Hop. Hop. Hop.
The single leg pumped hard as Liu Xiang made his way around the track. The crowd cheered, not a medal, but an effort.
Hop. Hop. Hop.
Everyone had seen the fall. The pain. A dream dashed for the second time in four years, again on the first hurdle. Winning was no longer the goal. Simply finishing was.
Hop. Hop. Hop.
When he finished, a competitor raised Liu’s arm into the air. Two others helped him into a wheelchair. He had nothing to say. There were no words to give.
There often aren’t, on the dark side of the Olympic dream.
We celebrate the Olympics as a time of triumph and inspiration. Rightfully so. These are the best in the world, fantastically dedicated men and women who have given years of their lives for a chance at glory on the world’s biggest stage. Even those who miss a medal can still walk off with their head held high at their achievement.
But sometimes, you get a big break – and it gets broken.
Liu at least had climbed the mountain before. In 2004, he’d not only been the gold medal hurdler, he’d been the fastest ever. At only 21, a big future was ahead.
Now, at 29, people are asking if it’s behind. Two Olympics. Two torn Achilles tendons.
Disaster in the Olympics is so public. As I watched the hopping hurdler, my own mind went to Dan Jansen. A world-class speed skater, he learned of his sister’s death from leukemia just hours before his start in the ’88 Calgary Games. Shaken (and who wouldn’t be?), he fell twice in two races.
A broken heart. A broken dream.
Jansen was lucky. He got a second act, got to reach triumph at last in Lillehammer in ’94. But not everyone does.
When the London Games started and teenagers claimed some of the early medals, I heard the same question from a lot of friends: “What do you do next? Where do you go when you’ve already reached the top so young?”
A legitimate question. But there’s a parallel one. Where do you go when the dream may be over? Maybe sooner than you thought?
Where can you go?
Most of us have never been on that scale. But we’ve been in that place. Hopes dashed. Plans destroyed. Opportunities shattered.
It’s a dark place. A hard one to leave.
Where can you go? Nowhere but on. That’s true of the brightest success and the most painful collapse. Time doesn’t stop like the end of a film. The story goes on and we have to go on with it as best we can.
If that means hopping, hop like hell.
And when you’ve met the moment with all the pride and stubbornness inside you, be ready. Other moments are waiting. They may be second chances. They may be different chances, ones you could never anticipate.
But they won’t just happen. They need to be claimed.
Eight years ago, in a Kansas column, I wrote about a high school classmate who knew that well. As a girl, she wanted to be Mary Lou Retton. As a teenager, a knee injury ended her gymnastics dreams early. And as a young woman, she channeled her will and ability into diving, going on despite four shoulder surgeries.
Now, Kimiko Soldati is a proud mom. A proud collegiate diving coach. And, oh yes, a proud national champion and Olympian, who qualified for the 2004 Games in Athens.
“I used the obstacles as stepping stones and fuel to my fire,” she told writer Darrell Hamlett then.
She grabbed the chance. Whatever it might be.
I hope Liu can do the same. And all the others like him.
After all, sometimes it’s only a short distance from “hop” to “hope.”