Sunday, February 25, 2018

Thank you, Olympians - Pyeongchang 2018

Every so often the world needs a reminder of the triumph of the human spirit and the ability of men and women to be nothing short of awesome. For me, the Winter Olympics are a time, not to escape from, but to embrace all of humanity around a simple idea - cheering people on who simply aspire to be excellent in the realm of physical achievement. This pursuit of athletic success is a very simple and time-honored value of human society. We are in awe of greatness, and we seek to honor it with our attention and symbolic awards.

When I used to teach Beowulf as part of our freshman literature curriculum, I usually began by introducing my students to the Anglo-Saxon concept of "The Heroic Ideal." Beowulf is the quintessential hero in society as their ultimate warrior. He is strong (with the "strength of thirty men in his grip"), proud, courageous, and ultimately a winner. It seems obvious but societies honor and revere that which they value most. And, from at least the times of ancient Greece, civilizations have pretty universally valued physical prowess and achievement. It's why we watch, and often handsomely compensate, our top athletes. They do awesome things, and we stand amazed and thankful for sharing with us the pinnacle of their achievements.

This year's Winter Olympics has been everything I hoped it would with veteran competitors and fresh new faces once again pushing the limits in the pursuit of excellence. How cool that the 2018 Winter Olympics took place in South Korea, just 60 miles from the Demilitarized Zone. The politics of late have been disturbing and disheartening, but the image of a unified team of athletes entering under a banner of one Korea was nothing short of wonderful. Even as these moments fade amidst resurfacing tensions, we will have that image of hope. And the Koreas needed and deserved the triumphs we saw like the South Korean Iron Man bringing home a gold medal in the men's skeleton. Awesome.

As I watched the closing credits from NBC's coverage of competition, I was once again in awe (and a little bit misty) as I watched the highlights of so many great Olympic moments. The epic snowboard slopestyle win of 17-year-old Red Girard made me laugh, cry, smile, and scream. What a great story - including the R-rated verbal responses of Red and his brother. The sort-of-homecoming triumph for another 17-year-old, Chloe Kim, was the stuff dreams are made of. And who can forget the adorable picture of Chloe's dad and his homemade sign. The redemption story of snowboarding royalty Shaun White was the perfect script for feel-good stories, and I'll cry every time I see video of Shaun sobbing as he falls into the arms of his mom and hugs practically everyone in sight. What a beautiful moment.

On the slopes the action was as unpredictable as the weather. Lindsay Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin did not ski away with all the accolades at this Olympics, but it was such a joy to watch them compete and both win and lose with grace and class. And I have a newfound fascination with cross-country skiing - those athletes are hard-core. Holy crap, those competitions were incredibly grueling, and I don't know that we could script more incredible wins than the come-from-behind victories of both Simen Hegstad of Norway and the team of Jessica Diggins/Kikkan Randall. The sport of cross-country would seem to be slow at times, but I don't know that I've seen a more thrilling sprint for the finish line than that of Diggins.

On the ice, from the intensity of short track to the meditative strategy of curling to the majestic beauty of figure skating the athletes gave us moments to cherish forever. The 2018 Olympics saw the USA make hockey history again as the USA Women knocked of the Canadian team for the first time in twenty years - it was an epic match that went deep into the night and was only resolved in a shootout. This year saw the first ever triple-axel from a woman in competition which America's Mirai Nagasu nailed it. And despite not winning a medal the USA's Nathan Chen made history with not just one or two but six quad jumps in a single routine.

There were so many special moments, and I'll still be thinking about them and watching highlights for weeks. The Olympics remain - at least for me - the moment when we set everything aside that divides us, and we come together to cheer and celebrate the pursuit of excellence. So, thank you to Shaun and Jessica and Lindsay and Nathan and all the others who gave us a couple weeks to simply enjoy the beauty of sport and the thrill of victory.

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