Light your torches and go for the gold — it’s almost time for the Summer Olympics. The Olympics means a time where we talk about things that matter: world peace, teamwork, and setting aside our differences for the ancient love of sports. While the Olympics teaches the importance of international literacy and cultural etiquette, there are other things to be learned from the glorious games. You may not ever take home the gold, but take home these nine life lessons from some Summer Olympic greats.
- If you’re annoying Hitler, you’re doing something right:"Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust." — Jesse Owens
Track and field superstar Jesse Owens blew everyone out of the water at Berlin’s 1936 Olympic games. He won four gold medals in track and field events, and catapulted himself to international fame. The victory was made sweeter still, as Jesse Owens was an African-American, and Adolf Hitler was hoping to use the ‘36 Berlin games to proffer ideas of Aryan superiority. According to friend-of-the-devil Albert Speer, the Nazi leader was "highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored [sic] American runner, Jesse Owens." But Owens didn’t seem to mind. He just kept on running. (Bonus: He was also slighted by Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. "Although I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either," the legend said.)
- Age is just a number:Some summer Olympians will win medals before they can legally drive, vote, or drink alcohol. Does younger equal better? Birgit Fischer flips the script on that claim. The German sportswoman was both the youngest and oldest reigning Olympic canoeing champion, winning gold medals in the sport at the ages of 18 and 42. She’s won eight gold medals spanning six different games and was rightfully named Germany’s sportswoman of the year in 2004. The 50-year-old athlete still actively competes, and while she doesn’t deal with numbers, she certainly knows how to cope. "Without some stress, I cannot really run well," says the ageless champion.
- "Life is about timing.":It’s a nugget of wisdom from one of the world’s best athletes, mega Olympian Carl Lewis. Lewis was the most prominent figure in track and field since Jesse Owens, and he’s still a living legend. But timing is everything, they say, and nine-time gold medalist Carl Lewis is living proof. The vegan who competed and broke world records until the age of 30 attempted to run for the New Jersey Senate last year, but was removed from the Democratic ballot. Bad timing this time, King Carl.
- Being a loner is fine:Also known as: do you. Michael Phelps has been described by trainer Bob Bowman as "a solitary man," although he’s often praised for caring about his charitable foundation and his family. The 16-time medalist proves that doing your own thing can lead to success. Especially if doing your own thing involves years of disciplined practice and swimming faster than anyone’s ever swam before. Although it’s true that no one’s an island, there’s considerable evidence from this summer Olympian that being a lone wolf can place you at the head of the pack.
- Everyone idolizes their big sister:Sometimes, commonalities run in the blood. In Dominique Moceanu’s memoirOff Balance, she tells of receiving a letter from Jennifer Bricker, her long-lost biological sister. Bricker was born without legs and given up for adoption, but both girls were gymnasts. Before knowing that Moceanu was her sister, Bricker idolized the Olympian from afar. Says Bricker’s adoptive mother, "Nature is so much more dominant than you could ever made me believe before."
- Mustaches were always cool:If you get tired of looking at kids these days with their Fumanchus and handlebars, you have bad ’70s porno and Mark Spitz to thank. The Olympian swimmer who held the gold-medal record (until Michael Phelps) wouldn’t shave his mustache during the 1972 games — even though his competitors were shoring all their body hair. The mustache was a conversation piece and an Olympic icon, and Spitz’s satiric comments to a Russian coach spread the fad for years to come. In one interview, Spitz tells the tale. "I had some fun with a Russian coach who asked me if my mustache slowed me down. I said, ‘No, as a matter of fact, it deflects water away from my mouth, allows my rear end to rise and make me bullet-shaped in the water, and that’s what had allowed me to swim so great.’ He’s translating as fast as he can for the other coaches, and the following year every Russian male swimmer had a mustache."
- Love conquers all:Nadia Comaneci was the first Olympic gymnast to earn a perfect "10." She mastered her sport and did it so well that she (literally) broke the scoreboard. The Romanian gymnast also had to flee from her motherland in 1989. But seeking political asylum during a revolution and being the finest person on the planet at her trade isn’t enough for the superstar — she credits her romantic life as the most important thing. "My marriage to my husband, [fellow gymnast] Bart Conner in 1996," she says, "is my proudest personal moment."
- Be versatile:"You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world. I would consider it an honor to shake your hand." — King Gustav V, 1912, StockholmThe best thing you can do to have a great career? Be good at everything. Multi-event winner Jim Thorpe is known as one of the most versatile athletes of all time. Winning gold medals in the 1912 Olympics for the pentathlon and decathlon, the sports star also played a host of other sports. Another lesson we can learn from Jim Thorpe? Wait ‘em out. Although he violated the amateurism rules of the Olympic Games and was stripped of his medals, the sportsman’s glory was restored — 30 years after he died.
- Be great:"It’s important to push yourself further than you think you can go each and every day — as that is what separates the good from the great." — Kerri StrugKerri Strug was the pensive, blonde counterpart to Moceanu’s brunette spunk. The teammates are both members of the Magnificent Seven, but Kerri Strug is a true champion. The gymnast finished a vault routine at the 1996 Atlanta games with an injured ankle. Though sweat and pain showed on her face, Strug shrugged it off and persevered. A great sportswoman with a great attitude and the determination to go for the gold.
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