“How did it go?” and “Did you medal?” are the two most common questions I am encountering lately.
As an athlete, it is far more exciting to brag about moments of success, and it’s easier for fans and spectators to rally behind you in those times of victory. So what happens when you have a tough race, and well-intentioned people ask, “How’d it go?”
... And either nothing at all or nothing positive or concise comes to your mind?
Because you don’t want to dissuade their interest or come across like a jerk, at first you muster up something neutral, like, “Team USA had some strong performances” or “I tried my best.” Or you try to dodge the actual question entirely and say, “The Games were fantastic, and it really brought the Paralympic movement to the next level!” Even though people are spot-on when they point out that placing 5th, 6th and 7th in the world in my respective events was impressive, as an athlete, I still felt a bag of mixed emotions, including some disappointment, because I know what I am capable of.
The reality is, in these moments I just want to put on an invisibility cloak and not even have to encounter this awkward and embarrassing conversation. This year has been exceptionally challenging, with a litany of things beyond my control, but to me that sounds like a list of excuses.
Drawing from other greats who have come before me, and from mentors, I know that hidden within these moments of defeat there are lessons and positive takeaways. Sometimes the quest to find them is daunting, and sometimes you have to reframe what you’re looking for in order to move on. But, at the end of the day, as hard as it may be, it is important to find at least one positive and embrace it. It’s a journey in and of itself to get to that point, though.
I do appreciate when people ask how things went, because it means I have piqued their interest in the Paralympic Games, and in my journey as well. But the answers to these questions are complicated. In the spirit of who I am and my motto – “Dream. Drive. Do.” – I have now, thankfully, found my answers, my silver lining to the emotional clouds.
So here is the reality: I tried my best, but my best this particular week just wasn’t good enough to end up on the podium.
Any athlete will be able to relate to the fact that there are different kinds of losses. One of my teammates, Joshua George, eloquently described the process leading up to races and his own lesson learned from loss at this Games. You can.
I could see pieces of my own experience in what he wrote, and the rest of what I’m blogging here is an attempt to capture how you go from that moment of desperation to the point of learning the lesson(s).
With each kind of loss, you go through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
There are the losses when you cross the finish line and you immediately know where things fell apart or went wrong. In this situation, I tend to jump right into the anger phase of dealing with it; because of an obvious error, there’s no need to go through denial in this situation. Then I make a concerted effort to correct the error and improve for next time.
There are the types of losses where it just simply isn’t your day. Perhaps on that day I felt a little bit off, but gave it my best effort. I’m able to let it go quickly and move on to the next day.
The hardest type of loss is the one when you gave it your all, it was a good effort with no glaring mistakes, but it just wasn’t up to your full potential. In this situation, you’re left asking a million questions, beating yourself up, trying to make sense of it all, but you come to the grave conclusion that there are no answers.
What could I have done differently? Nothing.
What went wrong? Who knows.
Why didn’t things come together? Not sure.
The floodgate of questions just opens up and suddenly all of your energy is spent analyzing and searching for answers. It’s tough to snap out of this phase, but at the Games, often you have another race coming up and you have no choice. As I wrote to a friend during this time, it’s hard even when I know that I can’t change the past and that I have to let it go in order to move on. That’s so much easier said than done. He responded with the truth: it takes time. I’ve never been a patient person, though!
It’s equally important to allow yourself to allow the emotions to come in full force, if they have to. And boy, did they! There were moments when I least expected it when a few words were said to me or to someone around me, and my face would flush. I’d know what was coming next, unsure whether I would be able to hide it from others around me. I was grateful for my sunglasses, because they were like my cloak of protection to hide my face in my moment of weakness. My cheekbones would raise ever so slightly as my tear ducts welled up. There would be a little voice screaming in my head to disconnect and disassociate from what was happening, to try and stop the flow. My eyes would dart around to avoid eye contact because I hate to cry in front of people, especially people I know. Picturing an eye dropper, I’d wonder just how many drops that tear bubble at the base of my eyelid could handle before the surface tension gave way and it became a stream. I gave in and swallowed; this was the tipping point when the tears began to trickle down my face, leaving a hint of a salty aftertaste.
Emotions are a healthy part of processing loss. I was fortunate to be surrounded by so many friends, family members, my coach, my teammates and our sport psychologist, who all love me for me. They always seemed to have positive messages of love and support. Most of the time all I could manage to say was, “I know, thank you,” or just accept a bear hug and let the tears come.
For the email messages of love and support, I haven’t found the energy to respond to them all yet, but know that your messages were received and touched my heart and helped me during this process, thank you.
While daily activities were daunting for a while, I asked for strength from the universe to pick up the pieces and move on. In this situation, I believe your pit of despair is only what you make of it.
As an athlete I had no choice but to find courage to be able to perform in my last race. The starting gun goes off whether you are there or not, and I wanted to be there. I left it all out on the track the night of my 400m. It was not my best, but it was my best effort for that night.
Yes, there were a few more tears. But I also found solace in the fact that not only did I proudly represented my country on the world stage, but I played a small role in helping guide and mentor two of my competitors from Ghana and Bermuda to be there on the start line. It brought me tremendous joy to hear their names and countries announced in front of 80,000 people in the stadium. Sport is unifying. It brings together people with all different backgrounds, abilities, races and beliefs. Hearing their names and seeing them alongside my other top competitors in the world and me made the experience all worthwhile.
In these moments, instead of my eyes welling up with tears, my chest welled up with pride that these individuals were there living their dreams. That is what the Games is all about. I found my silver lining. To see these individuals and so many others living out their dreams showed me that I am a part of something bigger than just my own races. I am truly a part of this thing called the Paralympic Movement that is taking the world by storm.
Thank you, once again, to each of you for your tremendous support. I am so very grateful to have you all in my life. This is certainly not the last you will hear from me! I plan to continue to share my message with the world, and I look forward to the next adventures, whatever they may be.
In the meantime -- time to go on vacation!