The Olympic spotlight is extremely bright but cruelly brief.
It shines on an event, and that event’s mostly anonymous athletes, for a few days before zooming to the next.
Win a gold medal? You might earn another day before the spotlight leaves you dark.
Win a silver, and you fade even faster. And the viewing public will have barely learned your name, let alone everything you have battled to reach the Olympic Games.
In the case of Elana Meyers, that is truly a shame.
The Douglasville, Ga. native is an inspiration, someone who may not have won a gold medal, but is so worthy of the golden spotlight.
Meyers, despite standing on gold’s doorstep, took silver Wednesday night. The 29-year-old, alongside partner Lauryn Williams held the lead in women’s bobsled through three of four heats. Only in their final run did they make one costly mistake – bumping a wall on an early curve – to fall into second place. The headline, for some, may read: “USA Women’s Bobsledder Loses Lead, Misses Out on Gold”.
That may be a correct headline, but it is not the right one.
The right headline focuses on a woman who wanted to be an Olympian since she was a child. Meyers starred at softball at George Washington University. When softball stopped being an Olympic sport, Meyers found a new one.
The right headline tells the story of an Olympic medalist who wanted more. Meyers won a bronze in her first Olympics appearance, the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. In those Games she was a brakeman, responsible for little other than pushing the sled off to a monster start. Meyers wanted to not just win a medal, but win one as a driver. So she learned, in nearly half the time usually required, and entered this Olympic season as the best driver in America.
The right headline talks about the maturity Meyers has developed through her time on the track. I have covered the Atlanta Olympian for nearly five years, since before the Olympics in Vancouver. In that time she has developed into a leader for USA Bobsled, blogging about her experiences and speaking up in support of her teammates. When the team faced a storm of criticism for selecting track star Lolo Jones to the Olympic roster, Meyers wrote on Facebook a forceful yet classy defense of both Jones and the selection committee.
I have reported about numerous athletes in my young career, but I have met very few who conduct themselves with as much humility and grace as Meyers. She consistently gives credit to others, expresses thanks for her opportunities, and displays a genuine appreciation for everything she has been given.
But in these past two weeks, Meyers said, she struggled. In her first official training run on the Sochi track, Meyers flipped her sled. She emerged laughing and even slid the track again that day, but she told me later she had not suffered a crash that brutal in more than a year. A day later she again took to Facebook, writing:
“This Olympics has been the most difficult athletic experience of my life. I’ve been beaten up physically, mentally, and emotionally. I don’t say that for sympathy – I say it because I know that everything is worth it for the less than 4 minutes I will race on ice. I love sliding so much and I’m so excited to represent my country on the world’s biggest stage! Any adversity I face is well worth it for those 4 runs! Can’t wait until Tuesday!”
To hear such an admission from the normally composed Meyers was shocking. But, she told me later, the intensity of the Olympics had been mounting from the beginning.
In the past two days, that intensity reached its zenith.
The competition began, and Meyers and Williams surged into the lead. On their first run, they set a track record; on their second run, they set a start record. They ended Day One ahead of the second-place Canadian team, Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse, by 0.23 seconds. I wrote afterwards how Meyers seemed as calm and even-keeled as ever.
Then came Day Two and the final two heats.
Meyers and Williams began with an average run. Humphries and Moyse promptly cut their lead in half. And in the final heat, the Canadians put together a clean, efficient run that forced the Americans to have to do the same.
And they didn’t.
Meyers bumped a wall early and then skidded again. Those errors cost her the gold by one tenth of a second. She emerged at the finish line with her hands on her head.
She smiled at the flower ceremony for the winners, and she spoke afterwards of her pride in having won a second Winter Olympics medal. She is the first American bobsledder ever to do so.
When Meyers came through the line for post-race interviews, I knew which question I needed to ask.
“There may be a handful people outside of the bobsled world who know what you’ve been able to able to do over the last four years,” I said. “It may look like you’ve gone from bronze to silver, but with everything you have accomplished … how do you think about all that when you’re going through this?”
For the first time, I saw the unflappable driver choke up.
“You know, um … I can’t even …” Meyers started. “It’s been a long four years, and there’s been a lot of people behind me, and a lot of support. I’ve had all of Atlanta … all my friends and family have really stood by me.”
Meyers said the rest while muffling tears.
“This week was really hard, this Olympics was really hard, and Lauryn stood by me the whole way. I can’t be happier for this moment, because it’s incredible.”
Think about that answer. Think about what it means. Think about how, in her most emotional reaction after a disappointing finish, Meyers thought first to thank others. She thought to count her blessings, appreciate her supporters, and savor what is still a tremendous accomplishment.
That is as worthy as anything of a golden spotlight.
I will remember so much about these 2014 Winter Games, but above all, I will remember that answer.
And before the spotlight disappears from Meyers completely, the world deserves one last, long look at a humble Georgian who continues to make Olympic history.
FOR MORE ON MY OLYMPICS JOURNEY: Elana Meyers rocks the mountains
FOR MORE ON MY OLYMPICS JOURNEY: A tale of two bobsledders
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Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.