Usain Bolt and I were both at London Stadium last night.
I think that’s probably the only commonality we share.
Bolt — the track’s greatest star — has devoted his life to athletics.
Me — lover of cheese and ice cream — actually spent the earlier part of my life avoiding athletics at any cost.
It’s true. My hatred for track and field ran so deep that as a teenager I would regularly pray for things like a plague of raining frogs so that I could miss gym class and the horror of learning how to high jump, hurl a shot put and — worst of all — run in front of my classmates.
I was a teenage girl. I was slightly chubby. My running shoes were from Superstore. I had asthma.
I dreaded anything that brought all of these issues into contact with each other.
Track and field was that exact thing.
My only saving grace was that our gym classes weren’t co-ed. Meaning I only had to suffer in front of other girls. It was a small victory, but an important one.
Once a year, my junior high would host a track and field day. It was always in the spring, and participation was mandatory.
For most students in the school, it was one of the best days of the year. It meant no class, lounging around outside waiting for your race, friendly competition — and they always had a hot dog lunch.
I didn’t really care about any of those things. My mom packed great lunches, so the hot dogs didn’t interest me, and I was good at academic-related activities and therefore preferred class to being outside (I’m saying this carefully so you don’t think I was a nerd).
For me, track and field day meant the worst of all my fears: not merely having to jump high, hurl shot puts, and run in front of girls, but in front of boys, too.
The first year I realized this, in grade seven, I couldn’t find a way out of track and field day. I had to go through with it. I don’t remember the specifics but apparently it was embarrassing enough that the next year I was determined not to have to endure such mortification again.
“It’s track and field day on Monday,” I said to my best friend on Friday as school was ending.
She gave me a sympathetic look. She didn’t love it either, but no one hated track and field day the way I did.
“If I’m not here on Monday it’s because I got pneumonia over the weekend,” I said. Even though I had been brainstorming on how to get out of track and field day the entire year, I still hadn’t come up with anything workable. But I hadn’t given up hope. I had spent a year thinking about it and knew only something as powerful as pneumonia would be a strong enough excuse. I would have to get sick, I decided, really sick.
To be clear, I was perfectly healthy without even the hint of sickness.
But, I’ve always been an optimist.
On the bus ride home, I prayed God would strike me with pneumonia. I’ve always had a close relationship with God. I like to believe he hears my prayers.
The next day it happened. He delivered. It wasn’t a mere stuffy nose that I got, nor just a sore throat. I got the full deal — I got pneumonia.
A doctor confirmed it Sunday night with a prescription for antibiotics and bed rest. My mom boiled some water and held a towel over my head while I breathed in the steam from it. She said it would help. I was dubious. As I was sitting over that bucket with steam flooding my airways all I could think about was how I definitely would not have to go to track and field day.
On Monday, the other students wondered why they didn’t see me on the track.
“She probably has pneumonia,” said my best friend. It was the time before the instant communication of cell phones and social media so she had to guess. But she was spot on.
It went down in the most glorious history of our teenage lives.
And now I am in London on the same track as Usain Bolt — someone whose relationship with the sport could not be more different from my own.
He is the fastest man in the world. He has won multiple Olympic gold medals for running. He does this stuff for fun. And profit.
Yet I am here largely because of him. His personality has buoyed the sport. Quick, tell me two other currently track athletes outside of Bolt. Exactly.
It’s because of him that the general population has even a marginal interest in athletics. And because of that general interest, I am able to be here — in London, England — telling you all about it.
I spent the day yesterday asking his competition, and even athletes who don’t race his events, what he has contributed to their sport. Despite being an excellent athlete — the best athlete — which, by the way, is what he told me he wants to be remembered for — all of the people around him said, without exception, his biggest contribution has been his personality.
That’s what I learned during Bolt’s last race.
Be very good at what you do, sure.
But the legacy you leave behind isn’t what you’ve accomplished, it’s who you were.