On being ... a personal best

By Ingrid Sapona

I haven’t watched much of the Vancouver Olympics. I never participated in competitive sports and I’ve never liked speed or danger. So, watching someone hurling down a mountain nearly out of control, or flying through the air and doing somersaults with a board or skis attached to their feet, doesn’t do much for me.

Since I don’t follow any of the sports and I don’t know any of the athletes, it doesn’t matter much to me who gets the gold, silver, or bronze in the individual events. And, whenever the flags go up at medal ceremonies, I feel bad for those who came in second and third. While I’m sure every athlete who steps onto a podium at the Olympics is thrilled, I can’t help think that besides feeling like a winner, some silver and bronze medalists must also feel like a loser because they aren’t going home with the gold.

Even if you’re not really following the Games, when your country is hosting, it’s impossible to ignore them altogether. During the first week of the Games, it seemed every other story was about “Own the Podium”. I had no idea what that was about, but I couldn’t help notice it was getting a lot of air time. Commentators seemed to fall into two categories: those who thought Own the Podium was a joke (given Canada’s standing in the medal count early on) and those who thought Own the Podium made Canadians sound arrogant and overbearing -- traits that clash with Canadians’ self-image.

When I first heard the expression, I assumed it was basically a mantra the Canadian Olympic team’s psychologists had been encouraging our athletes to chant as they visualized themselves standing on the winner’s podium. Having, on occasion, tried “creative visualization”, I thought Own the Podium was a great idea -- certainly couldn’t hurt.

Then, after seeing a political cartoon showing a podium with a hefty price tag and a caption that implied that Canadian taxpayers certainly do “own it”, I figured Own the Podium must be something about increased funding for Canadian athletes in hopes of a particularly good showing on our home turf. Given how many millions of taxpayer dollars were spent hosting the Games, my attitude was: so what’s a few million more for the team.

It wasn’t until I heard at the start of week two of the Games that the Canadian Olympic Committee officially announced it was dropping Own the Podium that I actually found out what Own the Podium was all about. Apparently it was a $117 million quest (with $66 million of it taxpayer dollars) to have Canada win more medals at the Winter Games than any other country.

Even after learning that Own the Podium’s goal was being the top medal-scoring country, I couldn’t believe: (a) that people got upset when it was clear we would fall short of that mark, and (b) that people took it literally. I mean, really -- if you’re going to set a goal about medal winning, what else would you aim for but winning the most? But even so, surely people must realize that just because you throw lots of money at a goal doesn’t mean you’ll achieve it. I couldn’t help think that Canadians who were so down on Own the Podium would have felt better if they’d have looked at it the way I did: that Owning the Podium was really meant to inspire and motivate the athletes, not as some government expenditure meant to ensure a particular outcome.

Anyway, amid the non-stop chatter about the Olympics, the other day I finally heard something that changed my outlook about them forever. It was something the instructor in my spinning class said. Apparently he made the Canadian cycling team when he was 19. He said that once he was competing at the international level he realized that, though the difference between the first place finisher and the tenth place finisher may only be seconds, the difference in terms of talent and ability is vast. Given this, he said, the reality is that the majority of athletes at the Olympics realize they’re not going to win a medal but they go there to fulfill a dream to achieve their personal best.

That comment really got me thinking and helped me see the Olympics in a whole different way. In fact, I finally “get” that the Olympics are a metaphor for life. There are winners and losers and there’s victory and disappointment but in the end, regardless of the outcome, there’s satisfaction if you worked hard and gave it your all.

Ironically, with one day left in the competition, though the Canadian team hasn’t won the most medals overall, we’ve already set a record for most gold medals won by a host country. So, if the Own the Podium vision had only been about winning gold, we’d have achieved the goal. Mind you, if the goal had been that narrow, there’d have been people complaining that winning gold isn’t all there is to the Olympics. And that, of course, is the point my spinning instructor brought home to me. The spirit of the Olympics is as much about competing with yourself and pushing yourself to do your personal best as it is about winning a medal.

So -- hats off to all the Olympians and to the spirit within each of us that pushes us to achieve our own personal best, whatever that may be.

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a work in progress

By Ingrid Sapona

I’ve never been particularly coy about my age. But, for the past month or so I’ve been debating about whether I’d write a column about turning 50. I don’t think I was in denial about it, but I did worry about shattering the picture some readers might have of me as a nubile, Victoria’s Secret model type. But, given that my age is likely to come up in news stories when I win the Pulitzer, I may as well admit here that I first graced the stage in February 1960.

Actually, the main reason I didn’t think I’d write about turning 50 is because I don’t want to be one of those people who write about a fairly common experiences as though they’re the first person to have ever gone through it. You know the stuff I’m talking about -- books and articles by baby-boomers about things like becoming a parent or trying to balance family and work. Those books always seem full of recriminations and outrage that “no one ever told us about this…”. The way I see it, our parents’ generation didn’t write about such things because they weren’t nearly as self-absorbed as we are AND because they were too busy catering to us!

Anyway, I decided to write about it, in large part, because one of the biggest surprises about turning 50 is how much of a non-event it is. Don’t get me wrong, thanks to family and friends who went all-out, I had a wonderful long weekend of celebrating. But, the actual fact of being 50 doesn’t seem like a big deal. Given my general risk-averse nature and my good fortune of having good health, turning 50 isn’t really much of an accomplishment.

Mind you, just because I don’t feel any different days after turning 50 doesn’t mean I feel I’m the same person I was at, say, 40. (There’s no point in comparing how one felt at 18, 25, or in even in your 30s -- it goes without saying that because of biology alone my 50-year-old self is different.) If anything, turning 50 has gotten me thinking about how subtle and incremental the changes are -- and yet, when taken as a whole, the differences in who I am now and who I used to be are quite remarkable.

For example, awareness of being older than famous people really used to trip me up. I’m not talking about the realization that you’re old enough to be some Olympic athlete’s mother. I’m talking about realizing you’re older than some legend or world leader. I’ll never forget how weirded out I was when I found out in 2001 that Cal Ripkin (the Iron Man of baseball) is six months younger than me. But, looking back on it, it’s clear that shocking revelation helped prepare me for the inevitable -- being older than the President! Now I pretty much assume I’m older than most people in the news.

I find I’m also way less fixated on how much money some of my contemporaries make. At some point I finally stopped comparing myself to people whose salaries, bonuses and perks are the subject of articles in the business section of the paper. It took me a long time to realize that the obscenely high salaries constantly reported on represent the outliers, not the norm. And, more importantly, somewhere along the way to 50 I realized that salary shouldn’t be confused with self-worth.

I also know a lot more about friendship. When you’re young, friendships seem to come easy: you’re thrown together through circumstance (classes and activities) and if the same things make you giggle, you’re pretty much friends. It wasn’t until my 30s and 40s that a few particularly special people helped me see the attributes I truly value in a friend -- qualities I now try to bring to my friendships with others.

At some point I realized that being fiercely independent doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let people help you. I’ve finally learned that when people offer to help, it isn’t necessarily because they think I can’t get by on my own. Indeed, I now see accepting someone’s help as a way of honouring them.

And I’ve become more self-aware, especially when it comes to the many ways and times I’m overly critical -- of myself and others. Though I’d like to say that at 50 I’ve stopped being so critical, that would be a lie. But, I’ve gotten much better at recognizing when my critical nature takes over and I’ve learned to rein it in and to focus my energy on cultivating equanimity instead. Admittedly, I’ve not mastered equanimity but, more-and-more, I find myself consciously striving toward it and feeling the rewards of it.

And, though it may sound obvious, the biggest difference is that I’ve come to realize that life is a work in progress. At 18 I thought I was fully formed. I was oh-so grown up -- sure of myself, my abilities, and my path. But, in my 20s and 30s, as I made my way head-first down that path, if something happened that seemed to send me off course, I used to re-double my efforts to get be back on that course. Thankfully, over time I realized such effort is often both emotionally draining and pointless, as life has a way of unfolding as it sees fit.

I guess the best thing about being this age is that I’ve learned to not only accept course corrections, but to greet them for what they are: new adventures. So, I have to say -- I’m looking forward to the next 50!

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona