”? It’s not coming. Reality has again crashed through the whimsical “You can be anything you want” window I peered through as a child, shards of “Olympian” now joining those of “rock-band frontman,” “Gordon Bombay” and “cheetah.”
But this is not intended to be a sad thought. For as I’ve awoken from my little Olympic daydream, over the next two weeks we get to watch those who fell into a much deeper sleep. On Friday, after the jubilant trumpets of the Olympic theme sound for the first time, we’ll see our Olympians smiling, waving to the camera. As they’re forgetting to say “Hi, Mom” at the opening ceremonies, they’ll be thinking about the events they want to medal in, the events they’ve worked their lives for. When they step up to the podium, as we think on “What if it was me?,” they’ll know, finally, that it was.
A dream achieved is worth a thousand cast aside. Happy Olympics.
Andy will have the Olympic theme on loop until the opening ceremonies.