Back in 1992 my only goal was to make the Olympic Team. When that dream happened my next goal was to hit all my routines during the competition. I didn’t think about medals, or making finals, or even being put on the front of the next Wheaties box. I was intensely focused on my skills and what it took to make them.
My goal did come true and when my competition was over, my routines along with our team’s performance earned us a Bronze Medal. I was elated. First I made the team, then I hit all my routines, and to top it all off I was bringing home a medal. For a minute or even an hour I had accomplished everything I had set out in my career.
Then little by little and day by day my fantastic accomplishment seemed to not be good enough. When I got back home of course my immediate family and friends were ecstatic with my medal. Our local community was loving and supportive because they knew that Bronze was a huge accomplishment for our city. Yet, everyone outside our little town wasn’t so satisfied with third place.
Third place in the eyes of society is pretty much a loss. I would get comments from people saying, “Oh, you got third, better luck next time.” Or “Are you going to go back and try for gold?”.
No agent was interested in third place. Marketing agencies are really good coming up with slogans like “Be like Mike.” They wanted people to look at Michael Jordan and buy Gatorade so they too could be the next member of the Gold Medal Winning Dream Team. They weren’t really interested in promoting hey “Be like Wendy. You too can lose first and have to settle for third in the Olympics.”
Our society makes it clear that the only thing we care about is first place. When someone trains their entire life and becomes the second best athlete on the Earth, the TV commentators, newspaper reporters, and even those in our own sport tear them down and moan and groan about how they just lost it all. If someone is the second best runner on Earth, I am pretty sure they kicked butt and won second. Yet, second and third just aren’t marketable. Not many strive to advertise people who have lost.
After a couple of years of trying to hang on to the last shred of dignity, I finally realized that I had to put my third place medal away for a while. And so I locked it up in my safety deposit box and there it sat.
Winning a bronze came with no fame and fortune. It came with nothing. What I once thought would be the answer to all my dreams really was just a meaningless piece of tin on a ribbon. Somehow the zest of winning a bronze medal had not lasted very long.
It wasn’t until I was in my middle 30’s that I started to “Get it.” I had a few of my friends over my house and after about an hour one of my friends embarrassedly asked if she could see my medal. I laughed and said of course. I took it out, put it around my neck, danced around the house, and had an odd sense of happiness. Something had changed inside me. I felt a sense of pride. I hadn’t felt pride since the first time it was placed around my neck.
My friend asked if she could touch it and then she said, “Do you know how freakin’ cool this is? I have been alive for 40 years and I have never seen or touched a real Olympic Medal before. Do you understand what you did in your life? Do you know how cool this is?” And for the first time in a long time it finally started to sink in.
For many years I was embarrassed about my loss. I had spent my entire life training, hoping, praying for all the stars to align and for me to make it to the Olympics. And then when everything worked out…it wasn’t enough.
I felt guilty that I didn’t do more. I thought that maybe I should have trained harder and won an individual medal. Maybe I should have kept training and tried to make the 1996 team. Maybe I could have been rich and famous and my life could have been full of fame and fortune. My life would have been complete if I could have just won a Gold.
But sitting next to my friends that only knew me as a mother, wife, and coach now wanted to know me as an Olympian. They wanted to hear all about the competition. They wanted me to tell them all my stories. So for hours and hours everything came out. All the memories poured out of me and it felt so good to let them out. For the first time I was happy to tell them and after the night was over I kept my medal out of hiding.
Sometimes we get so caught up in an idea that we need to take a step back and look at the big picture. We can forget to see the truth. Winning doesn’t always mean that we are in first place. Winning for me meant that I overcame injuries, doubt, and a really shaky competition season to make it to the one competition in which I dreamed about my entire life. Winning to me was being the first in my family to be an Olympian. Winning to me was hitting ALL my routines. Winning to me was being a part of something with only 100 other women gymnasts. Winning to me was my Bronze Medal.
So today my medal hangs proudly on my wall. It isn’t a gold, but now I realize that it didn’t have to be. My medal represents all the other athletes out there that think that if only they had won…then their life would be complete. Sometimes we get so caught up with what we could have done or should have done that we forget to appreciate what we did do. We forget to look at our accomplishments whether big or small and feel pride for what we achieved. I had been so caught up with embarrassment of not winning a gold that I forgot to realize that my bronze was more than enough.
My life has been filled with a successful gymnastics career, an amazing family, and wonderful friends. I was already living the life that fame or fortune couldn’t and wouldn’t change. My past had created my future and I wouldn’t have it any other way. For those who don’t win first place at your next competition…that doesn’t mean that you lost. Your success comes from what you did achieve and the wonderful person you are becoming. You and your own personal achievement are and will always be good enough.
Wendy Bruce Martin was a member of the 1992 Olympic team and 5x national team member. She has been involved in gymnastics for 36 years and coaching for 22. She received a degree in psychology and is a certified mental toughness coach. She is married and mother of 2 and enjoying writing about her experiences. You can visit Wendy at psyched4sports.com or email at gymnasticsmentalcoach.com