Aside from being great sports entertainment, it really is inspiring to watch these athletes compete against each other at such a high level. Sure, they're representing their own country, but when it comes right down to it, each competitor is there to prove to themselves and the world that they are truly the best at what they do. It's downhill skier against downhill skier, boarder against boarder. Each individual has dedicated their life to the pursuit of excellence in their chosen sport. I have no doubt each loves what they do, whether it be skiing, skating, sledding, or even curling. I envy these athletes who are able to muster the time, means, and drive to fine tune their abilities to such a high level. For every 'fun' downhill run, though, I can only imagine the hundreds of hours of grueling weight training, cardio, study, instruction, competition, travel, personal expense, and self-sacrifice, not to mention after all those years of preparation to be able to stay mentally focused enough to perform your absolute best on one specific week, day, run, skate. While the entire world watches. For that, these athletes deserve to all the attention and adoration they receive. These are our modern day gladiators and heroes to be celebrated. When Shawn White went all out on that second run in the half-pipe snowboard competition final, having already won the gold medal, yet still completed the trick the world was dying to see and that only he could do, and by doing so pushing the envelope of what’s possible in his sport, I couldn’t help but be inspired.
When Canada’s Christopher Del Bosco crashed during the snowcross final because he wasn’t satisfied with the idea of just a bronze medal, pushing it a little too hard, I was inspired.
When Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette completed a nearly flawless performance just two days after the tragic death of her mother, I was inspired.
And when Petra Majdic, the Slovenian nordic athlete, went on to winning a bronze in cross-country skiing, I was inspired. This she accomplished after crashing into a gully during a training run, then climbing out of that gully with two broken poles, four cracked ribs, and collapsed a lung. Under unimaginable pain, she skied three more races, coming away with a bronze medal, which she was received while in a wheelchair.
The list goes on, but that's not really what I came here to talk about. You see, besides watching the Olympics this weekend, I also attended a wedding. It was the wedding for a good friend. A young man I most often refer to as my 'little brother' or 'little' as commonly referred to in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. If you've ever picked up my little coffee table book called 'Hand-me-downs - Some just slightly used tips on life for my little brother', you may remember I'm a big brother in that program. Rather, I was a big brother a number of years ago. When I met Ted, he was just eight years old. He had a few learning challenges but more than made up for that in street smarts and a general good nature, despite the many challenges he'd already faced in those first eight years. His parents struggled with drugs and various entanglements with the law, and as a result, were deemed unfit. As a result, Ted and his younger three brothers were being raised by their grandparents. The six of them lived sardined into a small three bedroom house in desperate need of repair, most of which took a back burner to more basic needs such as food and clothing for four growing boys. Thankfully, when the boys were taken away from their parents a number of years before that day I first met Ted, their grandparents had jumped in to help. In their own words, ‘We just couldn't see these kids, after all they'd been through already, split up into different foster homes.’
As I sat in the artificially darkened function hall near Ted’s neighborhood, I couldn't help but swell with pride for my now grown-up little brother. He had made it through an adolescence filled with thorns. Playing big brother himself to three younger brothers in desperate need of a strong father figure while himself managing to avoid the many bad things that seem to find vulnerable kids these days, he was still standing. And standing tall, right next to a beautiful young lady about to be his bride. Her name is Juli-Anne, a pretty young woman who recognized the goodness that has arisen from the ashes of an extremely challenging beginning. I'm sure I wasn't the only one in the room who felt like a proud parent as we watched our 'Teddy' and Juli-Anne profess their love to each other.
His life could have easily taken a much different turn. Over the past few years, his parents have continued to struggle, while Ted has watched his family grow by three, helplessly having to watch his own history repeat itself with three new little sisters. Each time, his parents inevitably became again unfit and his grandmother swooped in to save the children and the day. As Ted now leaves grandma’s nest, she continues to find the energy to raise more children, despite now entering her 60's. As I sat next to Ted's newest siblings, a couple of cute twin four year old girls, all I could do was shake my head.
The real moment of that wedding day for me was not when Ted danced the ceremonial slow dance with mom, although that was touching in its own way. I can’t know for sure, but I sensed that hers were tears of regret. Rather, it was when he was dancing with his grandmother. It was her love and strength that provided the sunshine under the dark shadow cast by his mother's weaknesses. Despite having already raised five children of her own, and barely having the means to provide for herself and her husband, she somehow selflessly found a way to provide her six grandkids the privilege of a normal childhood. I can really only speak for my little brother Ted, but for him, she has made all the difference. She'll never get a multi-million dollar glitzy ceremony or a medal draped over her neck, that's just the way it is. Come to think of it, she probably wouldn’t want the attention anyway. And that’s certainly not why she’s dedicated her life to these great kids. She did it out of sheer love. Just love. It didn't matter that they were her kid's kids. She could have retired to her little condo on the Maine coast or fixed up her deteriorating home, but instead she chose all the responsibilities of a parent, not once again, but six times again. She did it, and continues to do it, with an unassuming grace, and despite more than a few challenges with each of the kids along the way, she seems to hold no bitterness toward her own daughter or the world.
I believe we all have our own role to play during our brief time here. Some are destined to be able to do triple flips on a snowboard and be rewarded with adoration and a lifestyle befitting a king, while others live a life of equal dedication yet are rewarded in more meager ways such as a quiet moment before bed, a colorful drawing taped on the refrigerator, or a tearful dance with their grandson at his wedding.
It seems the world has and needs both, but to me, the real hero this weekend was not Shawn White, Lindsey Vonn, Apolo Ohno, or Bode Miller. I wholeheartedly respect and admire their talent and dedication, along with that of the rest of the athletes at these Olympic games, and I thank them for two weeks of inspiration and gamesmanship at its highest level. No, for me the real hero is, without question, my little brother Ted's grandmother, Claire. Congrats on the marriage of your boy Teddy. He truly couldn't have done it without you, and for that, you deserve gold.
I think you can guess which one she is...