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Olympic Success, Olympic Failure

Feb 12, 2014  - Nikki Dryden

Watching US Olympic snowboarder Shaun White on the Today Show this morning, I reflected on my own Olympic successes and failures. It has been over 20 years since I swam in Barcelona and almost as long since Atlanta, yet at times my emotions are still as raw.

White was the two time defending halfpipe champion heading into Sochi. Once the young star who changed the face of snowboarding to become more athletic than extreme, today he is the old timer. At 27, White has maturity and experience on his side, but he was plagued by injury and as so many of us do in our “old age” he had to drop events to focus on his one shot at further Olympic glory.

I was fixated on the screen, watching and listening intently. He is well spoken and poised. He was positive, but in pain. I recognized almost every feeling he was going through. Although I never had the same Olympic high as White, I too have my Olympic failures and successes.

Intellectually, I am “over it.” But the fact that I have to explain what that means, proves I am not really over failing to achieve my once life-long dream of Olympic gold. Although I have learned to appreciate my successes and failures as a swimmer and I can certainly preach to young swimmers about the importance of the journey, my eyes still well with tears and my stomach still knots when I see an athlete living the dream of Olympic gold.

In ’92 in Barcelona I was 17. I snuck from the ready room to the edge of pool deck before the 4x100 medley relay so I could watch Mark Tewksbury swim the 100 back live. He had said to me at lunch that day in the village that he could feel something special was going to happen. He had a confidence that made me know that I had couldn’t watch this on a closed circuit television. Our relay went on to finish 6th in Canadian record time. Yet I was so self-absorbed, so disappointed with my own individual performance that I didn’t even stop to watch my teammates finish.

The following year, as I battled post-Olympic blues and a fervent desire to get out of my hometown and down to Gainesville, Florida for college, I would watch Mark’s gold-medal race almost every day before I went to afternoon practice. I was obsessed with capturing his emotion, of doing everything I could to feel what he felt. I was obsessed with winning.

My international career continued for another 8 years. My obsession continued for as long and during this time I never really learned to appreciate swimming for swimming’s sake, to appreciate the moments, the emotions for the experiences they were.

Some days I do think of my career as a success. That is in part thanks to Jackie Joyner Kersee, the woman who first inspired me to Olympic dreams as I watched her at the ’84 Los Angeles Olympics. I was 9, and her story, along with Bud Greenspan’s films, had me focused on one thing in life: Olympic glory. In 2005, I met her when we were both campaigning for New York City’s 2012 Olympic bid. More than once I confessed to her that she was my inspiration, my hero. Humbly, she responded simply with something to the effect of, ‘you aren’t too bad either.’ Over 5 years after my career had ended in a failed comeback attempt at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and I had NEVER thought of my swimming career as a success.

Today I see my achievements in context. I am a success. I am also a failure. I am a survivor of a great many things. I don’t feel the emotion of the wins as strongly as I feel the emotions of the losses. But I do remember moments of pride (often from sets done in training) the best. I remember the cities I travelled to, the friends I made, my coaches, the outside political events that shaped the world around me. I realize that success can be defined by more than just winning.

This is why intellectually I can say truthfully that swimming is, or should be, about the journey, not the destination.

But today there is still that desire, that Monday morning quarterbacking, that voice that cannot be silenced. Today, I still dream of Olympic gold.