Skier's Maturity Is Rare Find Among Olympic Athletes
A few winter Olympics ago, profiles of figure skating Olympian Tara Lipinski included the young teenager's sweetly naïve devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux. Tara edged past Michelle Kwan that year to win Olympic gold, but her success hardly seemed miraculous. She was among the handful in true contention that year for a medal.
Fast forward to this year's Olympics in Turin, where press coverage was enlivened by another human interest story about another Catholic female athlete from the US who invoked the aid of a heavenly intercessor. But there the parallels pretty much end. At 19, Rebecca Dussault was a rising young cross-country skier on the American team when a growing disconnect with her teammates' partying and secular lifestyle soured her on the world of competitive skiing. She married the childhood sweetheart, whose mother had homeschooled them both, and then had a baby.
But she kept cross-country skiing, and began entering local races at her husband's urging. This time she carried her own lifestyle with her, in the form of husband and child, and she found a team and director supportive of her faith. Though hampered by serious sinus problems, she managed to land a place on this year's U.S. Olympic team.
Rebecca arrived in Turin knowing that a large number of world-class skiers were closer to medals podium. But she also arrived with a great devotion to a young native son of Turin who died not many years after World War I and was beatified by John Paul II. Pier Giorgio Frassati was himself an enthusiastic amateur skier who combined a deep and joyous faith with great love of people and a zest for life. He died of polio contracted from one of the many poor people in Turin that he sought out and cared for. Dussault was attracted to Pier Giorgio's charismatic holiness and entrusted her far-fetched Olympic hopes to him, cheerfully acknowledging that "it would be a miracle" if he pulled off a top showing for her. But if he did, she hoped it would push the process for his canonization. And if life were a Disney movie, last Sunday spectators would have cheered as Rebecca skied her way to victory. Instead, Dussault ended up way down in the pack, as expected. So what is the point of this story?
Perhaps one point is what it takes to be a grown-up. Rebecca Dussault is an adult in a world where, whatever the age on the birth certificate, you see an awful lot of children. Oh sure, competitive athletics rewards positive qualities like courage, self-discipline, and tenacity. Unfortunately, it also fosters monumental self-absorption, large egos, and a sense of entitlement to lots of special treatment and goodies in exchange for all that talent and effort.
Adolescence is a notoriously self-centered time. How difficult it must be for a hot young athlete, who works much harder than the "normal" teens on his block, lives under much greater pressures, receives more and often contributes less to the family household, to see himself as someone with significant duties to God and other people.
This was the world that Dussault walked away from at 19, and that some of our finest athletes might also be better off walking away from. The massive egos, the hard-partyers, the emotional saboteurs of other athletes, the rule-benders seeking new ways to escape detection of performance-enhancing drugs, the controlling or abusive coaches — however high the inspiring level of athleticism reached by sports figures in Turin or elsewhere, the levels of moral, emotional, and psychological dysfunction reach just as high.
Which doesn't mean the rest of us armchair athletes qualify to feel holier-than-thou. (Do we visit infectious polio patients in our spare time, like Pier Giorgio Frassati? Are we free from self-love and ego trips? Are we detached from material things, and satisfied with what we've got?) But after Turin's Olympics is over, residents of the Olympic village, winners and losers both, might seriously consider the challenge posed by Ignatius of Loyola to an academic superstar named Francis Xavier: "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but suffers the loss of this soul?"
Madame X works in Washington DC for the federal government. Because of her employer, she must write under a pseudonym.
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