For every Apollo Ohno, Nancy Kerrigan or Carl Lewis who end up on a Wheaties box and do Nike commercials, there are hundreds of athletes who participate in the Olympics and then go home to get jobs and raise families in relative obscurity. They are the ordinary olympians. After Seoul, I was so disappointed that I didn't make it onto the medal stand, I went home with dark glasses on, and never mentioned to anyone that I had been in the Olympics. I didn't want to have to say that I was just one of the hundreds who went, but didn't excel.
I knew that the Olympic motto was Citius, Altius, Fortius -faster, higher, stronger - the comparative, not the superlative form of the words. But somehow I had gotten the message that being the best was what this was all about. If you don't get up to that top block on the medal stand, if you didn't put together the best performance of your life, if you didn't win, then you failed.
Sometime after I got home, after I had Eric, I began doing yoga again. I first started doing yoga back in 1980 at U Penn, when our coach decided that we would all develop balance, flexibility and strength if we did yoga for an hour after running stadiums. Joan White, now an Iyengar Yogini master, came to a room under the stadium to teach us. At first it was torture to bend our bodies into asanas right after running stairs. But Joan cajoled us. Breathe into the belly of the muscle. I had to hear her say it a few times before I could figure out what she meant. But then I tried it, sending my breath to a locked up hamstring or hip flexor. From Joan, in the dingy weight room under the Penn stadium, I discovered the power of practice and the magic of the breath. But it wasn't until about 10 year later that I began to understand better what yoga practice and breathing had in common with the Olympic motto.
My friend Eric Hamilton always reminds me that in sport, the question is not "What have you done?" it's "What have you done lately?" Seems like kind of a harsh way of looking at things, until you keep thinking about it. Yoga is about practice. There is no state of mastery. And the Olympic motto is about the process, not the outcome. As soon as you reach that superlative state, you are done. But there is no superlative state. You are never done. What I finally figured out about being an ordinary olympian is that participating in the Olympics was a chance for me to learn about living, and a chance for me to grow up in my sport. Being an ordinary olympian is about getting up every day, trying, learning and then trying again.
Once I figured that out, I started to see the ordinary olympians around me, people who had never participated in sports, but who knew how to practice. That torch that the runners carry from Athens to every new Olympic stadium took on a new meaning for me. The Olympic flame is not about the light that reflects off gold medals; it's the flame that burns in people, athletes and non-athletes alike, who care enough to try hard, who get up every day and try again in relative obscurity. I never got a medal in Seoul. I got over that when I started to see that flame in all the ordinary olympians around me every day.