“For all the moms out there, I hope that this was a very inspiring day.”
Today’s Olympics are about busting athletes out of the shrink wrap every four years, admiring them, cheering for them and then, when the studio lights dim and it is convenient to do so, moving on from them.
There is Michael Phelps, the ageless, timeless, flawless Neptune — this year’s version with spots. There are five tiny gymnasts, bedazzled and gleaming, their effortless routines the product of more work, sacrifice and tears than any child should endure. There is the casual cool of men’s basketball’s Dream Team 6.0, hanging out on a yacht, slaying on Olympic Village Tinder and never missing an opportunity to use their wingspan to create a perfect selfie.
We love them all, but after two weeks, it’ll be back in the bubble wrap and back in the box.
Then there’s Kristin Armstrong.
Armstrong is a Boise, Idaho-based cyclist whose LinkedIn page boasts her day job as Director of Community Health at St. Luke’s hospital. Below that it shows she’s a two-time gold medalist in time trial cycling — 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London.
Someone needs to update her profile.
Armstrong works a day job. She is a mother. She is an integral member of the community.
And the day before she turned 43, she also became a gold medalist for the third time.
It was a balmy, slick and rainy day in Rio Wednesday when Anderson set off on the final time trial competition of her career (at least she says so.) Time trial cycling is a solo effort, just a bike, a person and one goal of crossing the finish line fastest with both of those pieces in tact.
In a sense, it’s a perfect event for someone who knows what it’s like to get older, to have priorities other than what your desires allow and, frankly, has had to fit passion and training in the small spaces that real life affords.
Just after she crossed the finish line, she looked dazed scanning the sparse crowd for familiar faces and checking the watch against the clock. Finally, after a beat, she turned to an official.
“Did I win?” was her question.
Someone important nodded yes.
She didn’t jump up and down. She didn’t put her hands over her mouth in disbelief. She didn’t reach over for a warm embrace.
She simply collapsed.
Right there on the wet pavement, she went fetal. Her nose started to bleed, her jaw shook uncontrollably and tears streamed down her cheeks.
And everyone who’s “been there” knew exactly how she felt.
I can see Anderson waking two hours pre-dawn to get a long ride in before her son wakes up. I can envision her in line for coffee telling someone she’s going to Rio. “To watch?” No. “To coach?” Not really.
I can imagine her nervously approaching her HR department trying to get a few days off to compete at the games. No opening ceremonies, no closing ceremonies, no Olympic Village shenanigans.
Monday she’ll be back at work.
I know what this is like because I wake up next to a mom-athlete every morning. Currently she’s training for a trail marathon in September. She gets up without fanfare, tiptoes into our two-year-old son’s room, admires him for a moment and tries not to get sad from the thought that she won’t be there when he stirs. She puts her shoes and hat and watch on — and escapes out the side door.
After she finishes her run she showers, grabs coffee and goes to work. Then she picks him up from daycare, spends time with him in the backyard before dusk, watering and showing him how to take care of plants. She feeds him, bathes him, makes him his bottle and snuggles with him on the couch.
Over and over and over again.
Nobody is cheering her out of bed. Nobody is telling her to keep going when her watch beeps at the seven-mile mark and she’s got nothing left. And there is no gold at the end of the rainbow. She does it because it sets an example about work and dedication. She does it because it makes her move her body. She does it because for a few minutes during every run, she is just her again.
After the medal ceremony, a makeshift podium stretched across a tarmac, Armstrong said the most wonderful thing: “For all the moms out there, I hope that this was a very inspiring day.”
Armstrong looks like your neighbor. Her face wears well the tears and the laughs and all the rain and snow and sun it has endured to get her to where she’s gotten. There are miles attached to that smile and deep pools of thought in those eyes.
We root for her because we know her. We root for her because we get her. We root for her because for one moment, a mortal like us became something just a little bit faster, a little bit stronger and a little bit better.
And that — and only that — is what makes an Olympian.