Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Why We All Need Balance

Without taking anything away from all of the other athletes’ accomplishments at the 2008 Olympics, the unprecedented achievement of Michael Phelps winning 8 gold medals will be the most celebrated accomplishment of these games. It will be wonderful to see him basking in the glow of endless appearances at events and on TV shows along with the financial windfall from endorsements that will be surely coming his way.

What makes this even more of a feel good story is that Phelps seems to come across as a regular guy without the overbearing ego that many of those who are so accomplished seem to have. But I hopefully won’t come across as a
Debbie Downer (see video) in wondering how Phelps will be able to deal with a future without competitive swimming.

To have any hopes of being the best in the world at anything, besides extraordinary talent it takes a life of tireless work and devotion to that pursuit to try and get an edge over the many other talented people who just as badly also want to be the best. At the very top, the difference between first and second can be as little as one hundredth of a second (as it was in one of Phelps’ gold medal finishes).

As Phelps responded on his website
to a question asking him about the sacrifices he made for swimming:
Growing up in high school, I wasn’t hanging out with friends every day or on the weekends. Doing normal high school kid things was something I was willing to give up. I know I won’t have opportunities like this in the sport for the rest of my life.
It has been said that fame is fleeting. But for those like Phelps who have reached the absolute summit of their field, life after the extraordinary amount of fame they get can present its own challenges. If the fame of achievement is an upper, these people can get an overdose that can be especially difficult to cope with when it wears off — and it always does.
But fame is fleeting as the wind and glory fades away;
There were no wild and woolly cheers, no glad acclaim this day.
- Grantland Rice in Casey's Revenge (1907)
The previous record of 7 gold medals in one Olympics that Phelps broke was set by swimmer Mark Spitz in 1972. The fame he enjoyed back then was probably similar to that being enjoyed by Phelps today. But since swimming is not a widely watched spectator sport between Olympic Games, it was difficult for the 22 year old to stay in the public eye for very long and he even tried an unsuccessful comeback at age 41 to compete in the Olympics. Incredibly, Spitz was not even invited by the Olympic Committee to be on hand to witness the possible breaking of his record by Phelps.

How do you top walking on the moon?
Buzz Aldrin struggled with that answer after his retirement from the space program at age 42 that led to a number of personal problems including depression and alcoholism.

Bobby Fischer ever wanted to do was to become the World Chess Champion. But after achieving that by defeating Boris Spassky in 1972 at age 29, his life went into free fall. He never defended his championship and after emerging from obscurity to play a 1992 exhibition rematch with Spassky in the former Yugoslavia (violating a UN sanction) he was on the run from US justice until his death at age 64 earlier this year.

But on the other hand, there is the story of
Bobby Jones who in the 1920s emerged as the greatest golfer the world had ever known at the time. Many experts still consider him among the five all-time best. In 1930, he captured all four of the major titles available to him at the time. After accomplishing everything possible as an amateur golfer and being honored with his second NYC ticker-tape parade, he then chose to retire from competitive golf at age 28!

But Jones’ life was about
so much more than competitive golf.

Jones was successful outside of golf as well. He earned his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech in 1922, where he was a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and played for the golf team. He then earned a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard University in 1924, where he was a member of the Owl Club. After only one year in law school at Emory University, he passed the bar exam. Jones was married in 1924 to the former Mary Rice Malone. They had three children, Clara, Robert Tyre III, and Mary Ellen. When he retired from golf at age 28, he concentrated on his Atlanta law practice. He did in fact turn professional at golf after he retired from competition, in order to accept fees. In addition, he made eighteen instructional films, worked with A.G. Spalding & Co. to develop the first set of matched clubs, co-designed the Augusta National course with Alister MacKenzie, and founded The Masters Tournament, first played at Augusta in March 1934.
Clearly, despite reaching the summit as a competitive golfer, his life afterwards was at least as fulfilling. So what’s the secret? As Mr. Miyagi explained to his karate student Daniel in the movie The Karate Kid, it’s about balance!

While most of us need our work to pay the bills and (hopefully) provide some fulfillment, when our careers start to totally define our identities, we are especially vulnerable if something happens to that career because of a forced retirement or layoff. When I lost my job several years ago, even worse than the financial blow was the perceived loss of my identity which led to feelings of worthlessness and depression. I needed to rediscover that family, friends, and especially for me, the pursuit of other interests were equally important in achieving that needed balance in my life.

And while I am still actively seeking work in my previous field, I have expanded my horizons into passions like food and cooking which lead to writing and publishing a cookbook along with my newest passion, sharing my thoughts with you by way of this blog.

As for Michael Phelps, with the passion he has shown at the Olympic swimming competitions for sharing the joy of his successes with his mother and sisters, it appears that he is on the right track for achieving that needed balance in his life. Not everyone in his situation has been so fortunate; all we can do is to thank him for all of the enjoyment he has brought us in watching his incredible athletic feats and wish him an equally fulfilling life following the end of his competitive swimming career.

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