Courtesy: Charles Hartley
Some of us have been fortunate enough to be really good at something, maybe even the best in our town or country or the world.
Family, friends, fans and the media give us adulation and praise. We feel special. We stand out in the crowd. Others are dazzled by what we are capable of doing that few others can.
But then one day that’s no longer. We’re not the best. Our skills diminish. We get older. Maybe our desire to be great loses its allure.
When this fall happens, everybody knows it. Some take shots at us. Some heckle. They try to mess with our minds, make us feel bad to make themselves feel better.
We strive to get back to the top but we don’t. Our greatest achievements are so yesterday.
People who once praised us move on, focus on other people on the rise, the ones who are at the top.
We get pushed aside. We’re told to move on, do something else, find another path to pursue, because we’re never going to be great anymore. We get marginalized, told we’re only allowed to swim in Lanes 1 or 8.
This is the situation that Ryan Lochte is now living through. At one time not too long ago he was one of the best male swimmers in the world. He won 12 Olympic Medals. To this day there has never been anyone who has swam the 200-meter individual medley faster than Lochte. It’s his world record.
But during the recent U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, in this exact event where he became especially famous – and absolutely revered as a swimmer – he ran into the harsh reality of life that we all face: we’re not the best.
Lochte placed sixth in the event. To qualify for the Olympics he would have had to finish in the top two.
So he won’t be going to Tokyo to represent the United States as part of the U.S. Olympic Team. His swimming career has reached, like the last page of a great novel, the end.
Sure he could keep swimming for four more years and try again but by then he’ll be over 40 years old. We all know it’s not realistic he’ll be fast enough to quality for the Olympics again no matter how hard he practices for the next four years.
Reality now reverberates like a thunderbolt. The long road of life he’s lived as a swimmer has finished its last act. He may stay involved in swimming perhaps as a coach, but he’ll never be cheered on for his prodigious swimming talents. That’s over.
It’s sad. Life’s that way sometimes. We all know.
It’s really confusing and emotionally painful when any of us comes to realize that whatever we dedicated our lives to be great at is no longer something we can be great at. Physically, mentally, and psychologically, it can’t be done. We can keep practicing but it’s never going to be like it once was with us living the dream superstar hero life. It’s like we’re dog paddling lap after lap aimlessly.
The question then becomes “what do we do next?” It’s a question that’s tough to grapple with. Why? Because whatever we decide to do will be like starting from way back in line because to become the greatest we had to push aside just about everything else.
We sharpened one skill and didn’t develop many others. It’s such a long road back to the top of another craft. Where to begin, what to choose to spend time on from all the possibilities this world offers, can be enough to make us throw up our hands and say “I don’t know what I want to do next.”
Lochte may or may not know. But one thing’s for sure. Whatever he chooses, the chances of him reaching in his new endeavors the popularity heights he did as an award-winning swimmer are much lower.
But here’s the most important thing Lochte and all of us can gain from this fall from the top story. The chances of us finding more fulfillment in this next phase of life are actually much greater than we realize. It’s a bit counterintuitive. We may not be the best and win all the Gold Medals, but we can – and should — make more important contributions to the world in our second act.
Ask yourself this question: Will Lochte make a more valuable contribution to this world by sharing his life story, including the big mistakes he made in the 2016 Olympics and what he’s teaching his children, or by sharing what it was like to be a star swimmer?
The answer is clear: Lochte has a compelling, unique and valuable story to keep sharing with young people including swimmers about what it’s like to be on top of the world and then, in a few days, be the central character in an international scandal that damaged his reputation, ended swimming endorsements, and sent his life into a downward spin.
There’s more to learn from someone who’s lived this unusual life story than there is from someone explaining how he broke a world record. Plenty of people have done the latter; few have lived through all Lochte has. And he can share this story and inspire young people to pick themselves up after being knocked down, as he has since 2016, and strived to be a better person.
After his last trials at the recent Trials, the winner and new 200 IM star, Michael Andrew, called Lochte a “legend.”
How many of us live lives that people would consider legendary? Almost no one. But Lochte has. He’s been a special swimmer, a gifted guy who worked hard at his craft for his entire life.
Not a bad start so far, Ryan. You are a legend. Now it’s time to build on that legendary life you’ve started by giving all you can in your next phase of life.
You’re going to love doing this. It may not seem possible now, but you’ll be more fulfilled in this next phase than any of your amazing swimming achievements.
You may not believe this but it’s true: Lift gets better the longer we live it. We rise to the top. We fall short. We lose. We get replaced. We get fired. We get frustrated. We wonder what it all means and whether we should go forward.
And we find out the answer is yes. We should move forward. Because we’re meant to. And because it’s the great mystery and secret to a meaningful life, to keep going among uncertainty and pain and not being the greatest anymore.
And it’s, ironically, greater than anything else we’ve ever experienced. It’s a more deeply satisfying experience.
Raising children beats any swimming world record. Helping others will give your life more meaning than any of your Gold Medals.
You, like the rest of us, have plenty of great days ahead of you.
You last race at the Trials was not the end. It was the beginning.
ABOUT CHARLES HARTLEY
Charles Hartley is a freelance writer based in Davidson, North Carolina. He has a masters degree in journalism and a masters degree in business administration.