Every two years, I try to clear my schedule so that I can watch many hours of Olympic coverage on television. I find it thrilling to watch the sporting events and to cheer on Team USA. I am also intrigued with the back stories of how the athletes have spent years training for their sport, and to learn of the personal sacrifices they and their families have made so that they could reach such a high level of performance.
Watching the Olympics brings back some of the dreams that I had as a child. I can remember watching the Winter Olympics and wishing that I could twirl and jump and spin around the ice as a ballerina-like figure skater. During the Summer Games, I would watch the powerful yet graceful gymnasts and the springboard divers as they flew threw the air with such ease and precision.
By the time I was nine years old, I begged my parents to let me join the YMCA so that I could run and jump and twirl and spin and play sports. They finally gave in right after my baby sister was born.
We lived in a two-flat house on the Near North Side of Chicago which consisted of five rooms for a family of six. So if you wanted room for physical activities, you had go outside and play in the yard or down the block with friends. That was ok in the summertime, but Chicago winters can be long and hard, and activities then needed to be indoors.
In my Catholic school, St. Josephat’s, the gym was reserved for Bingo and other parish events. How I longed to play basketball there as my mother had done as a child. No such luck in the 1950’s as Bingo brought in big revenue for the church and school, so that took precedence over physical education.
I believe that is why my mother finally gave in and let me join the “Y.” She knew I needed to expend some energy and enjoy sports the way she had when she was growing up.
For the next five or six years, the “Y” filled a void I had in my life…my desire to be an athlete. It is there that I learned how to swim and dive, play softball and volleyball and basketball, and do gymnastics such as trampoline and rings and parallel bars and tumbling. I loved the track meets and swim meets and ball tournaments with my teammates who became my close friends.
When I became a teenager, I focused on diving…and by then my teammates were my best friends. We spent so much time together in the pool and in traveling to meets that they became like family. By then we also became members of Teen “Y” and the Junior Leaders Corp, and in those groups we were taught how to be leaders and mentors to the kids who were younger than us and who were coming up the ranks.
The pinnacle of my career came when I placed Fourth in the City of Chicago and Sixth in the State of Illinois YMCA Diving Championships. It was after those achievements that our coach asked my friend Susie and I if we wanted to dedicate more time to training so that we could reach higher levels in our sport. She held out the hope that we might do very well in the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) Championships and perhaps even earn a college scholarship to her alma mater, Indiana University.
We took extra time to train with our coach that summer, and then we would decide our future. Neither one of us wanted to do it alone, so we decided on the “buddy system.” Either we would both be willing to extend our training, or we would both move on to other interests which were looming large. I wanted to try out for cheerleading and write for my school newspaper, and I knew that I couldn’t do those activities if I continued to pursue a career in diving. Sue had similar thoughts. One day we sat down with our coach and she told us: “If your heart isn’t in it, then its ok to pursue other interests.” She gave us permission to walk away from a sport we loved, but not whole heartedly.
I will always be grateful to my diving coach and all the other mentors and instructions that I had at the Lincoln-Belmont YMCA where I spent many formative years. They taught me the importance of dedication and hard work as well as joy in participating in a sport that required all of me: “Body, Mind and Spirit”…the YMCA motto.
At this stage of my life, the words “Body, Mind and Spirit” are once again echoing in my life. At the ripe age of 70, I am now engaged in a wellness/fitness program so that I can become more physically fit as well as to stay spiritually and mentally happy and healthy.
Once again, I find myself “Going for the Gold” this summer. Its not easy to stay motivated, but I continue to be inspired by the athletes of the 2016 Rio Olympics.