Most of my young life was consumed with hospital visits and doctor's appointments, and after years, we still didn't have any answers. I can only imagine how frustrated and discouraged my parents must have been, wondering if their son was ever going to be healthy and happy like the other kids. By the time I was nine years old, my parents were physically and emotionally depleted. Then, at the advice of our family physician, who insisted they take a morning off each week, my parents sent me to Saturday morning "learn to skate" classes at the brand-new skating rink at Bowling Green State University.
Like most skaters, my first steps on the ice were tentative and frightening. I spent most of that first morning holding on to the wall. I would find moments of bravery when I could let go for a brief time, but honestly, I held on more often than not. Over the next weeks I was able to get all the way around the ice without touching the wall. Soon I was skating as well as the healthy kids. Soon after that, I was skating as well as the best athletes in my grade. Self-esteem is a powerful force—and now I had it for the first time in my life.
I was small, my energy ran low, and I struggled with the effects of my undiagnosed illness, but skating offered me exactly what I needed. The cool, moist air helped with my lung condition, and the constant movement helped with my ability to digest food properly. The more I focused on skating, the less my body seemed to be in direct opposition to me. I started practicing and getting better. I began competing some and improving. Still, for all those first years of skating, I was underachieving.
You might be wondering, So what if you were underachieving? Why should that even matter? If skating was helping with your symptoms, if it was bringing you joy, why should it matter if you win a gold medal? My answer to those questions is that if I had never found a way to finish first in skating and the rest of my life, none of the other amazing, miraculous things I've experienced would have happened. As Vince Lombardi once said, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."
WHAT IT MEANS TO FINISH FIRST
To me, winning is not about holding a gold medal, losing the twenty pounds, getting a promotion, or seeing my name on a plaque. In fact, I won a gold medal in 1984, and it lived in a brown paper bag in my underwear drawer for years. I resisted the natural urge to worship the idol of that success. What I found to be more interesting was what I was becoming in the process of achieving the unthinkable.
When I talk about finishing first, I'm not talking just about beating your competitors.
To finish first is to understand what you have to offer the world and then to be the best you can be at offering exactly that. It means understanding your life purpose and putting your whole heart into being the best at what you do. It means to break through your perceived limitations, overcome the barriers that stand in your way, and make the biggest impact in the world you are capable of making.
The general consensus of our culture seems to be that winning doesn't matter, that there's no point to trying hard because in the end, none of it matters. Instead of acknowledging who has won and who has lost, we hand out participation trophies and give everyone a ribbon before sending them home. Our fear of winning and losing has created an entire generation of entitled, apathetic, surefire losers. We haven't even stopped to consider the fact that losing might not hurt anyone. What if, by shielding people in this way, we're stealing the transformational power of both winning and losing in their lives?
The irony is that if you believe nothing matters in life, you will live a life that doesn't matter.
We have never been more confused as a culture about winning and losing—what it really takes and why it matters. And yet I meet people every day who are hungry for more and desperate for something deeper, something better than the mediocre life they are living. The path to victory is precisely the thing that will open the door to the purpose they most crave.
Maybe to you it seems arrogant or selfish to think of yourself on a podium. You were trained to hold the door open for others, to be kind, thoughtful, sacrificial, and helpful. You were taught that the last would be first. Nothing is wrong with any of that. And as an Olympic athlete, I can say with confidence that the best way to help people—maybe even the only way to help anyone—is to start chipping away at the part of you that worries you don't have much to offer. Become someone who is worthy of winning, and you'll have a wider, greater impact than you ever dreamed possible.