> Spirituality > Personal Growth

Olympics of the Soul

February 16, 2014 | by Debbie Gutfreund

The gold medalist freestyle skier and his brother who has cerebral palsy are both champions.

Last Monday in Sochi, the Canadian skier Alex Bilodeau pulled his disabled brother over the security barrier so that they could celebrate his Olympic victory together. The gold medalist freestyle skier has spoken often about his brother Frederic who has cerebral palsy. Frederic was told that he wouldn't be able to walk beyond the age of 12, but today, in his early twenties, he is still walking.

"Just like you or I, he has dreams," Alex said about his brother. "It's crazy the motivation he has and every step is very hard for him. In life, I have an easy path, and I need to go out there and do the best I can just out of respect to him. He's my every day inspiration."

When Alex slid to a stop at the bottom of the mountain last Monday night, he ran over to his brother and pulled him over the barrier so that they could celebrate his medal together.

Alex has invested hours upon hours training for this gold medal. He has slept, eaten and breathed skiing for years. Getting to that moment required a lot more than speed and talent; it required falling and freezing and reworking routines. It required patience and practice and more patience.

Frederic embodies a similar fierce determination. Every step he takes requires all of his focus. He has spent years learning how to get up and keep walking every time he falls. He has spent hours struggling with words that come so easily to most of us, and he has held onto dreams that keep eluding his grasp, with a smile on his face.

Our sages tell us that the true measure of a person is how hard we try. “The reward is according to the effort” (Ethics of Our Fathers, 5:23).

Looking at the photo of Alex and Frederic, I see two Olympic champions who have persevered.

We are each born with our own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. We can’t control all the obstacles that are thrown into our paths, but we can choose to grow from the challenges that we face. We can choose to grapple with reality or we can choose to give up. That is the gift of our free will. It is a choice that we make every moment of the day. To grow or to quit. To connect or to disconnect. To get up or to sleep. To live or to die. This is the challenge that every one of us faces.

Looking at the photo of Alex and Frederic, I see two Olympic champions who have persevered.

My Olympic Training

The photo also brought back a distant memory of skiing in Vermont. "Guys today we're going to try something different," Ryan, our ski school teacher, announced. "I'm breaking you into groups of three, and we're going to work on some teamwork." He chose leaders and gave each of us a baton to pass from one skier to another during the exercises. At first, I was happy to be chosen as one of the leaders, but then he read aloud the names of my two teammates. Darren and Lily Johnson* were sweet, red-headed twins. They were also the clumsiest, slowest skiers in the group. How was I supposed to spend the morning racing with them?

That morning was endless. First Lily dropped one of her poles and asked me to climb up and get it for her because she was too tired. Then Darren fell on the mogul stretch, and we spent a half hour trying to find one of his skis that had shot into the forest. Instead of racing, we spent the morning almost crawling down the mountain.

When we finally stopped for lunch, I clicked off my skis and went to find Ryan.

"So, how'd you do?" he asked me.

"Why did you do that to me?" I demanded.

"You know skiing isn't just about effortless speed. It's about staying the course when you're freezing cold, and someone else loses their ski. If you really want to excel at anything you need to learn how to slow down and do things that are hard for you."

"That's ridiculous. I'm the only one who got stuck with two incompetent skiers all morning. Why me?"

"Because you needed it the most. One day you're going to understand and know why."

I was furious. What was he talking about? But after a few years I found my answer. A friend of mine invited me to join her on Midnight Run, a group of students who packed up meals and distributed them to the homeless in Manhattan. And the more I gave, the more I learned. I learned how a real champion is someone who can climb outside herself and give. And slowly, I began to change. I tutored needy children. I visited patients in nursing homes and hospitals. I sat down and listened to the homeless people as they ate, and I marveled at the sheer enormity of effort it took most of them to get through the day. I tried to keep these lessons of giving in my heart, and be aware of choices before me throughout the day, to speed past opportunity or to slow down and transform the moment into an infinite gift.

Although I spent many days racing down that mountain, I can't remember any of them the way I can recall that morning I spent with Lily and Darren. How hard it was for me to make slow turns and climb back up the moguls when all I wanted to do was fly down the slope. How extraordinary the persistence of the twins was as they skied. How they kept getting up no matter how many times they fell. How they kept smiling through it all. They gave me a lasting gift that day.

They taught me that there are some Olympics that happen on the sidelines every day without anyone noticing. We begin and fall and begin again. We go back up the mountain to pick up a friend’s pole. We slow down and help someone else stand up. We constantly choose between moving forward or slipping backward. Pushing ourselves to take that next step, say that next word, and reach for that next dream.

Whether you're like Alex who pushes himself to win the freestyle mogul competition at Sochi, or like Frederic who pushes himself to choose life every day, you're a gold medal champion.

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram