Chasing the dragon

For young stars like Shawn Johnson and Lolo Jones with their whole lives ahead of them, the Olympics are a tough act to follow.

Published August 21, 2008 7:00PM (EDT)

After Shawn Johnson won the gold medal on balance beam, Bob Costas asked her if she planned to continue until 2012 for the London Olympics. She responded by saying, in effect, that she'd had such a wonderful time, the experience had been so emotionally extraordinary, that she'd do anything to get that feeling back. Yes, she'd like to continue until 2012. She'd be willing to endure pain, injury and punishing hard work to get there, to relive the brilliance of Olympic gold.

That winning performance now defines her. She will forever be introduced as "Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson." By her own admission, she will "chase that dragon" for the feeling of splendor. The chasing may last longer than she can fathom at the tender age of 16.

When Lolo Jones fell on the track, tangled up on the second to last hurdle in the women's 100M final, she crashed face down and screamed in anguish upon dragging herself across the finish line. She, too, is forever defined by a moment. While we may have gasped in disappointed momentary horror -- her 7th place finish standing for everything we may have failed to deliver in our own lives or simply in empathy of defeat -- she will inevitably be haunted by it for some amount of time that is considerably longer than a moment. Perhaps, in some way, forever.

Jones will always be able to reach back to that fall, feel her front foot against the hurdle, her knees against the track. It will bring a rush of shame and lost chances each time. She will likely get better at brushing it aside, but it will always reside within her, a deep and cruel sense of "I was deficient when it mattered most." And every time an Olympic "sure-thing" competitor fails to deliver, the clip of Lolo will be shown. The commentators will say, "remember when," throwing devastating disappointment in her face, yet again.

These two young women are changed forever.

Shawn Johnson will forever feel tremendous pride. She may also ceaselessly search for that twinkle of transcendence, as she's known a sense of climactic accomplishment that most will never get close to. It's a blessing, to be sure, but perhaps, over time, it can come to feel like a curse.

Let's say that she continues training and endures through injury and maturation to make the 2012 games. There are a few ways it could go. She could indeed recapture some of the glory, perhaps even winning more medals and more fame. She could be a double gold medalist, instead of just a single one. She'll retire. Then how to get that amazing feeling again? In everyday life, how will she experience that transformative moment of glorious victory that she could easily become addicted to in order to feel alive?

Or, Johnson could qualify, go to the 2012 games and win no medals. She'll be done with gymnastics but at the start of her life. Her final moments in the sport will have been far less joyous than those in China but no less consequential. And she'll be left with a bad taste in her mouth, having to sidestep the losing routines in her mind when she finds herself searching for the glory days of her youth.

Or, worse yet, she could train and not qualify, her shining abilities eclipsed by those younger, sprier, healthier. Again, left with that sticky, lingering bitterness that will forever require an emotional breath mint to obscure the disappointment. This is not the worst thing in the world; I know this. There are starving children everywhere, the earth is going to hell in a handbasket. But it's something I think about nonetheless. What happens after gold? Or after an Olympic berth with no gold to show for it?

Then consider Lolo. It's not hard to imagine that she will try for 2012 so she can live with herself, that falling-down moment shoving her forward toward redemption. In a perfect world, there is salvation in the form of Olympic gold in London. But she'll be 30 by then. It's not impossible for her to continue, but can her body hold up? Can she get faster, stronger, better? What if she makes it and screws up again? Whatever happens, this stumble defines her. If she continues, the fall is why and pushes her every day. If she doesn't, it sits there in her gut, easily recalled when a track meet is on television, when someone recognizes her, when she is prompted to admit she was in the Olympics. "Did you medal?" "No." Ugh.

Being defined by a single accomplishment, a fleeting juncture, is a mixed blessing. An athlete will forever be celebrated for that moment if it is a triumphant one. In her heart of hearts, she may always wonder how to get it back. Unless she's so well-adjusted that she can just go about her normal old life and remember the glory days with a nostalgic but not painfully wistful smile. If the moment is less than exultant, an athlete may forever be haunted by it -- always searching for how to recover, to recoup the loss of possibility. It won't be salient all the time, but it will clog her thinking, make her catch her breath, now and again. A horrific déjà vu that repeats itself when life is difficult.

There are far more horrendous things than failing to deliver a gold medal and I'm sure many of you are thinking: Who cares?! Stop being so melodramatic! But it's hard not to consider the singularity of this kind of moment in a young life. What's next when a flash of speed and youth has determined who you are? A gleaming success. A miserable loser. Either way, it is etched into the psyche. And it's a tough act to follow.

By Jennifer Sey

Jennifer Sey is the author of "Chalked Up," her memoir about the ups and downs in internationally competitive gymnastics. She was the 1986 U.S. National Champion and a seven-time national team member.

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