What an average runner like me can learn from a speed skater that is disqualified during his golden Olympic race, because of a stupid mistake.

Yesterday I wrote a draft post about how top athletes can inspire an average runner like me. It started out like this:

Being Dutch and an enthusiastic sports lover, I have been building up a serious sleep deficiency thanks to the Olympic Winter Games. Because of the time difference, the speed skating starts somewhere between ten and twelve o’clock and, depending on the distance, lasts until two or three at night.

So far it’s been good. The Dutch ice skaters have won 5 medals, three of which gold. The first one was won by Sven Kramer who was the best at the 5000 metres, on the first speed skating day of the Olympics. This was great, of course, but not that much of a surprise. In the Netherlands, there is a general consensus that Sven is superhuman, invincible and ‘THE best’. Consequently, the Winter Olympics have been dubbed ‘Svencouver 2010’.

I was going to write about Mark Tuitert and Ireen Wüst, who have had their share of misfortune and struggle but nevertheless recovered and both won a gold medal at the 1500 metres. But then it became clear that even an invincible superhuman like Sven can lose.

What happened? In ice skating, skaters skate rounds of 400 metres, alternating the inside and outside lane. In the last race, some 5 rounds before the finish, Sven was going for the outside lane (which he was supposed to do) when his coach shouted at him to take the inner lane. At the very last moment Sven made a decision. He took the inner lane, and he was wrong.

He had been skating the perfect race. Sven was about five seconds faster than this crazy 21-year old Korean former short tracker Lee, and he was going strong. Then things went wrong, because he relied on someone he was convinced he could trust, not on his own gut feeling. The guy that has won every single international 10k race he ever raced, and was faster than the Olympic record time, was disqualified for not changing lanes. Sven was of course completely devastated.

One thing I love about sports is that it can offer such powerful metaphors for life. Sometimes you do everything right, and you make one mistake that ruins everything. Sometimes you rely on others instead of your own instinct, and you fail. Sometimes people that really really want you to succeed (like Sven’s coach), make a wrong decision. They can try to help you, but still say and do the wrong thing, and fuck up. And when the damage is done, there is nothing you can do but find a way to go on, to somehow get over this huge disappointment, regret and anger. You will have to stop replaying the situation in your head, wishing you had done differently. Because you cannot change what happened. You can only change what happens next.

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