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Mental Wellness and Winning

By The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA, Executive Director

Have you ever wondered why we’re so enamored with the Olympics? Every four years we’ll intensely watch sporting events that we’d completely ignore in the intervening years. Why? Personally, I think it’s because they inspire us with stories of tragedy turned to triumph, while periodically showing hubris turned to humility.

In my life I’ve witnessed many truly great, inspiring Olympic moments. I remember the unknown Bruce Jenner’s great decathlon gold medal in 1976. I remember young, graceful teen Nadia Comăneci’s surprising gold medals for gymnastics in 1976, as well as tiny teen Olga Korbut’s in 1972 and 1976. I remember baseball cap-clad David Wottle’s amazing gold medal win in the 1972 800-meter race, coming from a far distant last place to win by a nose over the final 100 meters. I remember Rulon Gardner’s cartwheels following his 2000 David-like Greco-Roman wrestling gold-medal win over the three-time Olympic champion Russian goliath. Still, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like the performances and stories of this year’s Olympics in Japan.

It’s not the races, performances, feats, or wins that have amazed me. What’s inspired me is how so many athletes’ have displayed champion mental wellness. Having spent my life helping people become healthier in spirit, mind, and body, I’m grateful for the mental health being displayed in the Olympics. At the same time, I’ve also been disturbed by the backlash against those displaying it, with some calling them weak while crabbing that back in their day athletes would push through their problems.

I began paying attention closer attention to these Olympics when Simone Biles, considered the greatest gymnast in the world, and perhaps the greatest American gymnast ever, pulled out of the team competition ostensibly because of mental health concerns. She didn’t feel mentally fit to compete, emphasizing that to do so in her present mindset could lead to serious injury or even death. Still, people have their opinions. Many have criticized her for being selfish, for letting the team down, for not being stronger mentally, and for putting her mental health needs above winning a gold medal. Those comments all grate on my nerves because, as a person committed to mental and life wellness, criticizing someone for prioritizing mental health,… well,… it just grates on my nerves.

In following the Simone Biles story I’ve been noticing some other great feats of mental wellness that should inspire us to prioritize our own and others’ mental health even more. For example, I read about how high jumpers Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar tied after failing three times each to clear the height of 7’10”. Rather than competing in a jump-off, which is typical, they decided to share the gold medal. Having forged a friendship forged through years of international competition, they cherished the idea of sharing their accomplishment with each other.

Later, during an 800-meter race, runners Isaiah Jewett of the U.S. and Nijel Amos of Botswana became entangled with each other, falling to the ground in a tangle of legs and arms. Instead of angrily accusing the other of interference, they helped each other up and finished the race with arms around each other.

At the end of the women’s triathlon, Belgium’s Claire Michel fell to the ground sobbing because she finished dead last. Norwegian Lotte Miller, who placed 24th, walked over and consoled her, reminding Michel that she was an Olympian, that she had still finished the race after 20 others dropped out, and that she needed to cherish where she was and what she had accomplished. She was an inspiration, not a failure.

These athletes remarkably demonstrated not only mental health, but spiritual, emotional, physical, and relational wellness as well. We’ve all come through the pandemic with different levels of personal health. Certainly, many have felt crushed by the past year, and at Samaritan we’ve been privileged to help some of them restore their lives. Others have emerged from the pandemic clearly embracing what deeply matters in life. They’ve learned that what matters isn’t necessarily winning or accumulating or succeeding. It’s living lives that are spiritually, mentally, physically, and relationally fit and balanced.

I’m struck by several things Simone Biles said in receiving the bronze medal after returning to compete in the balance beam competition: “My mental and physical health is above all medals that I could ever win.” What a tremendous insight for one so young. She’s right! Too many athletes have been champions in sport only to later fail at life. A little later she offered a reminder of what matters as we cheer our athletes on: “We’re not just entertainment. We’re humans.” What a powerful statement about life. In other words, we can’t truly win if we’re not seeking to be mentally well?

At Samaritan, we’re not just here to help people overcome deep mental and spiritual wounds. We’re also here to help people grow in wellness. Be blessed!

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