Saturday, July 31, 2021

What happens when you achieve a goal you’ve pursued for over 20 years? Crash, that’s what happens.

David Epstein talks with champion bobsledder, Steve Mesler.

Five or so years ago, Steve stayed with me while he was in town for work. I took him, and his gold medal, to meet the sports-crazy seven-year-old twin boys who lived next door. Everyone took a turn trying on the medal. When the boys’ father got his turn, he draped the saucer-sized medal over his neck, turned to Steve, and asked: “So, when you got this, was it just like, everything for the rest of your life is fine?” It was a compliment about Steve’s achievement, but also betrayed the gap between perception and reality when it comes to the lives of Olympians.

“If you would have asked me that question before I won gold,” Steve told me, “I would have said, ‘Yes, I’ll be good for the rest of my life.’ Bobsled was my identity, and that was everything that I wanted.” But over the next few years, Steve would struggle with building a new identity. He would also bury two teammates, both of whom struggled with mental health issues, and he would recognize and get help for his own depression.

Mesler talks of “Speedy” Peterson:

I remember watching Speedy win the Olympic medal that he’d strove for, and wanted for his whole career. He’d been through his ups and downs, and in February of 2010, he wins his silver medal. In July of 2011, he phones the police and lets them know where they can find his body. And he walks out into the woods in the mountains with a shotgun and…. So, you know, here’s Speedy in 2010, winning a medal, and a year later he’s dead. Speedy had that joyful side, and he also had a darker side. You know, our experiences were pretty similar in that we both reached our goals.

There’s sport and there’s the rest of your life:

I’m starting to talk to other athletes about, you know, some of the behaviors that you have are good for your sport, but not good for other parts of your life. And ultimately, I’m starting to recognize that it’s almost like you’ve got to go through the stages of grief, because you’re experiencing loss even when you win. Because I had this thing in my life, this pursuit of being the best in the world. I had these people in my life who are all going after the same thing, and then we accomplished it, which is fantastic. But nothing replaces that journey and camaraderie. That part of me is gone now. Whether it’s a win or a loss, the outcome is only a moment in time. February 27, 2010, that was the day I won a gold medal, but from June 1990 until February 2010 was the pursuit. And so you tell me which one you think is going to be easier to get over, the thing that happened in one day, whether you won or lost, or the thing that was 20 years?

H/t Tyler Cowen.

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