Down to Human

A halfpipe skier had fallen on the Olympic course. And Missy made sure we knew all about it.

“No!” she shouted at the TV screen as the action shifted to other skiers competing and celebrating.

“Right here!” she informed me and Heather firmly, rubbing her shoulder hard to be absolutely clear about where the impact happened.

“Missy, we get it. But she’s OK now, she got up …”


Injuries and stress make a big impression on Missy, the developmentally disabled relative that we’ve been caring for since (has it really been?) 2011. When people cry, she gets upset. When people fall, she remembers. Heck, when fictional characters get hurt, she takes it seriously – a mention of Frodo Baggins getting his finger bitten by Gollum had Missy pointing at and checking out my ring finger for weeks afterward.

It’s a reaction without filters. Raw and undeniable.

And there’s a lot of opportunity for that when Olympic season comes.

Most of us don’t think of that much, outside the moment. After all, the Olympics celebrate the best, right? These are the ones who move faster, go farther and reach higher. It’s about triumph and success, passion and achievement.

Until, abruptly, it isn’t.

We’ve seen it for years. No, for decades, in summer and winter alike. The speed skater with too much on his heart who tumbles to the ice. The ski racer who sprains both knees at a crucial moment. The young athletes – some still young teens – who find themselves at a storm center and no longer have what brought them there.

Even leaving injuries and accidents aside, there are only so many medals. Someone has to fall short. Sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot, always with the world watching.

And in those moments, something reaches out to us. Maybe in a way that no other Olympic moment can.

I’m no Olympian. You probably aren’t either. Most of us, however skilled and accomplished we may be, don’t have the sort of talent that tears up ice rinks and grassy fields on a global scale. It’s been joked online that every Olympic event should have an ordinary person competing as well, to bring home just how good these teens and men and women really are.

But in the moments where everything falls short, where the awesome becomes merely human … we know that one. We’ve been there. We can feel it.

Missy’s right. It hurts.

And when our hearts break with it, we reaffirm our humanity.

Most of the time, in most of our lives, it’s easy to not see the pain. To assume that normal is … well, normal. We’re doing OK, so things must not be too bad, right?

When we see the vulnerable, the hurting, the chronically ill, it’s often uncomfortable. It’s a reminder of how quickly life can change without our permission. How easily we could be there.

And if we let that open us up instead of close us off, it means something better for all of us.

I’m not saying each of us has to jump to every alarm and bandage every wound. That way lies exhaustion. But we can’t shut it out either. When we make our decisions – as individuals or as a society – with an eye to those who need us and a determination to share the pain of others, something happens.

We start seeing people. Not strangers. Not others.

And in reaching for them, we reach to ourselves as well.

Don’t turn away from the falls. Let your heart be broken. See the hurt and respond to it.

That’s the real medal moment.

Showing Our Metal

Today’s not-so-random Rochat thought: I think bronze medalists may have the best of all possible worlds.

Yes, I know we’re nowhere near an Olympics. Stay with me, OK?

Consider. You’re recognized as one of the best in the world. You get your place on the stage. You’re less likely to worry about having just missed the top spot, like a silver medalist might, nor does your life get turned completely upside down the way a gold medalist’s does. (You also don’t get the same endorsement deals, but we’ll go there another day.) It’s accomplishment mixed with celebrity mixed with a certain amount of anonymity.

No, it’s not a bad deal at all.

And this year, maybe it’s just a little appropriate.

On Tuesday, Heather and I celebrate 19 years of marriage. The People With Names For Everything like to call this the bronze anniversary, which amuses me a bit. I mean, these are the same people who decreed that 10-year anniversaries are tin and that 17-year anniversaries get celebrated with furniture, which makes me wonder if the PWNFE needed their basements cleaned out and saw an opportunity.

But even for this crew, bronze is a curious choice.

Is this the anniversary to bask on a Florida beach and turn inviting shades of brown? (Or in my case, not-so-inviting shades of brilliant scarlet.)

Is this the time to join the late, great, Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze, on some hair-raising pulp adventure?

Is it an occasion to join an Ancient Greek re-creationist unit and load ourselves down with well-burnished swords, spears and breastplates?

OK, I know, the boring and mundane answer is that it’s an excuse to contribute to the American economy by purchasing a category of gift with a high material density that will live in the basement or garage forever … except when it mysteriously emerges at night to bruise a careless toe. I get it. (And the accompanying Band-Aids.)

But in all serious – maybe the PWNFE got it right this time.

Maybe, for a long-lived marriage, bronze is exactly the right choice.

I’m going to precede this by warning that I Am Not A Metallurgist, nor do I play one on TV. But I’m just enough of an amateur historian to know that bronze gets kind of an unfair rap when it’s compared to the iron weapons and armor that replaced it.

There’s a myth that iron replaced bronze because it was a clearly superior metal. Not really. While iron has its uses (especially in later eras that would make true steel), ancient bronze was a strong, useful material.

What it wasn’t was a highly available material. The alloy required materials that could be difficult or expensive to get, particularly tin, while iron was widely available. So iron was often cheaper, and soon was ubiquitous.

So. You have something surprisingly strong and beautiful, with a mix of components that aren’t easy to acquire – something that everyone wanted, but that was hard to possess.

If that’s not the definition of a good marriage, than what is?

After 19 years, I think we’ve had one of the great ones. Granted, we haven’t had tried wallpapering a room together yet (the ultimate test) but surviving chronic illness, newspaper schedules, and eight-hour drives with an anxious dog may be a decent substitute. Through it all, we still make a heck of a loving team, one that’s grown even stronger and more exciting since we started taking care of Missy six years ago.

So bring it on. The Games are underway and we’re ready to take the field again.

It’s time to go for the bronze.

Getting a Grip

Don’t look now, but the Olympics have been scandalized.

Forget green water in the swimming pool. Never mind the athletes robbed at gunpoint. Doping worries can wait until another day. We have bigger fish to fry. We have – gasp! – two athletes who held hands in a race.

I’ll pause while you recover from the shock.

For those who missed it, a pair of twin sisters from Germany finished the Olympic marathon side-by-side – literally. Finding themselves far out of contention for a medal and near each other as the race wound to a close, the two joined hands and crossed the finish line together.

To some, this might be heartwarming. To Germany, it was controversial, if not outrageous.

“It looked as though they completed a ‘fun run’ and not (an) Olympic (race),” German Athletics Federation director Thomas Kurschilgen told the press, accusing Anna and Lisa Hahner of hijacking the moment for their own glory. The two finished 15 minutes behind their best pace and 21 minutes behind the leader.

Because you know, if you want glory and universal acclaim, finishing in 81st and 82nd place is the way to do it.

I can understand some of the reservations. People train hard to get to the Olympics. It’s a huge investment in time, money, and personal strain. When you reach the Games, you’re in an international spotlight, committed to pushing for the best that you can be.

And yet, the Games have always been about more than the score.

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part,” the Olympic creed begins. And while there have been breathtaking performances in the Games, the gestures that burn in the memory are often ones that never go in the record book.

They may be inspiring moments like runners Abby D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin helping each other up after a collision and fall. Or shocking ones, like the Egyptian judoka who refused to shake hands with an Israeli competitor. They may bring attention to a cause, a personal struggle or triumph, or simply to their own shortcomings.

That too, at its greatest and its worst, is part of the Olympics.

How you take part matters.

Granted, that’s Kurschilgen’s point, too. And if he wanted to push them for not pushing harder, that has been every coach’s and athletic director’s prerogative since time began.

But let’s take a breath. The two didn’t try to sabotage their competition or chemically enhance their own bloodstream. They didn’t spout racial epithets or enter the final mile carrying a McDonald’s banner. They didn’t pull something stupid that would endanger other runners or themselves, or throw away a winning position.

Instead, whether by coincidence (as they insist) or design (as Kurschilgen maintains), they finished the race in a gesture of sisterhood and friendship.

And really, isn’t that what the Olympic Games are supposed to be about?

With some high-profile exceptions, our memories of Olympic athletes tend to fade when it’s all over. We remember the abbreviated ski jump of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, for instance, without knowing a thing about what happened to him later. The odds are good that four years from now, or eight, or 16, most people won’t remember the names of the Hahner sisters – they’ll just remember, maybe, “those sisters that held hands across the finish line.”

That’s pretty weak for a (possible) self-promotion.

But for an Olympic memory, it’s not a bad one to have at all.

Faster, Higher, Weirder

At long last, it’s time for that display of peace, unity and brotherhood that arises every four years – namely, coming together to hunt down the creators of those presidential phone surveys and dropping them off a cliff.

No, I mean the Olympic Games, of course, brought to us this year by Rio de Janeiro and about a zillion mosquitoes. Athletes have been taking steps to protect themselves from the Zika virus ranging from long sleeves to tent-enclosed beds, though no one went further than Russia, who thoughtfully arranged to get their weightlifters disqualified in advance to ensure their maximum protection.

But despite all the controversy – and really, what’s a Games without controversy? – it’s still the Olympics. That glorious time when we sit on the couch with specially branded cans of Coke, cheer on the Parade of Nations, and then decipher the television schedule to find the five sports we’ve actually heard of.

Granted, the Summer Games are easier to follow than the Winter Games, which for most Americans could best be described as “Skating, gymnastics, hockey, and everything else. Oh … and skiing, right?” We know basketball and soccer. We recognize the track events from long-ago gym classes. In fact, most of the events are pretty straightforward, even if they’re things that, at any other time, the typical U.S sports fan would only happen on by accident while hunting for “Family Feud.”

And of course, there’s always the fun of discovering what’s been added. Every four years, the organizers experiment with something new, whether it’s tae kwon do, beach volleyball, or (this time) rugby.  This time out, though, I can’t help feeling the Brazilians missed a chance to garner some good press by making the Olympics relevant to today’s generation. Imagine the viewership and camaraderie if the organizers had also thought to include:

The Pokémon GO Obstacle Course – Cheer on the players of the world’s most popular virtual game as they attempt to walk across four lanes of traffic, through thick woods, and past strategically placed manholes for the gold medal. Gotta catch ‘em all!

The PotterChase: Held inside a bookstore, this track event requires passionate fantasy fans to climb over every obstacle in their path, including each other, to claim the last copy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Bonus points for costumes, of course.

Wrestling with the Facts: Get ready to merge grappling with the fact-check generation, as the wrestlers come armed with speeches from today’s headline politicians. Victory requires pinning your opponent for a three-count and logically refuting at least two of their arguments. (This may be the only Olympic event that gets better with the sound off.)

The $5 Billion Dash: Runners race at top speed while being pursued by an Olympic torch bearer. The loser has to start saving up to put on the next Games.

These could add relevance. These could add ratings. These could add to the joy of discovery that we so often feel when watching the event of the moment, cheering on the best of the best and enjoying a bright moment of hope in the midst of the world’s usual drama.

Or as much of it, anyway, as we can see through the mosquito netting.

Faster, Higher, Sillier

Stop the presses. The International Olympic Committee may have learned what the words “common sense” mean.

Well, to a degree, anyway. This is the IOC we’re talking about.

For those who missed it, master gold-grabber Michael Phelps nearly had his medals stripped from him this week by the Olympic powers-that-be. Painful for any athlete, this would have been horrific for the all-time record holder, the most decorated Olympian in history.

So what did he do? Was he caught sneaking a joint? Did he fix a race, dope his blood, make a lewd proposition to Prince William’s wife?

No, no, no and no.

Instead Mr. Phelps, to the horror of red-blooded Olympic bureaucrats everywhere, appeared in an ad that … that … (gasp) did not involve an official sponsor of the 2012 London Games.

I’ll give you a moment to recover from the fainting spell.

That’s right. In photos leaked before the end of the Games, Phelps was seen advertising for fashion house Louis Vitton. In an act of magnanimity, Olympic officials decided that Phelps had no control over when those pictures would be released, and thus would not have to give his medals back under IOC Rule 40.

How generous. How kind.

And how come his medals were at stake at all?

Make no mistake, I understand that the Olympic Games have become big business. It’s been reported that the Games cleared over 1 billion pounds (that’s over $1.5 billion) in sponsorship revenue. Ads are no less vital for the athletes, many of whom depend on endorsements to see any kind of income at all from their sport.

Without some sort of exclusive guarantee, the money stays away. I get that. But let’s not forget what this is.

This is an athletic competition.

Medals aren’t based on your looks, your income or even how nice a guy you are. (And let’s face it, all of us can remember some real stinkers who brought home gold.) They’re based on what you did on the field, on the court, in the pool.

And they should only be taken away for the same reason.

If you cheated, if you doped, if you somehow compromised the competition, then by all means strip the medal. I’ll cheer the IOC on as they do it.

But this is just stupid.

I’m guessing the IOC wanted a threat that would get people’s attention. Well, they got it. Now it’s time to get a clue, too.

Levy fines. Big ones if it seems necessary. This was a monetary offense, so it should get a monetary payback.

But if you start invalidating on-the-field performances to feed the cash cow, people will start questioning the purpose of the Games in the first place. Is this for the glory of sport? Or simply the glory of McDonald’s?

Please don’t answer that. I’m not sure I want to know.

The IOC finally reached the right decision. Now it needs to reach the right reasoning as well. Review Rule 40. Please. And make the changes common sense requires.

Otherwise, we’ll be forced to conclude that Phelps wasn’t the only one going off the deep end.

A Staggering Achievement

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.

Too much.

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.”

A Brush With Greatness

With a toothbrush in her hand, Missy becomes the next great Olympic marathoner.

“EIGHT! And we’re beginning to hear the sounds of the runners ahead … NINE! We can just barely see the pack … TEN! They’re drawing closer … ELEVEN! OK, we’re catching the runners at the back of the crowd …”

The commentary is from yours truly, counting off how long Missy has to keep brushing until she’s done. The count gives her a goal, the “race” makes it fun. Boy, does it – more than one sprint to the finish line has ended with a laugh of glee and an impulsive hug that would light up every camera at NBC if it knew.

We’ve done this as cars, as bicycles, even once as airplanes, but the track-star version seems to be the favorite. Despite her disabilities, Missy is a very competitive person, and this seems to get her where she lives. The ordinary mixed with the glorious.

Which actually isn’t too far off from the Games themselves.

It’s been fun watching London. At every moment, we get images of the fastest runners, the most agile gymnasts, the creepiest mascots. The best of the best are on display and all we have to do is drink it in and cheer.

But let’s be honest. It’s not the sports that do it.

OK, quick poll. Everyone who watches water polo more than once every four years, raise your hands.


How about judo?

Oh, I know there’s some. And that’s great. And the marquee sports – basketball, soccer, boxing and so on – certainly don’t have to defend themselves to anyone.

But when it comes to the Olympics, most of us are really cheering two things. One is a flag.

The other is a story.

I know, the networks do the “touching story” bit to death. But there’s a reason. It’s a bridge, a way of bringing out the human in the superhuman. We celebrate the exceptional, but we relish the ordinary, the reminder that these people are still like us.

Or that, maybe, we’re still a bit like them.

So we hear about Im Dong-hyun, the archer with the terrible eyes and the incredible aim.

We marvel at the abilities of Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius, and his lickety-split prosthetic feet.

We cheer the teenagers like Missy Franklin, who could almost be our own daughters. We see the oldest of the crew, dressage rider Hiroshi Hoketsu, still doing what he loves at 71 and hope we’re as lucky.

We see the best. And we glimpse ourselves doing it.

Again, the glorious meets the ordinary.

The thing is, it’s easy for us to shrug that off. After all, we do it morally all the time. We see the dedication of a Mother Teresa or the viciousness of an Adolf Hitler and say “I could never do that.” As if they were some separate species that had never been, never could be human.

But what humans have done, humans can do.

That can be a terrifying thought. Or an exhilarating one. It’s one that puts the capacity for greatness – great good or great evil – within the reach of anyone willing to strain and grasp.

And for these couple of weeks, it’s a thought that makes us a family. A dysfunctional one, perhaps. But a family nonetheless.

It might even bring a smile.

In which case, your Olympic toothbrush routine had better be up to date.