Inspiration from the top

The Winter Olympics are now in full swing, and they bring an abundance of inspiring stories in the same way as the Summer Olympics of London 2012 did.

Much will be written about new Olympic champion Lizzy Yarnold over the coming months, and UK Sport will rightly see her as further evidence that their Talent ID programmes such as Girls4Gold deliver tangible results. Such was her dominance of the women’s skeleton event ahead of Sochi 2014 that many (unreasonably) suggested that the result was never in doubt. Given the scarcity of Winter Olympic gold medals in the history of the GB team, it is surely only a matter of time before the tabloids dub her Lizzy Yarngold.

Lizzy-Yarnold

[Photo credit www.telegraph.co.uk]

Speaking in a radio interview only minutes after her winning run, she repeated the same message we heard from other Olympic champions at London 2012:

  • I was lucky that others believed in me.
  • Getting this far required tremendous sacrifices.
  • Dreams do come true.
  • I’ve always believed in myself.

Having won her first Olympic gold medal moments earlier, one might have expected her to suggest a serious celebration followed by some time off. But when asked about her plans for the coming few weeks she said she was looking forward to getting back to training, and then visiting schools near her Kent home to inspire school children.

Appearing on BBC television the morning after, she was asked about her forthcoming medal ceremony later that day and whether she saw that as the culmination of everything she had worked for. Almost unbelievably she said no; instead she talked about the process of continuous self-improvement as being what drove her on.

This desire to “be the best one can be” is evident in many true champions, and is altogether different from yearning for a gold medal. After London 2012, Olympic champions Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins believed that they could have been even better than they were, and they would have spent the next four years working towards proving it at Rio 2016 had maternal instinct not kicked-in. In his autobiography A Golden Age, Steve Redgrave makes the same point, and Ben Hunt-Davis does too. Even during these Winter Olympics, we have heard athletes talking about delivering new personal best performances and being delighted at their achievements – even if it means coming “only” 7th. It’s not about a medal – it’s about finding and extending one’s personal limits.

Lizzy’s determination to actively inspire others is, in itself, inspiring – and it echoes the motivation she herself received from Denise Lewis, who since her own retirement has encouraged children to participate in sports at schools.

Many children will have watched Olympians competing and in doing so, a spark will have been created in some. Nurturing that spark into a small flame and then growing it will take a great deal of encouragement and stamina – and all but the very best will fall along the way. But nothing happens without that initial spark.

The crucial thing about this is that children are more readily inspired by young people; older people, for all their experience, achievements and enthusiasm just don’t have the same credibility with children. Even at the age of 25, young achievers such as Lizzy will have far greater influence than people twice her age and we must be eternally grateful that they are willing to do so much for others whilst still at their most influential.

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Feel free to comment on this post – I’d be interested to hear your views.
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