I’m a huge fan of the Winter Olympics. My favorite movie of all time is Miracle, about the United States ice hockey team’s stunning victory over the heavily favored Soviet squad at the 1980 Olympics. My fourteen-year-old son Tate is an elite youth hockey player, so the Olympics are basically on 24/7 in our house.
The other day I found myself watching the women’s slalom skiing event. The favorite to win was Mikaela Shiffrin, the 26-year-old American who has won 47 World Cup races in slalom—the most by any skier in a single discipline—including two gold medals. Two days earlier she had crashed 11 seconds into the opening run of the giant slalom, so this was her chance for redemption. Except, shockingly, Shiffrin once again skidded out of control and careened off course—this time a mere 5 seconds into the race. For the second time in a row, one of the best skiers in the world recorded the most dreaded Olympic result: “Did Not Finish.”
The NBC cameras zoomed in on Shiffrin as she clipped out of her skis and sat alone on the side of the course, head bowed, processing what had just happened. The cameras stayed glued to her face even as the next few skiers attempted their runs, ensuring millions of people around the world could see every tear. Eventually she made her way down the slope and gave a heart-wrenching interview. “It makes me second-guess the last 15 years, everything I thought I knew about my own skiing and slalom and racing mentality,” Shiffrin admitted.
For days, Shiffrin was pilloried by the media: She couldn’t handle the pressure, she choked, she let her country down—never mind that she had battled a back injury and Covid-19. Many were speculating that after those two devastating losses, Shiffrin wouldn’t race again in the Olympics. Except, a few days later, she got back up and entered the super-G, an event in which she has rarely competed and was not expected to medal. This time she finished the course, coming in ninth. Four days later she entered the downhill, easily her weakest event. She didn’t win, but once again she got back up and finished 18th in the race. In my book, that’s worth more than any medal.
On Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI. No one expected the Bengals to make it that far guided by a plucky 25-year-old quarterback named Joe Burrow. Despite being sacked a league-leading fifty-one times during the regular season, a record nine times during the divisional round of the playoffs, and a record-tying seven times during the Super Bowl, he got up every time. After the Super Bowl, Burrow didn’t dwell on the loss. He said he was inspired by Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who went undrafted in the 1994 NFL Draft and was forced to stock grocery shelves for $5.50 an hour. Yet Warner got back up, and against all odds clawed his way back to the NFL and became MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV.
Watching Mikaela Shiffrin and Joe Burrow get back up made me think about all the times I’ve fallen down in life. After I graduated college, my dream was to attend law school. I applied to thirty-seven schools—surely one of them would let me in, despite my 2.0 GPA and abysmal LSAT scores. Even though these were among the least competitive law schools in the country, I got rejected by every single one. It was the most devastating period of my life, and I could easily have spun into depression. Except, I got back up and decided to get my MBA instead, and the rest is history.
Then I thought about my stepson, Anthony, who was rejected by West Point Military Academy two years ago. Instead of moping, Anthony got back up and attended military prep school for a year to raise his GPA. He reapplied to West Point with a perfect 4.0 GPA, and this time he was accepted. Today, Anthony is thriving at America’s greatest military institution.
When it comes down to it, life isn’t about winning the gold. It’s not about winning every single time. Life is about pulling yourself up after wiping out and entering the next race, even if everyone is telling you to stay down. At the end of the day, you can tell a lot more about someone’s character by how they handle defeat rather than how they accept success. When it matters most, staying on your feet is great—but getting back up after you fall is even greater.