What I learned from watching the Rio Olympics

The Summer Olympics takes place every four years and is a worldwide event. Families sit together huddled on their couches and watch, awed, as the best of the best compete on one of the biggest platforms in the world.

Of course, the fastest and strongest people competing against each other is enough to draw in millions of viewers. But even citizens who don’t follow sports still watch the Olympics because they inspire and motivate. When we view the telecast of the races, we feel drawn to the competitors and speculate who’s going to win and why. In a way, the Olympics make us feel more connected to and supportive of our country.

What drew me to the Olympics this year? Summer 2012 was when I became aware of the Olympics. The 9-year-old me watched with stars in her eyes as Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps swam to Olympic glory at the London games. I found myself working harder than ever to get onto a swim team. This year, eager to watch them return, I sat in front of the TV, expecting great things from my idols. When I saw the 31-year-old Phelps return to swim, I wasn’t sure what to expect. He’s a new dad with probably many sleepless nights. Would he have the will and stamina to race against the world’s fastest? To my pleasant surprise, he returned greater than ever to add to his collection of medals, ending up with a record-breaking 23.

Just how many hours of backbreaking work must have gone into the pool to get this far? And while even thinking of putting that level of hard work in any particular activity is daunting, it also motivated me, because it is real proof of how far you can get if you put your heart and soul into something.

I watched aghast with the rest of the world when Franklin, my idol, struggled to even qualify for the finals. What had happened to her? Though she may have been the best once, she showed that you need to continue to work hard if you want to stay on top.

But I quickly found a new idol in 19-year-old Katie Ledecky, the girl with the intense eyes and toothy grin. While most swimmers try to best their opponents, Ledecky’s motivation came from within, wanting to best herself. That is why she broke records and won all her races by a large margin.

Confidence matters

Another sport I watched with interest was gymnastics. To my untrained eye, it felt like half the battle was confidence, but confidence only came if you trusted yourself. For example, there was a huge difference between the 2012 Gabby Douglas and the 2016 version. While she used to own her stage, this time around you could see her questioning herself as she competed. It’s difficult to be confident in yourself if you haven’t trained hard enough or if you don’t trust yourself. I think it’s a chain reaction: If you work hard, you’ll trust yourself; if you trust yourself, you’ll be confident; and if you’re confident, you’ll win.

Simone Biles was a great example of how confidence helps you deliver when it matters. But you don’t have to win to be an inspiration. Oksana Chusovitina, who at 41 years old was the oldest person ever to compete in women’s gymnastics, is truly a galvanizing figure because she showed me that if you’re really passionate about something, you’ll keep doing it against all odds. For a 41-year-old to even make it to the national level – then make it to the finals on the international level – is a huge accomplishment.

Now we come to my new favorite sporting event – track. Many of the runners were from the Caribbean islands and didn’t have much money growing up, so they had to train with what they had. Usain Bolt, for example, started running barefoot in Jamaica, and now he’s the world’s fastest man.

My favorite race was the 100-meter finals with Bolt and Justin Gatlin. You could feel the whole world hold its collective breath when Gatlin was clearly in the lead for the first half. And when Bolt raced past Gatlin with a burst of speed in the second half, the tension in the air evaporated just like that as the crowds cheered for their biggest champion.

In the interview after the race, Bolt said he knew that Gatlin had great starts, but he also knew that he was faster than him. Again, with confidence and trust in himself, Bolt won his race and kept the title as the fastest man in the world.

I think the Summer Olympics is such a great experience, one where you learn, observe, get inspired and root for your country. All the winners embodied confidence, talent and hard work, all of which paid off when they held up their medals. Watching history play itself out on your screen is something special. I think I’m really lucky to have seen this, and I hope that one day I’m up there competing and inspiring another 13-year-old.

Janya Sundar is an eighth-grader at Blach Intermediate School.

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