Although I haven’t been able to watch as much as I would like, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed seeing some of the Winter Olympic Games this time around. I enjoy watching the competition but I also like learning about how some of these incredible athletes got to the top of their sport and the level of commitment that they bring to their endeavor.
What I’m constantly impressed by is the amount of personal sacrifice they make, often beginning at an early age, in order to capture something that’s bigger. There’s no question that some of them are pushed to some degree, especially when they show real promise at a particular sport. But at some juncture in their life, they make a choice and decide to put everything they have into their chance to accomplish something incredible.
I was struck by one particular story that I watched during these games about Apolo Ohno, the American speed skater who has now become the most decorated Winter Olympic athlete of all time. The story was about how after the 2006 Olympics, Ohno began living the life of fame and notoriety that often draws people away from the efforts that got them there in the first place. The story was about how Ohno was invited to all of the A-list parties and hottest events, and the velvet ropes were quickly dropped for him at even the most exclusive Hollywood clubs. He had essentially arrived. He was recruited for, and won, Dancing With the Stars and made numerous television appearances that continued to add to his fame and stature among the elite. And then he pushed it all away and decided to compete again.
Ohno recommitted himself to the sport he loved and moved from the red carpet to the training room. He dropped 20 pounds of weight and endured three work outs a day combined with a strict nutritional program that left him able to lift weights twice as heavy as when he began his training program. It’s so easy for us to look at people like Ohno and say that they are different, special somehow, and that things come easier for them because they are gifted in some way. Ohno is the first to admit in interviews that the first workout of the day is difficult to begin and that finishing the third is even more so. Look closer at any of the athletes and you will see that they are just people. But they are people who made a choice to be more.
In an interview with the Seattle Times Ohno said, "When I'm done skating, I guarantee you that I will not look back and remember standing on the podium. "I'm going to remember these days — being with the team. Training alone, in my basement. Training when everybody else is sleeping. Doing things that nobody else is doing. Digging down. Seeing what kind of character I truly have.”
Ohno made the choice to lead. First he made the choice to lead himself to something that was worth working for, something that would make a difference in his life. He was able to choose the long term accomplishment over the short term fun and immediate gratification. That’s hard to do even when you’re not on the Hollywood A-List.
By making the choice to lead himself, he also made a choice, although he admits it was a less conscious one, to lead others. Much of the research shows that our decisions as individuals are highly influenced by the decisions we see others make. Apolo Ohno chose to influence those decisions in some of the best ways possible. An excerpt from the same interview illustrates the point.
Ohno gets mail almost daily from fans who tell him he has, in some way, changed their lives. It is humbling, and also, in some ways, embarrassing. He thinks to himself: "All I've really ever done is skate."
Even though he may not understand it yet, Ohno did more than just skate, he taught people how to make choices. He decided to lead himself. By doing that, he became someone who leads others.
Each of us faces those choices on a daily basis. We can decide to lead ourselves, and others, toward something bigger, or we can choose to go through our day focused on whatever we want most at the moment. It’s never easy, but if we can create real commitment to something that is worth working for we can get up more quickly when we fall. And we will fall, everyone does.
On January 29th, Ohno posted on his Twitter account “Tired but still pushing on. Many distractions right now – yet I’m staying on track.” Sounds exactly like leadership to me. Yeah, I learn a lot from watching the Olympics.