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The Afterlife of Perfection

Jan 5, 2014  - Casey Barrett

The Afterlife of Perfection: Misty Hyman and the business of inspiration…

Because I’m an eternal swim geek, with a self-absorbed soft spot for 200 flyers, Misty Hyman’s magical race back at the 2000 Sydney Games has always been a swim of deep fascination for me. Forced to name my favorite all-time Olympic moment, that’s my pick. It was more a miracle than Lezak’s anchor in Beijing; it was harder to fathom than Phelps’s impossible touch in the 100 fly at those same Games. Argue that all you like, that’s the beauty of comparing such moments. There are no right answers, only frozen-in-time memories.

Maybe it’s because I was there, seated at the elbow of a squealing Rowdy Gaines in the broadcast booth. I was a PA for NBC Olympics, assigned to scribble notes and splits for the most colorful voice of our sport, just two years removed from competition myself, and deeply conflicted over the pale, out-of-shape network staffer that I’d become.

Or maybe it’s because she was swimming my event. (Or, more accurately, I had swum her event…) I had the same dream, visualized it daily for years on end, and had come up short. Three long distant seconds short in Atlanta, to be exact. The vicarious envy surely runs deep.

But who needs navel-gazing personal connections to remember a moment like that? It comes down to one thing: I was inspired. And if you have a pulse, and any interest in the Olympics at all, so were you.

Misty Hyman’s 200 fly in Sydney falls in a select category of performance that can transcend the performer’s life. Call it the Afterlife of Olympic Upsets. You won’t find a Phelps or a Franklin or a Coughlin at this particular party. Those were favorites who did what was expected of them. And good for them. Their talents are outside the realm of relation, and so their inspiration is not the same. They’re not one of us, and there’s no point pretending they are.

The Upset Club exists on a different level, at a height where it almost feels possible to reach. That’s also an illusion, of course. The Misty Hymans and Jason Lezaks of the world were also filled with otherworldly talent, but on the big Olympic stage, they were more David than Goliath. And so, when they step from that stage and hang up the goggles, we want to hear about it. A lot. Folks will line up and pay for the privilege to hear how they did it.

It can become a career in itself.

This has always troubled me. Does achieving something so magnificent, so epic, mean that the rest of life can become a frozen recitation of that moment?

I caught up with Misty recently and asked her about it. When we spoke on the phone, I brought up the example of Billy Mills , one of the founding members of this select club. Back at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Mills ran to gold on the track in the 10,000 meters. It was such a stunning upset that the first words he heard when he crossed the finish line were: “Who are you?” The nearest official had no idea who Mills was; no one had given him a second thought.

I explained to Misty how I used to have that “Who are you?” quote up on my bulletin board while I was training for the ’96 Games. I went on to mention how, years later, when I worked on an NBC profile of Mills, I was disheartened to discover that his life since seemed to be one of endless repetition, sharing his Olympic triumph ad nauseam with countless audiences. I trailed off and asked Misty if she thought there was something just, I don’t know…

“Tragic and sad?” she asked with a laugh. “Yeah, maybe. But there’s also a lot more to it.”

We proceeded to talk about her own journey into the business of inspiration. Each year she delivers over 30 talks to a wide variety of audiences, from elementary schools to nursing homes; from corporate leaders to women in prison. She shares her story, her moment, and tries to relate it to the lives and the dreams of her audience. She is there to inspire them. There is nothing sad or tragic about it. But at first, it didn’t feel that way. “Back in 2002 or 2003, I was almost embarrassed to be doing it,” she remembers. “I told myself ‘you’re singing Glory Days, it’s time to hang it up and move on.’”

And so she did. She went off and got her MBA in hospitality and hotel management. She spent some time working in the ‘real world’; she gained some perspective far from the pool. But folks still wanted to hear her story. Like it or not, it remained her public identity. So, instead of fighting it, she embraced it. She joined the National Speakers Association and learned about the industry of inspiration. It started to feel like a lot more than Glory Days.

“Now I have eight to ten vignettes,” she explains. “Things like Teamwork and Goal Setting and Innovation. The Underdog Story and how sports is the best illustration of human potential. I usually pair three or four of these, based on the audience, and all have adult and kid versions.” There’s no shortage of schools and teams eager to hear from her, but she says her most fulfilling talks have come at an unlikely place: inside the walls of Arizona’s Perryville Women’s Prison.

“Before I spoke to these women, the Shawshank Redemption was about as close to prison as I’d ever got,” she says. “I had no idea what they would think of me, this Olympian from Scottsdale, but the moment I walked through the gates, I just relaxed. They were so receptive, so kind. And so many of them had gotten there just through bad luck, or the wrong man.”

After her first appearance, she became involved in a non-profit called Gina’s Team, an organization devoted to providing education and self-sufficiency to incarcerated women and men throughout the country. She’s been back to prison numerous times since. “The kids on swim teams, they’re usually already getting the messages that I talk about,” she says. “But in prisons, these are women who aren’t getting those positive messages. The distance they can move up is so much greater.”

Of course, pro bono talks to prisoners don’t help you pay the rent, something that Hyman has learned to balance through her involvement with the Speakers Association. “You learn that you need to have a certain quota of events you’ll do for free,” she says. “Then you need to mix it with paid appearances.”

Unsurprisingly, the best paid gigs tend to come from corporate appearances, often the hardest audiences to reach. How do Olympic athletes, who’ve barely worked any real jobs, relate to corporate types, I wanted to know. Turns out most just want to hear her Olympic story. But through her years away from the pool, she says she’s found new relevance in such seemingly mundane corporate priorities like sales and marketing.

In the end, it’s all storytelling, a lesson that applies to every business under the sun. It helps when your personal story to tell happens to be a do-you-believe-in-miracles moment before a billion people at the Olympic Games. Is it tragic to repeat that tale thousands of times, to make a living off of it? Well, that depends on what kind of storyteller you are.

“The farther you get from it, the more perspective you get,” says Hyman. “There’s a richness there. It takes on a mythological feel, even when it’s something that happened in reality. It feels like something that happened outside your own reality.”

What’s more inspiring than that?