Winning and losing on a big stage … and all the little ones

When you’re an Olympics junkie, you’re interested in who wins the gold medal, of course. That story of triumph is told over and over again during the Winter Olympics, this year in Sochi.

But more interesting, at least for me, is seeing how the silver medalist reacts. Or the athlete who comes in fourth (thereby missing the medal stand altogether). Often, these places are decided by hundreds of a second or hundreds of a point.

What is it like to spend your life training for something and then miss getting it by a hair’s breadth?

Some people might want to go home and crawl into a hole forever.

But these athletes never do (or at least, they don’t do that during NBC’s wall-to-wall coverage so if they do that, we don’t hear about it).

Instead, they shrug and smile. Or they get mad and come back next time for “redemption.”

That’s part of what made Lindsey Jacobellis’ story so fascinating four years ago in Vancouver. She was the snowboarder with the blonde curly hair. NBC told the story of her “tragedy” in Turin about a half dozen times: When she was almost assured of getting the gold medal eight years ago, she hotdogged on the last hill in the last competition and blew it. Vancouver was supposedly her chance for redemption, but in the end she blew it again and finished fifth.

Most of us never would have made it to Vancouver. We might have punished ourselves mercilessly for being so careless. But she made it to her second Olympics (logically, even that is a grand achievement), tried again for gold, and failed.

“I’ve had a great career, but sometimes I dominate and sometimes I fall into a funk where things like what happened today happen,” she said at the time. “It’s not the end of the world.”

Well, logically, of course it’s not the end of the world. She lost a snowboarding competition. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t get more inconsequential. But she failed to earn a medal in the Olympics, the biggest sporting competition in the world. She failed.

Fran Tarkenton puts a great perspective on Lindsey Jacobellis’ Olympic failure and on one’s own failures in life.

“Winning means being unafraid to lose,” said the former Minnesota Viking and, for you kids from the 1980’s TV generation, a host on “That’s Incredible.”

Lindsey Jacobellis was unafraid to lose. She took a chance. Losing didn’t kill her. She would never try to win if she was afraid.

So it’s the courage we ought to admire in the silver medalists and the fourth place finishers. They are willing to try and strong enough to lose.

We’ll get to see Jacobellis again Sunday when she competes in her third Olympics. Now coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, she’s a favorite.

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