It began when I was ten.
That summer, the summer of ’84, my parents piled my sister and I into a used van and we headed west from our upstate New York home. For ten weeks we lived out of that van, traversing the country and stopping everywhere from Yellowstone and Mt. Rushmore to Wall Drug and the Corn Palace. It was an incredible journey with an even more fantastic destination: Los Angeles and the Games of the XXIII Olympiad.
That was the summer that my deep love of the Olympics was born. I was there when the now-familiar Olympic Fanfare and Theme was heard for the very first time in history during the Opening Ceremony, I was there when Mary Lou Retton tumbled across the floor towards America’s first All-Around gold, I was there when Carl Lewis flew down the track in world record time, and I was there when the president of the IOC handed the Olympic flag to the South Korean president and he danced across the stage with it like a child with a shiny new toy.
What is it about the Olympics that captures our imaginations and makes us stand still and hold our breath for sixteen days? Is it the beauty of a tiny gymnast spinning through the air and the powerful majesty of a swimmer moving through water? Is it the look on an athlete’s face when he bows his head to receive his gold medal and the way a runner falls to her knees after winning the 100-meter dash? Or is it the bubble in which the Olympics seems to exist, as though all the evil of the world, all that stuff outside, cannot touch it? It is all of these things, and a thousand things more.
My father was a marathoner who participated in the Olympic Trials in ’68. And though he didn’t make it to Mexico City that year, he continued to run marathons for decades after. He loves running so much that he founded the Road Runners Club in the county where we lived and trained my stepmother for her own marathons. I’m sure when he ran in the Trials he could only see the immediate goal of getting to the Olympics in front of him. When he didn’t achieve that, instead of quitting, he turned his passion into a lifelong love, and inspired others to do the same.
As writers, we’re engaged in a marathon every time we start a new story. When we write, we go into that zone that marathoners talk about: just one foot in front of the other, just one moment at a time. Don’t worry about Mile 23 when you’re at Mile 15. And don’t forget to breathe.
We may not all win the publishing equivalent of a gold medal: a Pulitzer or a Newbery or a RITA. But if we fill ourselves with joy every time we sit down to write, just as a runner does when he steps out onto the track in the morning light, we have won. If we turn our passion into a lifelong love, we have won. And if you’ve ever written the words THE END, you know you’ve run a marathon.
My father never held it against the Olympics that he didn’t make it there. He’s been to every Summer Games since the 1976 Montreal Games, except for Moscow ’80 and Seoul ’88. He’s in Beijing right now, watching the marathoners trickle into the Bird’s Nest, one by one, each on their own journey. That is the beauty of the Olympics; it loves everyone that comes to it with a dream or a hope or a desire to be inspired.
Writing is like that too. It loves us deeply. It wants us to succeed, whatever that might mean to us. It whispers encouragement in our ear as we tie our laces and set our foot on that track. It loves us even when we falter at Mile 21 and rejoices when we cross the finish line.
The Olympic Creed reads, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” They are words we hold true for sixteen days every four years, and should carry with us every day in between.