“You don’t have to be your circumstance…”

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olympicsEvery four years I look forward to the quadrennial summer tradition, and I have been spending evenings watching the Olympics and cheering for Team USA, and especially for my favorite athletes. Michael Phelps continues to amaze as he challenges himself to see if he still has what it takes to win gold one more time. I am particularly impressed by the extent to which he has influenced the sport of swimming, how he has overcome personal challenges and emerged with greater maturity, how he advocates passionately for “clean” sports, and how he is now mentoring younger athletes (some of whom were toddlers when he first won gold)!

There are two other athletes who have also caught my attention, not only for what they have accomplished in their sport but their life’s journey in getting to the Olympics in the first place. One is Simone Biles, considered by many to be the best female gymnast ever. Her personal story began with a drug addicted mother who was unable to raise her. She was raised and adopted by her grandparents who provided her with the love, support, confidence, education and stability that enabled her to reach the heights of excellence in gymnastics. What is equally exceptional about her is her humility, her appreciation for the opportunities and good fortune that came her way, and how she is such a team player.

Although I do not understand all of the rules and terms of rugby, I have been captivated and moved by the life story of Carlin Isles, who never could have imagined that he would be competing in the Olympics. In early childhood Carlin was bounced around from one foster home to another until he was finally adopted at age 7.   His tenacious nature can be summed up in the quote:  “I had a picture I wanted to paint for myself and my life. I wasn’t going to let nobody dab their paintbrush in my painting.”

Carlin has surely created an incredible life picture. He began his improbable journey to Rio in 2012 while training for the Olympic trials in track and field. He watched rugby online and was immediately hooked. Long runs and dashes to the end zone mesmerized the young American. He then got in touch with the chief executive of USA Rugby and asked for a chance to try out for the national team. Despite never having played the game, he impressed U.S. coaches with his break- neck speed, and today is widely regarded as one of its fastest and most exciting prospects. Isles’ speed and rare athletic talent even persuaded a gym owner in Canton, Ohio to sponsor his private training for Rio.  Emblazoned on Carlin’s chest is the word “focus” – that trait to which he attributes his rise.  Perhaps his quote that impressed me most is:  “You don’t have to be your circumstance. You can change your picture how you want to change it.”

As I begin to prepare my mind and thoughts for the Jewish High Holy Days I will adopt “focus” as my mantra as I begin to think about how I wish to change my picture in the coming year. In what do I take particular pride that I would like to nurture and expand – and where are my “growing edges”?  I want to try to spend more of my time devoting my attention to things that matter most to me. Perhaps you might also want to consider a theme or mantra for the year. The theme could filter the opportunities you seize from the ones you decline, influencing your response to the unexpected moments in life that will inevitably come your way.

I know there will be more Olympic stories in the coming days. So stay tuned and enjoy the competition. And do remember that you don’t have to be your circumstance and accept the status quo, because change is always possible once you realize what you wish to achieve.