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
This made me cry. Your accomplishment is truly extraordinary, after all – there were only 18 girls TOTAL on the podium that day from THE ENTIRE WORLD. And you were one of them. Every girl in the gyms around the world, not to mention so many other athletes who strive just to make it to the Olympic Trials, dreams to be where you were. You lived your dream, YOU made it come true!!! I couldn’t be prouder to be your friend, not just for your accomplishments, but for your heart and who you are.
That day you WON the bronze medal was a day of victory for of us in lived in the sport of gymnastics. We know what it entailed and we were and we are so proud of the accomplishments of our 1996 Olympic Team. You rock Wendy. ❤️❤️❤️❤️
Thank you Mary. I think at that time we were all proud and I know that our gymnastics family knows what was accomplished that year. But society didn’t feel the same. It was hard to be proud of being a steeping stone. Just like we all know what the 88 team did for gymnastics, but with no medal, they are a forgotten year. And that’s sad. But that’s the way things go.
Thank you for your love and support. I know you were someone who I knew loved me. I always felt your support.
I remember when you made the Olympic team I said to my dad that with all the gymnasts I ever knew it was weird that I only ever knew one to make the Olympics. His mouth practically dropped and he replied, “Of all the gymnasts out there, it is amazing you actually knew an Olympian.” That completely changed my thinking on the spot. It was so cool to have trained with an Olympian. You are still the only one I’ve ever known. The bronze just made it that much more fantastic.
Thanks Stacy. Out of all the people I trained with I would have to say that my ISG family was the reason I was able to make it. You guys loved me for being me.
Wendy, you were one of my favorite gymnast and still are. I would have given everything to be where you were. A bronze medal? That’s like a gold to all that know what it really takes to make it that far. You should be very proud of all your accomplishments. We all are and the USA
Thank you so much. And thank you for your kind words. It’s crazy to think people remember me.
Enjoy the bronze. It’s an amazing accomplishment!
Enjoy your bronze. It’s an amazing accomplishment!
This is a message I want my two teenage daughters to hear. They are GOOD ENOUGH!
I’m not sure if you realize that not only did you achieve something great in the Olympics but again by sharing your experience and your words.
I work with athletes today and am so blessed to help them realize that what they do doesn’t define who they are. My biggest joy is to empower young girls to know their true worth and value. We spend too much time feeling inferior and life is too short to not realize what we are capable of. Thank you for your kind words.
AWESOME! Thank you for writing this. It is a reality check for everyone. Winning, success, happiness should not be based on what others say, think, or do. It is based on each individual’s inner spirit. Is it not enough to make the National Team and compete with USA on your back to represent your country. Is it not enough to make an Olympic Team and compete at the Olympics. Is it not enough to be a medal winner at the Olympics. I just want you to know that as a team, women’s program learned from 1992. In 1996, we blocked all signs brought into the women’s team house that said anything about “going for the gold” That phrase was not allowed. We wanted the team to focus only on performance. Medals are a side effect of performance. it is the performance, the accomplishment of your routines that should be the focus.
This is taken from an article I wrote for Path of Potential:
Reflecting on this story, we can see at one level, the purpose of sport is: To enhance the physical and mental well being of all participants while performing in an activity that brings enjoyment.
It is through focusing on the physical and mental attributes of the skills involved in participating in the sport that performance is enhanced. A side effect of enhanced performance is the successful completion of competitions. In short, with proper physical and mental preparation, athletes have their best chance of winning. Winning then encompasses personal enjoyment, an expression of one’s love for playing a sport, and a means to build bonds between family and friends. The money and medals that may occur are an afterthought; they are the side effect of the enhanced performance; they are not the goal!
If we reflect beyond the benefits of appropriately designed and experienced training, we can see additional developmental possibilities and potential to be gained by the individuals involved; we could add to the training purpose expressed above, this developmental purpose of sport: To develop the capacity for the inner management and discipline required of us to be true to ourselves and to be self-determining in the complex and complicated situations life presents us.
We can see how both of these purposes complement one another and how they work together. With the right nature of training, we can develop the character to not only more truly represent ourselves, but also to more ably stand for the right and good. Done in this way, sport is a value adding process for society, and a healthy, meaningful experience . . . not only for the athlete, but for all involved.
Dr Nassar’s article was originally published in the May/June 2001 Issue of “Path of Potential” (www.pathofpotential.com).
The father in this story can represent parents, coaches, administrators, sponsors, athletes etc. The main point is that when you make the goal of winning medals and making money as your highest priority, bad things can happen. Everything else becomes secondary. It becomes much easier for people to compromise their morals in order to attain money and medals. When the focus is on performance, then people have a better chance of achieving their goals with less chance of compromising their morals and adversely affecting themselves and others. This concept applies not only with sports, but also with daily life. For example, if a student were to place obtaining high grades ahead of study habits, the student would find it much easier to cheat to obtain better grades, then by studying. I hope this story allows each reader to reflect on their own life and pursuit of their own goals.
Larry Nassar, D.O., A.T.C.
I love it. The other side of it too is when it all does come together and the awards, money, fame still never come. Hopefully when this happens the athlete had their attentions on the correct values. Hopefully they were taught that the most important thing about sport is the process. It is then imperative that the process of learning comes first. I am so glad that you are someone with your values well grounded. I am so glad that you are one that :gets it”
You are truly amazing!! I’m actually reading this from a shared post from facebook, posted by a lady I met at a gymnastics camp a few years ago. When I first read her post, before I even clicked on the link, my first thought was “Wow, she actually knows an Olympian?! How cool!!” And she made it pretty far in the sport herself! I was born in 1987, so I am a little young to remember the ’92 Olympics (of course with ’96 being the first year I actually remember), but that is not meant to discourage your achievements in any way–I was just too young. Just making it to the level of being an Olympic HOPEFUL is amazing, not to mention how awesome actually being an Olympian is….. AND A BRONZE MEDAL?!?! That’s AWESOME!! I now coach gymnastics and I am going to print this article for them all my upper levels to read at practice next week. I hope they are old enough to understand the message. I think sometimes they feel the same you did (but not near your level), and although I try to explain how proud of them I am and how proud THEY should be, I don’t think they quite get it.. I really hope your story helps them to understand and appreciate their own personal accomplishments! Thank you for such a great story and CONGRATULATIONS on a truly amazing, once-in-a-lifetime achievement!
Wow. Thank you. I am honored by your words. I think one thing that can help is telling the girls that if we try our absolute best, we train our absolute hardest, and our best doesn’t include a win then we can feel confident and proud of what we did do. Sometimes our best can be diminished because of the idea that success means winning. But as we know success means so much more. Thank you again.
We definitely remember you, Wendy!
I used to do some tumbling in college and got really interested in following gymnastics in the mid 80s at the Elite and NCAA levels. I never competed but in gymnastics but I did in indoor volleyball so I understood the difference between performing in practice vs. competition…I have to tell you that the one example that I always think of even now on the verge of 50 years old is the mental toughness you experienced in one of the USA Champs on vault. When faced with a challenge, I think of that moment of what you faced and the amount of focus, persistence and strength that must have taken to sprint down the runway and get over that vaulting horse. Many things can be done when you put your mind to it and set aside any mental blocks. Thank you for being an inspiration.
Oh yes, I remember that vault. My legs felt like jelly and I just couldn’t get my steps right. After I thought that I had blown my chance to make it to World Trials all my fears and nerves left my body and I was pissed. Then the judge stood up and told me that I had one more vault. At that point I knew I had to vault. My coach ran over to me and told me to do an esker vault just so I could get a score. I knew I was lucky to get one more chance and I took it. I did the easier vault and got (i think) an 8.80. But it was just enough to qualify to World Trials and at that point I was just happy to get over the vault. That was a stressful day.
I had the honor once to be in a gym with an Olympic speed skater. I remember the awe I felt and how proud I was of this girl, my country and of all the work she had done. I was grateful for the example she set. Thank you for representing all of us. I burst with pride because I remember seeing your team and you. I think you are amazing
I remember watching you and your team win the bronze and being so excited at how well the US did with such tough competition out there. You’re right–society does have a “win it all or you’re a loser” mentality, but that kind of thinking ensures you’ll never be happy with life. I have always loved gymnastics but my parents could never afford to put me in classes. Because I obsessively watched every televised competition and because I had a friend in gymnastics who taught me basic skills in my backyard, I learned enough about gymnastics to become a coach when I put my own daughter into classes. Now I know more about the mechanics of a vault than the coaches in my gym who had been level 10s! Even though I’ve never competed and never won a medal, I still feel like I’ve accomplished something huge–I get to be a part of the sport I have always dreamed about participating in. My daughter is now 16 and competes Xcel. She has the skills to be in JO but couldn’t care less about the dance or the straight knees or even about winning, she just wants to go out there and show off how she can flip. And because she’s happy, she’s a winner, regardless of what team she is on or place the judges give her. I’m glad you’ve rediscovered the pride in your accomplishment, Wendy; you did something truly amazing and you deserve to feel good about it!
Thank you. And I agree with you 100%. Great coaches understand physics, they did not have to be a gymnast to teach gymnastics. My coach was a wrestler. Kevin Brown was never a gymnast. I am happy to heat that you know your successful. So many of us live feeling inferior because of what we didn’t do, or could have done. The fact that you excel in coaching proves that our past accomplishments or lack of accomplishments should not effect our self worth and value. I love to hear when children are empowered. Congratulations for teaching your daughter that it is the process and not the outcome. Thank you again for your response. I am honored.
Dang Wendy you made me CRY! I see this in my daughter and am happy that she has a mentor and model like you to learn from. The highlight of her weekend was meeting you in person. She is in awe that you are an Olympian and that you talk to her and know her name. 🙂 You are an Olympian that is a huge achievement in itself no matter the color of the medal or if someone didn’t get a medal.
I am glad you are learning to enjoy your medal. You deserve to DANCE around with it even when you are 80 and look back on that increedible accomplishment!! xo
I see it at all levels as well. We need to celebrate the effort and journey, not always the destination. It was awesome meeting Alex as well. It was an extra added bonus surprise to my awesome trip.
Reblogged this on JAG GYM Blog and commented:
There is a (bad) riddle that goes like this:
“What do you call a silver medalist?”
I hate this sentiment so much. Sure, going for the gold is a great and worthy pursuit. But getting a silver, bronze or even just going to the Olympics is a remarkable achievement as well.
Read this blog by my courageous, accomplished and brave friend, Wendy Bruce, who spent too much time being embarrassed by a bronze medal.
I am proud of you Wendy. Proud to hear you journey and proud to call you my friend!