Saturday, August 13, 2016

Worth More than Gold: Lessons from a Former Teen Olympian

Makayla Maroney lands a vault routine in 2012
"I'm worth more than a gold medal," says Makayla Maroney, who took home a gold medal at age sixteen in the London Olympics four years ago. While two of her teammates, Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, conquered Rio this year, Makayla had to watch the games from home.
I only did gymnastics for a few years myself, and I never had any great skill in it, but I've loved following these two sets of teammates because I match up with them in age. I always keep an eye on young celebrities and public figures, though I don't blog about them now as much as I did in previous years.
Earlier this summer, I found a little blue notepad while packing for my travel term. I flipped it open and found it hadn't been touched since I was fifteen years old. It had drafts of blog posts and book reviews (I ran a book blog for several years) as well as topics and titles I wanted to cover in the future. The last thing on it was a to-do list for when I got back home from a family vacation. "Update blog, finish books, watch Olympics, and get ready for school."
On the train ride home from my travel term, I started to make a list of things I'd do in my brief summer before leaving for school again. Then I realized I could just reuse the list I made four years ago. Every item is the same, but now I'm going into my sophomore year of college instead of high school.
Fifteen was a big year for me. It's the year I wrote my first novel. The year I started high school. The year I watched the cops pull a body out of the river behind my house and never looked at life and death the same. And now I'm a full Summer Olympics away from being fifteen. Change sneaks up on you. My daily routine doesn't look much different, but in so many ways I've shifted from what I was four years ago.
Since Olympic time frames seemed like a good unit to measure my own life's progress, I checked up with the three members of the Fierce Five who didn't return for Rio to see how they're doing.
Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Makayla Maroney, Jordyn Wieber, and Kyla Ross
Kyla Ross (I've always had a soft spot for her because we were both fifteen at the time of the Olympics, although she did flips and stuff and I sat on the couch and watched) is attending college at UCLA. Teammate Jordyn Wieber is there with her. And Makayla Maroney? The face that launched a thousand memes? A knee injury took her out of elite gymnastics, but she's doing fine now. She's writing music, something she barely ever had time for as a professional gymnast. Her first single, "Ghost", comes out next month. My favorite thing I found on any gymnast was this interview Makayla gave Us Weekly.

“I lost myself. It was an identity crisis, no doubt. I would go and meet people and they’d tell me, ‘You’re the gymnast.' And I’m like, now that I’m no longer a competing gymnast, it throws people off and that would throw me off. I don’t want to let people down. It was such a big test for me to be like, you know what? No! I’m worth more than a gold medal. I’m worth more than being a gymnast. I am not what I do. I am who I am and I’m what I love.”

Worth more than a gold medal. Most people would be happy to if they could measure their life in gold and just break even.
Makayla has put into words what I've wanted to say for a long time. I've watched plenty of my friends have identity crises. When you're young, your life is in flux, so your identity is vulnerable, and it hinges largely on hobbies. Some people get theirs in high school, but I saw the bulk of it my freshman year of college. When you go away to school, you're uprooted from your family, friends, and hometown. Athletic hobbies go away if you're not good enough to play at the college level and other hobbies disappear because you lose the time. And on top of all that, you're supposed to choose a major. That's the first question people ask after your name. They don't know how to learn who you are without asking what you do with your life. If you don't have a major yet, you're not just a slacker, you're a non-person.
A few months ago, a girl giving a talk at my church shared a story about her eighth grade soccer coach, who never gave her playing time. At first I thought it was ridiculous for her to be whining about playing time in a public meeting five years after the soccer season ended. Then she said, "All I'd ever known was soccer. Now that I wasn't playing, I felt like he'd taken away my identity."
Hobbies are the figurehead of childhood identity. When you hit thirty, people assume you don't have fun anymore and stop asking "What do you like to do?" at get-togethers. But at fourteen, you'd better have something good to say. You aren't working and can't be dating anyone yet, at least not seriously. A hobby is all you've got.
Gymnasts burn bright and brief, and all athletes have to slow down as they grow up, but all hobbies, even the non-athletic ones, fall by the wayside eventually. If age isn't your struggle, time is, or else ability.
One day back in fall semester, my roommate slammed her laptop shut and announced she was going to the library to print off a photograph. Once she had it, she was going to draw.
"What class?" I asked her.
She told me that no professor was forcing her to do it. She just wanted to draw, like she'd been able to in high school, when she took AP art classes.
That caught me by surprise. My roommate was an accounting major, I'd never thought of her as the artistic type. She loved it and was good at it but when college rolled around around it was time to study something else. She didn't even take drawing for her arts elective, opting instead for interior design. But art was a part of her and it needs to resurface once in a while.
My other roommate was a dancer and a Kiwi. I'm convinced hobbies are the biggest portion of most teenager's identities, but I can't skip over the  role race plays in shaping who you are. From birth to age eleven, she lived in New Zealand, surrounded by her people, and even when she moved to America she had her family. Then one day she wakes and she's sharing a dorm with three white girls. She very much wanted to get into our campus's Polynesian dance ensemble, but freshman don't make the cut. So she joined a Tahitian luau group instead and got to dance and connect with more Polynesians that way.
I've had my own crisis. When I was twelve, I watched my older brother receive the Sterling Scholar award in the category of English. The Sterling Scholar program awards full tuition scholarships to any school in the state of Utah, but my brother wasn't interested in either Utah schools or English, so he tucked that feather in his cap and ran off to Berkeley, eventually landing as a Chinese History major. At age twelve I knew I had a love for books and some level of talent for writing. I figured that if he could make it, I should be able to as well.
So I spent the next six years of my life turning myself into a perfect Sterling Scholar candidate. Every conference I attended, every extracurricular activity, and every teacher I sucked up to all tied back into getting that scholarship. I won for my school. That got me a picture in the yearbook and another in the display case by the library. But I only advanced one tier beyond that. Not to state level, where the glory is. And the money.
That's six years of my life I'll never get back.
I turned out okay. All those years were spent developing skills I loved and could use in arenas beyond the Sterling Scholar competition. They built me up. They contribute to who I am. But hobbies and interests will always be part of who I am, not all that I am. As Makayla puts it, "I am not what I do, I am who I am and what I love." Gymnastics will always be a part of her, but it's because of the passion she invested in it, not because of the medals she'll hang on her wall.
Next to holding your moral ground, finding your identity is the biggest struggle of your teenage years. And after you figure out who you are, you have to watch your identity torn down many times and built it up again. Whoever you are, you're worth more than gold medals or scholarships or a spot on the team. You worth an entire you and what that means is evolving all the time. 

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