Spectacular victories are the vistas, not the destinations, on Olympic path

As much as I love to watch Olympic TV coverage, I must admit the media don't show - can't show - the real Olympics.

There is motivation behind training for the Olympics that - at least for some athletes - has nothing to do with medals or money. There are goals toward which performance-enhancing drugs cannot contribute. And there are accomplishments that clocks and judges and crowds may hint at, but do not always accurately assess. All stem from the essence of the Olympic Games: citius, altius, fortius.

Swifter, higher, stronger: the driving force of the Olympic spirit. It articulates an ancient continuum of progress, on which spectacular victories are but vistas, not destinations. Its almost magical nature is not borne out in fairy-tale endings but in awe-inspiring, persistent, unending pursuits of excellence.

This spirit cannot be captured - or understood - by the glamour and commercialism of two-minute TV specials, complete with melancholic music and dramatic lighting. But neither can it be hobbled by that.

On dusty Kenyan roads and rugged Norwegian hillsides, Olympic hopefuls are imbibing this spirit 365 days a year, glistening with sweat unseen by any TV camera or approving crowd. One-thousandth of a second may be all that will keep them from becoming an Olympian someday, but the experience itself will be a rudder for excellence throughout their lives regardless of their results.

At the heart of it, the ancient Olympic motto has as much to do with daily life as it does with athletics. It's not something to be put in a box and showcased every four years. It's not something reserved for the physically elite. It's an attitude toward life, a commitment to press on - no matter what the challenges at hand - with courage, conviction, and dedication.

I remember being introduced to this attitude on a fall day in New Hampshire. My dad wrapped his strong fingers around my 7-year-old shoulder, looked me straight in the eye, and reminded me to put my whole heart into the family project at hand: splitting and stacking wood to burn in our woodstove that winter. I didn't like the splintery ends of logs digging into my tired arms, but the idea of doing something really well - despite the difficulties that entailed - began to grow on me.

I got better acquainted with this idea while training for the Olympic cross-country ski team on Alaskan glaciers and wildflower-lined roads in northern Minnesota. Putting my college education on the back burner, I trained 51 weeks a year and led a relatively solitary, nomadic life. Strict discipline governed my days, and necessarily so.

If I had a pool big enough for all the tears I shed on steep muddy uphills and squeaky-cold ski trails, I could probably host an Olympic swimming competition. If missed opportunities had physical size, I'd need a bigger duffel bag for weddings I didn't attend and relationships I struggled to maintain.

But all of these challenges were part of the thrill, and the effort to overcome them created an artistic composition of sorts. Though raw and unpolished, it had the beauty of sincerity.

Striving daily for higher levels of excellence in all we do - whether lifting weights or raising a family - can be messy, even downright miserable at times. But it's real living, and it gets you somewhere.

Whether self-imposed or socially fostered, the fears and attitudes that shorten our strides and hobble our horizons do a disservice not only to us, but also to those we can aid and inspire.

So while our hurdles may not be on a 400-meter track, and there's no one judging our daily performance of living life to the fullest, the achievements of Olympic athletes still hold a relevant and inspiring message for our lives: There's tremendous vitality, joy, and exhilaration to be discovered by locking into the spirit of an ancient, celebrated continuum of progress.

Christa Case is on the Monitor staff. She trained full time for five years to make the 2002 US Olympic cross-country ski team. Coming into the 2000-2001 pre-Olympic season, she was ranked fourth overall in the US, but had fallen to 14th by the time the eight-member Olympic team was chosen in January 2002.

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