PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Most sports fans daydream about what it would be like to live the life of a professional athlete.
It looks so interesting, exhilarating and, I mean, who wouldn’t want to play games for a living?
Being a professional athlete is both empowering and limiting. It gives one access to power, and it means being something to people that may only be one aspect of who you are as a person.
Behind the glitz and glamour of those podium moments is a dark, isolating reality that comes from measuring success by stats and scores. When who you are becomes so inextricably tied to what you do, it is nearly impossible to separate one’s value as an athlete from one’s value as a human being.
If wins are what make you valuable, powerful and desirable, then what happens to you when you lose?
Kearns speedskater Jerica Tandiman said that competing as an elite athlete involves a lot more lows than highs. It’s not that she doesn’t love pursuing a career in her sport. She was simply stating that even the best in any sport will lose, in one way or another, far more than they will win.
And wins are how coaches, fans and sponsors define which athletes are valuable.
U.S. Alpine skier Tim Jitloff and free skier Nick Goepper have been among the most candid athletes in discussing how difficult and demanding the life of a professional athlete is.
“There have been at least three points in my career where I was going to hang it up,” Jitloff said. “At the low points, there have certainly been times where it is hard emotionally and mentally to be feeling not that great about yourself. A lot of guys work with mental trainers. I have worked with several who were more life-oriented and show you that in order to be a good athlete, you should also be a complete person.”
Goepper, who won bronze in Sochi and silver in Pyeongchang, has recently opened up about his struggles with depression, which hit a low point when he considered suicide in the years after winning bronze.
"I'm super proud just to be where I am today,” Goepper said. “I told several people already today in the media that several years ago, I don't know how it got to the point, but there came a time when I pretty had given up on skiing altogether and given up on myself and basically wanted to end it.
"It's kind of a tough subject to talk about and to understand, but I was really glad I got the help that I needed, and just to be here, living, experiencing all of this and just with a different outlook and perspective. Just more maturity, I'm just so grateful for everything and I just can't wait to keep rolling and keep skiing and just keep hustling, because I love what I'm doing."
In most cases, athletes find balance through their families. After Ted Ligety ended his fourth Olympics without a medal, he posted a picture of him with his 7-month-old son and noted that little Jax didn’t care if his dad had a bad day at work.
Tandiman said it is her LDS faith and the support of her family that remind her she is more than a speedskater.
Jitloff said meeting and marrying his wife, Anja, offers him the support — and perspective — he needs to continue working for his goals.
“When I was 21, 22, 23, skiing was everything,” he said. “If I had a bad day, it was the worst thing ever. I have got more to the story now than just, ‘Hey, I am an athlete.’”
When Nathan Chen was struggling with how to recover from an abysmal short program performance, the 18-year-old had just one night to regroup and find the confidence he needed to earn the best free skate score of his life.
He only consulted one person — his mom.
“She just told me, you know, tomorrow is a new day,” he said after offering everyone a lesson in resilience. “Just attack everything and fight for everything. She’s sort of saying, this isn’t who I am. So just go for everything.”
The 2018 Games have been a disappointment if we measure by medals or results.
But if we measure by all the small victories it takes just to get to the starting line, the experiences of these athletes tell different stories. They remind us that winning isn’t always going to come in the form that we want.
They remind us that motivation has to come from within, perspective has to be wider than the Games, and success has to be defined multiple ways.
Because at the end of a workout or a competition or a career, there will be two things — what an athlete offered their sport and what an athlete took for him or herself.
And, if they’re lucky, they offer those of us who take interest in or support their journeys some insights into our own struggles and triumphs.
Aerial skier Jonathon Lillis offered the most profound lessons he’d learned in the wake of competing in the Olympics in the wake of his youngest brother’s unexpected death.
“I think I’ve learned how short life is,” he said. “I think that you have to learn to make the most out of every day, and sometimes life sucks — a lot. But when you’re down, and at the lowest you can get, there are always things that you’re passionate about, that you can use as a ladder to pull yourself out of those dark moments. And that’s what’s really important. And that’s what I would say to anybody in any situation.
“If you’re in the bottom of yourself and the worst time in your life, just find the thing — and aerials is that for me — that you can use to pull yourself out.”