By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor
Last week, a Seattle Times article revealing that 1980’s cycling legend Rebecca Twigg is now homeless ricocheted around Bike World social media. In many of the posts that crossed my feed, it arrived adorned with a single word: “Shocked.”
My only shock came upon reflecting how wholly unsurprised I felt reading the story of a woman with transcendental talent who struggled to fit into a world where her gift was no longer accessible or relevant. “Once you’ve done something that feels like you’re born to do it, it’s hard to find anything that’s that good of a fit… anything else that feels that way,” Twigg told the Times.
Who You Are Shapes The Athlete You Are
A few days before the Twigg story appeared, I moderated a panel discussion of retired elite athletes for Boulder’s Conference on World Affairs entitled, “Reaching the Top of Your Game: How do sports help you be your best self?” In response to a question about how sports had helped him develop personally, Chris Thomforde, a basketball player and Sports Illustrated cover boy circa 1967, said he believed that sports do not actually create our character, but rather reveal what is already present.
On its face, this seems a positive and motivating statement, but as Twigg’s story shows, exactly how those sport-revealed traits impact an athlete may depend on the individual. In the Times article, Inga Thompson, one of Twigg’s contemporaries, noted that some of the traits that made her former teammate and competitor such a force on a bicycle were exactly what made it hard for her to exist in a traditional, workforce society.
One of the athletes on my CWA panel, soccer icon Hope Solo, cited her competitive spirit as one of the greatest gifts of her sports career. Frequently cited as one of the best female goalkeepers of all time, Solo was often criticized for fiery comments and impulsive choices — actions that could easily have been pushed along by that same spirit.
Solo’s contract with U.S. Soccer was terminated following critical comments she made about the Swedish team after they knocked the Americans out of the tournament at the 2016 Olympics. Afterward, she issued as statement that read, “I could not be the player I am without being the person I am, even when I haven’t made the best choices or said the right things.” Perhaps it is up to us to determine whether to let our strengths be a benefit or a burden — Solo now works as an outspoken equal-pay and equal-rights activist.
“Sports bring out the best and worst in us,” says CTS coach and former US National Road Champion Matthew Busche. “It is in the deepest and darkest moments that our true colors are revealed.”
Now a coach, Busche has had the opportunity to watch many athletes develop through the trials of training and competition. “You become incredibly vulnerable when you are run down and tired late in an event or during a hard training cycle. Those are the moments that define us.”
The Athlete You Are Shapes The Person You Become
In some cases, the habits that enable athletic success do carry over into the real world. George DiCarlo, a gold-medalist swimmer at the 1984 Olympics who is now a medical scientist and avid cyclist, told me his professional pursuits frequently benefit from his ability to set goals.
“I love strategy,” says DiCarlo. “I love breaking down swims, goals, other people. And I love trying to figure out how to get from A to Z in the shortest possible way. From a strategic standpoint — you tell me what you want in six months, and I’ll figure out the quickest way and break down some of the barriers to get there.”
DiCarlo honed those techniques as a young swimmer. “From 12 years old until high school, I wrote goals every season — what the splits were, what I needed to be doing in practice, I wrote them out and I had them in my locker and I had them in my bathroom in my house,” DiCarlo said. “I saw them everywhere. By the time I got to college, I had enough under the bridge that I didn’t need to write them out, I could just keep them rolling in my head all the time.”
Sports can also help build the appetite and confidence necessary to go after those big goals in the first place. “I’ve taken those insanely hard obstacles I’ve overcome in sport to smaller challenges in daily life,” says CTS coach Jane Rynbrandt.
“Sport can give us the confidence to approach the impossible,” says CTS coach Clayton Feldman. “If that means a challenging event, high level goal, or difficult career path… The skills you learn from training, and the trust you build in yourself can have immeasurable results.”
The Downside of Singular Focus
Still, the personal-strength revelations of our sporting careers don’t always find an automatic application in the real world. During my own professional racing career, I thrived off of the challenge and motivational power of pursuing a single, consuming goal. Now, when I can’t figure out where I am going, or when the steps to get there aren’t linear, measurable workouts, I flounder.
Even champion-grade goal-setter DiCarlo admits he struggled to use his talent for strategy in the years immediately following his Olympic gold. “I lived singularly focused for August 1 and August 3. I knew those dates four years prior, and I didn’t know what August 5 was going to be, I didn’t have a clue. It’s still vivid 35 years out,” he told me this week.
Perhaps, as we look at the ways that sports participation influences our lives outside of competition or training, we must consider this: Sports can do an excellent job of teaching and revealing, but it is still up to us to remember our strength and apply what we have learned. That isn’t always an easy task.