JENN SUHR AT THE RIO OLYMPICS
I can see why Jenn Suhr would feel disappointed.
But I can also see why she might feel grateful.
The best female American pole vaulter of the last decade, a world and Olympic champion, she was struck down with a mystery illness at the Rio Olympics and, though the odds-on favorite to win, failed to medal.
It was a massive heartbreak.
Four years of effort and focus came to naught. The center of her life came undone, and instead of standing masterfully at the end of the runway, she said her legs barely held her upright, and she failed at the one thing she has always done right. The power was taken from her hands, the ability ebbed from her body, and her fate was not her own to pick.
And she issued a statement that spoke of tears and sorrow, about the contrast between letting yourself down and letting your fans down. It was a statement of bewilderment and despair, about character and sorrow.
It was a massive heartbreak.
And a priceless opportunity to learn.
I suspect the Jenn Suhr who comes out of this experience will be a stronger, more inspiring, more compassionate, more useful Jenn Suhr than the one who might have stood on the podium to accept her second Olympic gold medal.
On the one hand, she had the opportunity to defend her Olympic championship, and medal in her third consecutive Olympics, to demonstrate herself a world master of her sport over a several-year period.
On the other hand – the hand she was dealt – she now has the opportunity to be a better teacher, friend, counselor and inspiration. At Rio, her storybook career took a detour through reality, and there is every likelihood she will be a better person and athlete for it. There is every likelihood that at Rio, as sickness ravaged her body, her life took the turn to a higher road.
Time may well show that, at Rio, Jenn Suhr faced an ordeal that tempered and strengthened her, and set her on her true purpose in life.
Because while a pole-vaulting career is temporary, character is forever. Competitions will come and go, but who you are and what you can contribute are enduring.
And what Jenn Suhr learned in Rio has the potential to be an eternal lesson.
In our own pains and disappointments, we learn the empathy and compassion that help us counsel and console others in their pains and disappointments. Sometimes, it seems that Providence has us taste suffering so that we might help lift others from their suffering. A smiling Jenn Suhr with a chest full of medals is a star, an athlete to look up to. But a Jenn Suhr who went through the disappointment of Rio is a friend who can put a truly understanding arm around those who meet their own disappointments in life. Nobody understands tears who hasn’t shed them.
As a coach or encourager of other athletes, her example of years of international success is impressive. But it puts her in a category few of the rest of us understand or can relate to. The heartbreak and failure of Rio, however, allow us to understand her and her to understand us. There are far more athletes in the world who know disappointment than know the medals podium, and Jenn Suhr now has a forever bond with them.
As she reaches down to give a fallen competitor a hand up – in sports or in life – her experience now allows her to know exactly how they are feeling, and to thereby be of greater service and inspiration to them.
She also has served through the metaphor of sports, the inclination in our culture to apply the principles of the field to the particulars of our lives. Jenn Suhr was robbed by illness of a glory that was almost certainly hers. Many others are robbed of glories by things – often unfair things – beyond their control. There are divorces, and diagnoses, and pink slips. There are strivings that come to naught, dreams that turn to ash. That is reality, a reality faced by many.
Jenn Suhr now becomes a strength to those facing such realities.
Some will see her resolve in the face of biting disappointment and dig deep to find their own resolve. Some will find it in response to what they saw on TV from Rio. Some will find it in speeches a former pole vaulter will give long years from now.
The reality of Rio qualifies Jenn Suhr in a way a storybook ending never could have. She got a graduate degree from the school of hard knocks. Now, if she writes a book, she’ll have something to say. Now, if people gather around, they will have something to learn.
With two gold medals, Jenn Suhr would have been a star. As it is, she can become a leader.
And one of those is far more useful than the other.
The funny thing about life is that our worst days can actually be our best days.
And that someday might be said about Jenn Suhr’s heartbreak in Rio.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2016