London 2012: Why do Olympic athletes push themselves to the limit?

Updated: August 7, 2012

“We’re worried about you,” said my friend from across the table. His concern was an intervention set up by those who felt I had no longer become fun to train with and that I was in danger of being left with only a world championship jersey and no one to share it with.

I could have become angry, or defensive or even bitter. ‘Don’t they know how hard it is to be at the top in sport?’ Don’t they know what it takes to get there?’ However, deep down I knew elements of what he was saying were right and I respected the fact that he cared enough about me to address them. I had become pretty grumpy, I was always tired and every workout had a mental intensity that seemed too much for most to handle. I was pushing the limits and extremes beyond what most thought were healthy.

These are the demons I face as a professional athlete on a day to day basis. Who am I doing this for? How much is too much? Why am I doing this? How can I be so selfish? What’s the sacrifice for?

I think of the countless birthday parties I have missed or nights out I have sidestepped, ruining a family holiday in France because of the endless search for a swimming pool to train in, almost missing my brother’s wedding because I was too busy hiring a car in downtown Johannesburg and driving through the ‘no-go’ areas in order to do a group ride with the local triathletes. The list is endless and even somewhat ridiculous.

It boils down to this: I was born with an inordinate amount of drive and determination. From a small girl, I would stay in at lunchtime just to get ahead on class work rather than go out and play; I would get the bus on my own at 10 years old and go to swim 100 lengths of the pool while other kids played on floats; I was the only girl in a rugby club of 250 boys. I have always lived my life to extremes. Call it unhealthy if you want but that is the way I roll no matter what it is I’m applying myself to.

Being a professional athlete is no different and every Olympian competing in the coming weeks can attest to that. If you want to be an Olympic champion its all about that little extra thing have you done in your preparation that will set you apart from your competitors.

Can this become obsessive? Absolutely. But if your dream is to reach the podium, you had better be obsessive about your sport. In the words of the British triathlete Alistair Brownlee even if it means getting injured, “I’d prefer to have three or four cracking years of winning stuff than having 10years of being average”.

Doing what we do as athletes sets us apart because we are willing to do that extra little bit that might take us to the top. It is certainly not a balanced way to live and it is certainly not normal but then those words are generally not used for anyone who is striving for greatness.

And so this lifestyle is going to come with judgment from others. People who will say you are crazy or that you are going too far. Maybe they are jealous that they do not have the drive or opportunity you do, maybe they are too lazy to succeed in their own lives or maybe they are right. Every top athlete is a little crazy, a little obsessive, a lot selfish and certainly not quite the norm.

So that leads me to the sacrifice of it all. How can all this selfish pursuit of an individual goal be justified? You look at Bradley Wiggins’s winning the Tour De France and Olympic gold this year and then you read about the months he has spent away from his family. Then you look at the millions of people he has inspired by achieving what he has. There is no doubt that in every pursuit of greatness by an athlete, there is a support team that deserves as many accolades as the athlete themselves.

While at times I know that what I do is incredibly selfish, I also know that I inspire others through what I achieve just as Wiggins has. And as I turn my hand to other things like coaching, I find that I can use my experiences to really propel and inspire people to challenge themselves in their own lives, to go on a journey of self discovery that I have through the sport, that for me is what justifies my seemingly selfish pursuit to be at the top. So in short, cut these Olympians some slack because many limits and extremes reached off the field will lead to their success on it!

And that is why, when my friends told me they were worried about me, I did not take a few weeks off. I plastered a smile on my face and got back in the pool, back on my bike and back out running as intensely as I have always pursued my dreams with and as a consequence won my second world title at the ITU Cross World Championships in May. Do not get me wrong, I have taken note that I need to be grateful of my situation and celebrate the joy in my sport more, even if Mrs Grumpy might rear her ugly head from time to time.

London 2012: Why do Olympic athletes push themselves to the limit?
Just another WordPress site