Life Lessons from Sochi

davis white

I love the Olympics. I’ve loved them since I was an 8-year-old girl fawning over the Magnificent Seven in Atlanta. And while the Summer Olympics still captivate me every four years, I obsess over few things like I obsess over the Winter Olympics. I can remember the exact moment I lost my heart to the Winter Games: It was 2002, and I was watching Jamie Salé and David Pelletier skate their “Love Story” pairs free skate. They made 13-year-old me cry, and, as most of you know, if you can make me cry, I will feel an emotional attachment to you forever. Figure skating (every kind of it) makes me cry. Hockey makes me cry. A particularly great bobsled run makes me cry. Maybe I’m just more emotional during the winter months, but few things on Earth get the waterworks going for me like the Winter Olympics.

The Olympics are special because they showcase what sports can be—unifying, compelling, surprising, and about so much more than who puts the puck in the net or lands their triple Axel. The Olympics are about people—real people with real stories, real sacrifices, and real lessons to teach all of us watching about the ways to handle both incredible success and unfathomable failure.

Today I want to take a moment to look back on the 2014 Winter Games in a way that celebrates what I’ve always believed about the Olympics: They’re about the stories. We may not always remember who won gold, but we remember who made us feel and who taught us something more than just the rules of curling or the correct way to execute an ice dance twizzle.

Without future ado, here are seven valuable life lessons put into practice by the athletes of these Winter Games.

1. There’s no place like home.

Medal Ceremony - Winter Olympics Day 6

Maxim Trankov and Tatiana Volosozhar were two of Russia’s biggest stars at these Olympics.

As an American girl whose favorite sports movie is Miracle, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I wanted our U.S. teams to beat their Russian counterparts whenever we had the chance. However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t moved to tears more than once by a Russian winning a gold medal in Sochi. There’s an undeniable bond between a person and the place they call home. That bond was on display when pairs skaters Maxim Trankov and Tatiana Volosozhar reacted with an overflowing of emotions in the face of the crowd’s jubilant response to their gold-medal-winning performance. And it was there when Adelina Sotnikova became the first Russian to win gold in women’s figure skating, finding strength and overwhelming joy in the cheers of her fellow Russians. Those moments reminded me that we all carry the places we’ve called home with us, even if most of us will never play for our country in the Olympics.

2. A little kindness goes a long way.

This may be the most popular photograph to come out of these Olympics.

This may be the most popular photograph to come out of these Olympics.

Years from now, will I remember Gus Kenworthy for his silver-medal performance in men’s slopestyle skiing? Maybe not. But I will remember Kenworthy as the skier who saw the plight of stray dogs in Sochi and did something to help those animals. By taking home a group of stray puppies (and their mother) and finding good homes for them back in the U.S., Kenworthy became a star of the Sochi Games for far more than just his performance on the slopestyle course. Kenworthy’s act of kindness made him a household name, proving that sometimes success is measured more by the things you do to help the people (and animals) around you than by professional achievements.

3. True success is getting back up after you fall down.

Mao Asada proved that real courage is shown by fighting back after everyone counts you out.

Mao Asada proved that real courage is shown by fighting back after everyone counts you out.

Jeremy Abbott and Mao Asada didn’t earn figure skating medals in Sochi, but they turned in two of the most impressive performances I saw at these Olympics. After taking a painful tumble in the short program, Abbott used the crowd’s encouragement and to finish his skate with confidence and cleanly execute his free skate the following night. And Asada saw her medal dreams collapse with a disastrous short program that landed her in 16th place, but her stunning free skate brought her all the way to sixth place in the final results. These two figure skaters proved that the bravest thing a person can do is get back on the horse (or, in this case, ice) after a fall. There’s special strength to be found in rising from the ashes of failure, and I was so inspired by their embodiment of true determination and poise in situations that would have caused many to just give up.

4. Good partnerships are ones where you can draw strength from each other in times of both success and disappointment.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are one of ice dancing's great partnerships.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are one of ice dancing’s great partnerships.

Another lesson I took away from the world of figure skating in Sochi was the importance of finding a partner who loves you and is there for you unconditionally. You could see the strength of Trankov and Volosozhar’s partnership in the way she trusted him to execute the incredible throws and lifts in the programs that won them two gold medals. American gold-medalist ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White used the confidence and strength they feel in their 17-year partnership to execute the performances of their lives. And Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir may have fallen short of their repeat-gold dreams, but they both have said they were happy with their performances because they skated for each other. In fact, before skating their silver-medal-winning free dance, Moir told Virtue that no matter what happened on the ice, they were in it together and he loved her. The kind of trust, stability, and support shown by these pairs is what makes a great partnership not just on the ice but in so many other kinds of relationships, too.

5. Sometimes the difference between glory and heartbreak is a matter of centimeters and seconds.

The U.S. women's hockey team were a part of one of the most memorable games of the Olympics.

The U.S. women’s hockey team were a part of one of the most memorable games of the Olympics.

Was there any defeat more heartbreaking in Sochi than the U.S. women’s hockey team losing their two-goal lead to Canada in the game’s final moments before succumbing to their rivals in overtime? What made the loss sting even more was the fact that the U.S. could have won if Kelli Stack’s shot had made it into the empty Canadian net instead of hitting the goal post. The margin of error is so thin when the best in the world face each other, but focusing too long on missed opportunities will only drive you crazy in the end. Ultimately, that devastating loss proved that nothing is a certainty—even the most likely of outcomes. Nothing is over until the final whistle blows, and that thought can be depressing—but it can also be encouraging.

6. Appreciate all of life’s little victories can because nothing is guaranteed.

This moment made T.J. Oshie an American household name.

This moment made T.J. Oshie an American household name.

American hockey continued to prove that nothing is a certainty when the U.S. men’s team went from high-scoring favorites to fourth-place finishers over the course of only two games. It looked like the U.S. was going to take home a medal (and maybe even a gold one) after dominating play throughout most of the early games, but success is never guaranteed. In the end, my lasting memory of men’s hockey in Sochi will be the incredible shootout between the U.S. and Russia that made T.J. Oshie a household name. It may not have led to a medal, but it was a moment where the country came together to celebrate a victory. The outcome of the Olympics may have been disappointing, but there was nothing disappointing about that shootout. It may have been a small victory in the grand scheme of things, but small victories are still victories. And in a world where nothing is certain, any victory is an important one.

7. No one achieves anything alone.

Noelle Pikus-Pace reminded us that behind every athlete is a support system.

Noelle Pikus-Pace reminded us that behind every athlete is a support system.

When I think of the Olympics, I often think of hugs. I think of medalists hugging their parents, hockey players hugging their goalies, figure skaters hugging their coaches, and ice dancers hugging their partners. The road to the Olympics isn’t one most people can walk by themselves. Olympians need support systems, and the people who make up those support systems feel every win and loss right along with the athletes. One of my favorite moments from Sochi was when U.S. skeleton silver medalist Noelle Pikus-Pace climbed into the stands to hug her children and  husband, gleefully telling him, “We did it!” Everyone is part of a team, even if your teammates don’t stand on the podium with you. Success is often a group effort, and it’s important to acknowledge the people you share your achievements with.

6 thoughts on “Life Lessons from Sochi

  1. Great recap Katie! I enjoyed all of these moments. I have a few things to add that I know I will remember about these games:

    Russian culture. I actually love all those cultural pieces they feature during the prime time broadcasts. I loved the one on ballet’s influence on ice skating, as well as the one on Siberia and the artists that create Matryoshka. My grandmother’s side of the family all has Russian roots (that is before we were exiled to Siberia…), so it was great learning a little bit more about the Country in general.

    This one goes along with your “kindness” point, but the stories that stick with me are always the ones when athletes and coaches from other Countries help each other out. My number one olympic memory is from the 1998 games in Nagano when Philip Boit was representing Kenya and the winner of the competition, Bjorn Daehlie refused to go to the medal ceremony until Boit finished so he could be there to congratulate him. I just remember my 14 year old self crying my eyes out wishing everyone in the world was that generous, and 16 years later I still remember watching it like it was yesterday. During these games, there was the Canadian coach that helped out the Russian skier with the broken ski so he could finish his race in his home country with his head held high. And I will always remember the excitement of all of the snowboarders in the snowboarding slopestyle competition. They all just seemed so excited to be there and happy for each other’s achievements. Nothing will sour my opinion of you faster than if you are a sore loser, but I will love you forever if you show class and respect in both your victories and your defeat.

    • I can’t believe I forgot to mention the Canadian coach helping the Russian skier—that was one of my favorite moments of these games, too. Thanks for bringing it up! It was the quintessential embodiment of the “Olympic spirit.” And I also completely agree about the slopestyle competition. All of the competitors seemed like such nice people who were genuinely happy for those who won. It was a really nice display of sportsmanship, and those images of all the competitors group-hugging will be some of my lasting memories from these Olympics.

  2. I love this so much. I just read and nodded and got teary eyed along the way. Of course my favorite is the Abbott/Asada lessons because they are both life affirming and the very essence of pride and tenacity in its best form. The only thing I would add to the the women’s hockey story is this – you are correct, nothing is certain, not on the ice, not in a game. It’s why you play to win. You play to win from the drop of the puck until the sound of the buzzer. In life too, life is meant for offense not defense. When you play to keep what you have, you lose sight of what you can possibly attain.

    I think there is a beauty in the Olympics that comes from its very best moments and they are not always victories – as we saw throughout the Sochi games. We all have memories of how the Olympics can touch ordinary lives. I am the child who doesn’t remember the many tensions surrounding the 1980 Lake Placid games. Only after I was older did I understand the depths of doubt and difficulty that the our country was situated within between the gas crisis and the hostage situation. I remember the energy, hope and sheer elation of Herb’s group of ordinary boys who went to Lake Placid and did extraordinary things. That for me optimizes the Olympics that for a clandestine moment anyone can achieve the extraordinary. It is the very fabric of hope and it is why amid marketing, capitalism and overkill I will always love the Olympics.

    • Your addendum to my thoughts on the women’s hockey story is PERFECT. Don’t ever play to simply not lose; play to win. “Life is meant for offense not defense.” – This is beautifully put.

      I love the way you feel about the Lake Placid hockey team because I can feel how much it means to you every time you talk about it. I think that sense of “seizing the moment” is why I connected with the Salt Lake games of 2002 so strongly. Sarah Hughes’s rise from fourth to gold taught me that anything is possible if you perform at your best at the right moment, and Sale and Pelletier taught me that those who are remembered are the ones who use the moment they’re given to make people feel something. Those are life lessons I’ve carried with me since those Olympics, and every two years I’m reminded of all the ways the Olympics can reinforce life’s best and most important lessons.

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