With all of the negative hype in the lead up to the Olympics – I’m talking scares about the Zika virus, massive doping by Russian athletes, polluted Brazilian waters and the country’s woeful economy – I had all but given up on watching, much less enjoying, the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio.
But then Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps raised the roof with five gold medals. Gymnast Simone Biles leapt, soared and vaulted to three gold medals. Katie Ledecky left it all in the pool, swimming for four gold medals. And Simone Manuel, a little-known swimmer from the Houston-area, made history as the first African American to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event. Manuel won a second gold, anchoring the U.S. 4×100 team relay.
Their riveting performances have captivated audiences – young and old — across the planet and given Americans something to cheer for in the midst of a bruising and bitter presidential campaign that has fractured our country in very disturbing ways.
The medal count shows the success American athletes have had at the games in Rio with 70 so far in swimming, gymnastics, judo, shooting, fencing and cycling among others, with gold making up a big chunk of the total. And there are more events, medals and history-making performances on the way.
Keeping tab of medals is one way to tally our athletes’ achievements. But sometimes looking behind the medals can give us equally compelling insights. That certainly is the case with Phelps and Biles.
In several news stories, Phelps talked openly about the problems, including repeated DUIs, excessive partying and thoughts of suicide, which nearly destroyed his swimming career as well as his life. He also talks about the changes he made to steer his life and swimming back on course with a renewed purpose and spiritual power.
It was family and friends who helped persuade Phelps to enter The Meadows, an Arizona psychological trauma and addiction treatment center, five days after his second DUI arrest in 2014, ESPN reported. While in treatment, Phelps found spiritual guidance in “The Purpose Driven Life,” given to him by friend and former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Among those who have given Rick Warren’s best-seller big kudos are Oprah Winfrey and noted boxing champ, Manny Pacquiao.
Phelps’ transformation inspired in part by the meaning he took from The Purpose is inspiring others, including me, to read the book. Also worth reading are ESPN and Christianity Today articles about Phelps and his struggle back to physical and mental health, including Phelps’ coming back together with a father he thought had abandoned him as a child.
If faith helped save Phelps, then love did the same for Biles.
The 19-year-old from Spring, Texas, was born in Columbus, Ohio, to drug- and alcohol-addicted parents. It was initially left to Biles’ mother, Shannon, to raise Biles and her three siblings after Biles’ father abandoned the family. The children were, as Texas Monthly reports, shuffled back and forth between their mother’s house and a foster home.
Who knows how things would have turned out for Biles and her siblings if her grandfather, Ronald, and his second wife Nellie had not adopted Biles and her youngest sister. The two eldest siblings were adopted by Ronald Biles’ sister.
The love and care of adoptive parents made the difference for Biles and her sister. It was in Ronald’s and Nellie’s home that the four-foot-eight six-year-old was introduced to gymnastics – considered a late start in the world of competitive gymnasts. But she soon caught up and excelled. She is the only female gymnast in history to win the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships three years in a row.
If you haven’t read the Texas Monthly article on Biles, it’s truly worth a read. In the meantime, I will, like you, continue watching the Games and cheering for our athletes, in search of the stories and inspiration behind the medals. In less than a week the Games will end and we will be back full-time to a divisive political campaign; back to separating ourselves by party, class, race and religion.
My hope is that the national pride on display during the games will linger and we’ll remember how the Games and its athletes inspired and united us in a common purpose.