In my last post (Successful Failure - Part 1) I introduced the idea of failure as an ally. It is possible to handle failure successfully. In these next few posts I intend to lay out how.
Heavily favored, Lolo Jones held a commanding lead eight hurdles deep into a ten hurdle 100 IM race at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. She was seconds from securing a spot atop the podium. Then she clipped the ninth hurdle. Her speed thwarted and her rhythm off, she finished seventh. A devastating defeat, she crumbled to the ground in tears, pounding the track in disappointment. On the biggest stage of her life, Lolo failed.
Her chance at redemption would have to wait. Track and field athletes compete in relative obscurity with the exception of a quadrennial moment in the spotlight when the world is captivated by the Olympic Games. As the flame was extinguished in Beijing, London was farther away in time than distance. Jones spent four years in the shadows, striding over countless hurdles, on the track and off. A year ago she had spinal surgery, uncertain of her future as an athlete. She poured herself into recovery and won the US Open in January. Still her performances were inconsistent. She placed third in the US Olympic Trials, just squeezing onto the team for the London Olympics. Doubts persisted, memories of failure lingered. She traveled to London as an underdog. But she did travel to London for a second chance at a medal.
I wrote all that before the London Olympics, part of a devotional for a website early in August. Since then, the sixteen days of the London Olympics have come and gone. The results are in. Lolo Jones has had her chance at redemption. In her semi-final heat, a heat in which the top two advance, she placed third. The next two fastest times among all the heats were also given a place in the finals, and Lolo had to wait anxiously to see if she qualified. She squeezed into the finals and then ran the best race of her season crossing the finish line fourth. Fourth. One tenth of a second away from a medal.
Two days before her final, the New York Times ran a piece critical of Jones for media over-exposure unequal to her athletic accomplishments. Leading up to the games, she had been in numerous commercials and on a number of magazine covers, including two I receive – Time and Outside. This while Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells, the two American hurdlers who qualified ahead of her, had received scant media coverage.
Jones, hurt by the criticism, responded to the article the day after her defeat in the finals on Good Morning America. “I wasn't even supposed to make the Olympic team. The U.S. Olympic team -- they counted me out. I made the team. Then they (said), 'She's not even gonna make the final.' I made the final. I went from eighth place to fourth place. I just hope my story gives somebody hope. I didn't walk away with the medal or run away with the medal, but I think there's lessons to be learned when you win and there's lessons to be learned when you lose."
And this, I think, is why we gravitate to Lolo Jones. Marketability is not exclusively tied to athletic achievement (though Gabby Douglas will certainly benefit immensely from the gold around her neck). Sometimes the story we respond to is the story of perseverance and character. I am intrigued by Jones not because she is the best, but because she perseveres through adversity. I saw her fall in Beijing. It impresses me that she is still at it, four years later trying for gold against all odds.
Perfection does not inspire me as much as persistence does. Effortless success is disheartening. I can't relate to that. I need to see at least a bit of struggle to validate the accomplishment. I don't speed down the track with elegance and grace. I've clipped many hurdles and stumbled toward defeat. After such failure I need the encouragement to try again. It helps to see Lolo Jones get back on the track. And after finishing fourth, it is good to hear her say that there are lessons to learn when you loose. Those are lessons I have ample opportunity to learn. Her story gives me hope. Standing at the finish line, gasping for breath, hands on my knees, I look to the scoreboard to see that I have come up just short of my goal. One tenth of a second from reaching the podium. Failure. At that point, there are plenty of voices suggesting that I throw in the towel. Jones invites me to get back on the track, train hard, try again.
She says she plans to try again in Rio four year from now. Who knows what 1400 days will hold. Injury or age may sideline Jones from getting back to Olympic stadium. But she is a model of persistence. Not satisfied to just run in the Olympics, she aims to medal. Each time she fails, she picks herself up again. There are still more hurdles to cross.