We All Want Gold
It’s Tuesday afternoon and I am just starting my class with a Spanish student. Salvador is 16 years old and attends the French lycée (high school) in Malaga. With English classes included, he is well on his way to becoming trilingual. Our class starts with general chit chat about the weekend.
‘So, did you have a good weekend?’ I ask.
He beamed back at me and told me that it was an amazing weekend. I looked surprised. Most of my students don’t usually say amazing to describe their weekends. Most say okay, good or fun, but not amazing.
‘So what did you do? I enquired, my interest piqued.
‘I went to the National Rowing Competitions and I won gold for my age group,’ he replies.
There is nothing like having a conversation with a 16-year-old who has won a gold medal in national competitions to make you feel like an underachiever. I started thinking about my weekend and frantically tried to find some shreds of evidence of intelligence or ability in order to preserve my self-respect. To be honest, aside from playing a game of Scrabble or two, I came up with nothing. Time to take a step back and let him take centre stage. So I let him talk and he told me about the races, his teammates and his training. Then came another this-isn’t-happening moment.
‘So how many gold medals have you won?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know,’ he replied.
‘How can you NOT know how many gold medals you have? Go and get them and count them!’
He returned with a shoebox (I kid you not) filled with medals. The medals had all got entangled and it was quite a mess. After untangling them, he was able to tell me that he had won 14 gold medals. Fourteen!! And that wasn’t including the silver and bronze medals.
‘You’ve just won the gold medal for your age group in Spain. What’s next for you?’ I enquired.
‘I would love to row in the next Olympics when I am 20 years old.’
Shoot. Now I really feel like an underachiever. I cast my mind back to when I was 16 years old, lacked confidence and didn’t know whether I was coming or going. My story was different to his, but I do admire those who find what they love doing whilst young, start doing it and have support (both financial and emotional) from family members and friends. I said the only relevant thing that I could think of in the moment:
‘Well, when you’re famous, don’t forget your English teacher!’
In knowing him and understanding his lifestyle, the discipline that he exhibits in training six days a week, sacrifices that are made in terms of diet, time, social life and other activities, I see a commitment and dedication that is admirable.
As the Tokyo Olympics begin, Salvador, his sister and another student who has managed to attain the status of a professional ballet dancer at the age of 17, are on my mind. Dedication, commitment and sacrifice define these three students and amongst the Olympians there are not only hundreds of thousands of hours of training, unlimited personal sacrifices and dreams, but also the pressures of competing at a national and international level.
I always enjoy watching the Olympics, and if I had the chance, I would sit down and watch 80% of the events. However, one sport which I try to see without fail is artistic gymnastics. As a result of having done gymnastics when I was younger, I have always been captivated when watching the world’s best make incredibly difficult moves look so easy. And this year, my attention is focused on one gymnast who started making a name for herself eleven years ago. Not only has she become famous, but she is also soaring to the heights to become known as the world’s best gymnast. Her career to date has spanned just over a decade and if you see her perform, it is obvious that she is nowhere near retirement. If anything she has just kept improving to the point that her routines are almost flawless and she emits confidence whilst executing the most difficult moves that exist within the sport. Gymnastics is usually deemed a young girl’s sport and careers seem to dwindle as young girls become young women, however, she is going against the grain and is still scooping up the medals in spite of being in her mid-twenties.
Simone Arianne Biles is a black American artistic gymnast and was born in Columbus, Ohio on 14th March, 1997. One of four siblings, she grew up with her younger sister Adria in her grandparents' house in Houston, Texas. At the age of 15, Biles made the decision to switch from public schooling to homeschooling in order to allow her to increase her training time from 20 hours per week to 32 hours per week. At the age of 24, she has a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals and is the most decorated American gymnast. Biles is only 4 ft 8 in (142cm) tall which means although she has matured in years, she has maintained the perfect stature for a gymnast. However, although she is petite, she is a powerhouse on every piece of apparatus and commentators are often heard referring to her explosive power and strength.
Even though she started competing in gymnastics more than ten years ago, Biles still has to deal with the pressure that international competing brings. Each new competition requires a return to the focus and drive to get her through. She has proven herself to have the ability to win gold, however, like any other top athlete, the pressure to perform - and continue performing - at such a high level can be intense. As a result, Tuesday saw her withdraw from the team event in the Olympics. After scoring her lowest score ever in the vault, Biles recognised that she wasn’t in the right place mentally to contribute to the performance of the USA team and decided to withdraw from this event. To date she has not withdrawn from the individual events on the four pieces of apparatus and these are due to take place tomorrow. She has made no sweeping statements regarding her participation in these, but she has stated that she is taking one day at a time.
Although Biles has withdrawn from the team event - something which no-one saw coming - she is known for being a confident powerhouse who is both loved and criticised. Those who criticise her say that she is (or has been) too confident, however, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt were never criticised for exuding too much confidence whilst at the top of their careers. In fact, Biles has taken the acronym G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time) for herself and this can even be seen on some of her leotards when she performs as well as being the title of her biography written by Susan Blackaby. In her own words, she says;
‘The haters will hate it and the lovers will love it. It’s perfect for me.’
As a result of this, an emoji has been created which celebrates her talent. It is of a goat doing aerial splits and is an acknowledgement not only of her talent, but also of her achievements. This young lady has achieved so much - including the development of four new moves which are known as Biles 6.4, Biles (H), Biles I (G) and Biles II (J) - and yet her eyes are still set on the final goal of being the best gymnast of all time..
If you are fortunate enough to see Biles at her best on the vault, you will see a fast and powerful run up as she hits the vault quickly and turns, somersaults and twists to a perfect steady landing. Her beam routines are confident and although some of the moves make most of us want to close our eyes, she exhibits everything a gymnast should - precision, complicated moves, confidence and grace. Her parallel bar routine is almost flawless as she moves from the higher bar to the lower bar in a series of complicated movements that require stamina, balance, the correct amount of speed and concentration.
Aside from being captivated when I watch this powerhouse, what really stands out for me are her floor routines in which she executes incredibly difficult moves whilst bestowing the crowd with big smiles. In these routines it is obvious to see that she is enjoying herself, engaging with the crowd whilst presenting a personalised show of athletic ability, grace and strength..
The majority of us are not Olympians, nor are we ever likely to be. However, achieving does not have to be limited to a stage where the eyes of the world are on us. The definition of achievement in each life is something distinct as each one faces different goals, hurdles, sacrifices, achievements and pressures. As I consider my own life, my modest achievements to date and my goals for the future, I am relatively undeterred by apparent obstacles. At the same time, I acknowledge that perhaps the determination, effort and sacrifice that we see in Biles and the other Olympians would take me to heights beyond my dreams. It is clear to see that in order to reach a dream, focus, determination, sacrifice, commitment and a clear head under pressure are needed. And if one has these qualities, there just might be gold waiting at the end of the rainbow.