The ‘handicaps’ that made 3 Olympians great

These athletes demonstrate that it’s not just about overcoming our difficulties, but allowing our struggles to change us.

From top to bottom: Mie Nielsen of Denmark, Kathleen Baker of the United States, Xueer Wang of China, and Duane da Rocha Marce of Spain compete in the Women's 100m backstroke on day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.  Adam Pretty | Getty Images

We all encounter obstacles in life, some more challenging than others, but what we may not always realize is how these obstacles can make us better people. During these Olympics, audiences encountered a number of athletes who’ve overcome significant odds to make it to Rio. They aren’t great simply because they overcame huge difficulties, but because of the way they’ve allowed their struggles to change their lives. The stories of three Olympians in particular grabbed my attention …

Kathleen Baker

<span style="color: #999999">Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu celebrates</span>

Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, on left, celebrates with silver medalist USA’s Kathleen Baker, who won the women’s 100m backstroke final. Odd Andersen AFP | Getty Images

When she was 14, swimmer Kathleen Baker lost her appetite. She was heavily fatigued and began having trouble with simple tasks like reading a book. Swimming—an activity she loved—soon became torture and she begged her parents to let her quit. Turns out she was suffering from Crohn’s Disease. Crohn’s is a gastrointestinal disorder that causes the body’s immune system to attack the gut flora that every human needs to stay healthy. It can result in severe health issues.

“The Olympics,” she says, “mean everything to me.” But her illness put that dream in jeopardy. “I can’t even begin to tell you how hard this is on Kathleen,” Her mother Kimberly says. “She had been raised to believe that hard work is what gets you places in life. And now we were telling her that hard work doesn’t work for her … She has to work smarter. She has worked on her technique, on perfecting her turn, on things like that.”

Kathleen didn’t give up. Instead, she narrowed her focus, went through treatment, and changed her practice schedule. Her courage and persistence worked, because this past week she won a silver medal in the 100m backstroke.

How could a previously sick girl, unable to keep down a cheeseburger, succeed in the biggest athletic competition in the world? “This is the first time in my career I’ve actually only focused on one race,” she explains. Before the race, she told herself, “Come on Kathleen, swim the greatest race of your life.”

Would she be a better swimmer without the illness? Probably, but she also wouldn’t have discovered how hardship can bring out inner greatness and become a shining example to others who suffer from the same disease. She was a winner before the race even began.

Cody Miller

Cody Miller and Michael Phelps of the United States celebrate winning gold

Cody Miller and Michael Phelps celebrate winning gold in the men’s 4 x 100m medley relay final. Clive Rose | Getty Images

After winning the bronze medal in the men’s 100m breaststroke event, Cody Miller celebrated more exuberantly than anyone else in the pool, gold medal winner included. “Everyone has their Olympic dream,” he later said, “This is mine.”

Perhaps he was so exuberant because he had seemingly accomplished the impossible. At the age of 14, Cody was diagnosed with a rib deformity that affects his breathing. The condition is obvious to anyone who sees him in his swim trunks with no shirt. “It looks like I have a big hole in my chest,” he says.

In his post-race interview, though, he revealed a bit about how he became a swimmer. After his diagnosis at the age of 14, he took up swimming because his doctors said it might help him broaden his chest and keep his deformity from becoming more serious and affecting his heart. In other words, Miller is now an Olympic medalist because his physical health prompted him to try swimming. Without being born the way he was, he probably never would have tried it and never have developed into one of the world’s greatest athletes. That sounds like cause for celebration.

Kristin Armstrong

Gold medalist Kristin Armstrong of the United States shows her medal to her son Lucas William Savola

Gold medalist and cyclist Kristin Armstrong of the United States shows her medal to her son, Lucas William Savola, after the medal ceremony for the women’s individual time trial. Bryn Lennon | Getty Images

Kristin Armstrong is both a mother and an athlete. Pregnancy isn’t a disease and being a mother isn’t a handicap, but motherhood definitely makes training for the Olympics a lot harder. While other competitors were putting work in on their bikes, she took time off to raise her new son, Lucas. But the day before her 43rd birthday in Rio, Armstrong won her third consecutive gold medal in the Olympic time trial cycling event.

After finishing, she seemed surprised to learn that she had indeed posted the fastest time and she momentarily collapsed to the ground in exhausted joy. Soon enough, though, she was back on her feet, bike lifted high in triumph, celebrating with the now five year-old Lucas.

Armstrong doesn’t think the demands of motherhood are actually an obstacle keeping her back from fulfilling other areas of her life. Rather, she says that being a mother makes her stronger. “As a mom, I feel like I’m a better cyclist,” she says, “When I go home, whether I win or lose, there’s always unconditional love.”

For all the moms out there, I hope that this was a very inspiring day,” she later said. “Being a mom has been my secret weapon. It provides me balance and it keeps me on track and it keeps me super focused.”

What amazes me about Kristin Armstrong and the other athletes is that, when they encountered difficulties, they not only overcame them but used them to achieve greatness, both in their chosen sport but more importantly, as human beings. In life, obstacles will always come our way, but we too can turn them into opportunities for bringing out the greatness in us.

Fr. Michael Rennier
Fr. Michael Rennier
Fr. Michael Rennier graduated from Yale Divinity School and lives in St. Louis, Missouri with his wife and 5 children. He is an ordained Catholic priest through the Pastoral Provision for former Episcopal clergymen that was created by Pope St. John Paul II. He’s also a contributing editor at Dappled Things, a journal dedicated to the written and visual arts.

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