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Monday, August 25, 2008

Gold Medal Platitudes

Ken Kerr Bio

Michael Phelps, perhaps the greatest athlete of all time, is fond of saying, “Anyone can do anything they set their mind to.” He has said it more than once. He also credits his imagination for propelling him to victory.

So what are we to assume? His opponents lacked imagination? They were simply weak minded? They didn’t “want” it badly enough?

Apparently, it was not Phelps’ huge hands which allow him to scoop more water than the average person, his size 14 feet that propel him through the water, his six-feet-four inch body, his nearly six feet seven inches wing-span, his long torso and short legs, and his incredible work ethic—it was his mind and imagination that earned him a record eight gold medals in a single Olympics.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire Michael Phelps and think he is a likable, affable young man. But he is a young man. At 23, and on a global stage, he may be too young and too inexperienced to be doling out motivational advice.

Such platitudes by a global champion are possibly unkind, arguably arrogant, and usually not at all helpful. It minimizes the importance of having physical and intellectual abilities, and access to opportunities.

As an English professor at a community college with open admissions, we often get underprepared students in our classrooms. We offer them a range of “developmental” courses—some call them “remedial.” On more than one occasion, there have been students in my classes who were intellectually limited—some call them mentally retarded. One particular student could not do the work, could not keep up with the class, and was unable to participate in a meaningful way. I checked the records and saw she had taken the course before—and failed.

I met with her to discuss her progress and her goals. She said she was tired of working the third maintenance shift at the hospital and thought if she could finish college, she’d get a better job. She expressed determination to succeed.

She said that everyone in her family told her, “You can be successful at anything if you just try hard enough.” When she would fail, they would say, “Just keep trying; you’ll get it!”

She could not have tried any harder. She could not have wanted it more. And she could not be successful in college.

Telling her—and others like her—that they are able to accomplish anything if they work hard enough may make the person saying it feel better, but it is not kind. It is cruel. And it is people like me who have to explain the harsh reality after others have showered them with positive platitudes.

A few years back, I was trying to run a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon. At my age, I had to run the 26.2 miles in 3 hours and 26 minutes—about a 7 minute, 50 second-per-mile pace. I trained hard, did speed work, endurance work, hill work, cross training, and watched my diet . . . everything the experts told me to do. I ran the race of my life: at 3 hour 40 minute race—14 minutes too slow—half-a-minute-a-mile too slow.

I did more than set my mind to it; I did more than imagine it. My body, unlike Michael Phelps’, is just not capable of doing what I imagined it could do. However, my body did exactly the best it could do. We can’t all be Michael Phelps, but we can achieve our individual best—the best our bodies and our minds can do with our unique abilities and available opportunities.

That is what Michal Phelps should have said: “We are all capable of accomplishing great things if we set our minds to them, allow our imaginations to flourish, and work very, very hard.” That is what is possible for all of us. That’s the message America needs to hear.

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