Monday, February 16, 1998
It's the voyage that counts
"The egoism?" he said, just a charming hint of his home province of Quebec in his accent.
His smile was a little sad. "In sport, you think about yourself all the time," he said. "I'm going to have to learn to think about other people."
I thought then that he would have no trouble at all doing it, and that probably he had not had any trouble for a long time; I thought in short that he was wrong. Athletes may have to be self-absorbed -- there's no other way to reach that razor edge of fitness, attuned to the every nuance of your body, and keep the mental focus sharp and narrow -- but if they are smart, and so many of them are, sport's lessons soon render them remarkably generous and humble, the antithesis of selfish.
Bouchard, I'm sure, is one such, and so is Elvis Stojko.
They call him the king of skating, but he's much more of a prince, the gentle, almost reluctant understudy to power. It's not money, fame, influence, the search for the gold medal which drives or sustains him, but something more pure and infinitely more noble.
Last night, at his first press conference since his courageous silver-medal skate on Saturday, Elvis wept for a little girl in Barrie who had sent him a fax.
'IF ELVIS CAN, I CAN DO IT, TOO!'
His dear, strong face crumpled, he fought for control, he cried, his voice broke as surely as his heart had as he told the story of the child who was going into her first competition last weekend, and had the flu, "and was scared she wasn't going to win." Then she watched him skate, and she knew, as she told him in the fax, "if Elvis can do it, I can do it, too."
He was crying a little for himself, too, of course, but not for the nightmarish bad luck that saw what was a minor groin injury a month ago at the Canadians become a chronic aching strain before it finally matured into a howling shriek of pain, and not for the flu that saw him last week gripped by waves of fever and unable to train, and not for the insidious circle this all became, wherein he needed acupuncture to relieve the pain but it wouldn't work because the groin was so inflamed, and he couldn't practice because of the flu, and the flu made the lymph nodes on the right side of his groin swell, and the whole while he had to swallow back the rising tide of panic.
Elvis cried not for this, but for the harsh beauty of the lesson hidden in there, the one he has learned many times before, as all athletes do when, inevitably, they are unlucky, but which he needed to be taught again because he's one of us, human and fallible and just a little greedy.
"Why didn't it work if I believed in it so much?" he asked himself. Why couldn't he be the one to break the Olympic jinx of Brian Orser and Kurt Browning? Why had he trained so hard for so long? The indulgence, if that's what it was, was over before it began. Elvis answered his own questions. "Life isn't like that," he said last night. "You've got to learn to deal with what you have, not with what you think you should have.
"Olympic Games mean a lot," he said. "It would be great to win a gold medal ... but what's more important is that you challenge yourself.
"If I had a philosophy that works in every part of my life, then it becomes a law, and it's being true to yourself at every moment and challenging yourself. Olympics are all about that. It's not a matter of going out to win ... In my own way, I won the battle because I didn't give up."
Do not confuse his adult view of the world with any lack of desire; no one wanted to win at Nagano any more than Elvis Stojko, and so badly in fact does he want an Olympic gold that he is already talking about sticking around until the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. But what he knows in his heart, even if he occasionally forgets it as a function of his humanity, is that this is not why he is in the game, or what keeps him at the rink, or where his reward lies. A gold medal might make his life easier; it might make him richer. But it would not alter him, or make him happier, or "change me as an individual."
A BIT OF RAGE
Privately, he raged a little, that once having made his bed -- keeping the injury secret, keeping the flu secret, having to "go out and compete with both hands tied behind my back and no one knew anything" -- he had to lie in it. "The emotions were hard to control," he said. "But you've got to use your anger ... you've got to look at the positive or it'll eat you up."
By the night of the free skate, the pain had worked its way low into the pelvic bone. In the warmup, he tried to bypass the soreness, misjudged his timing, and fell hard on his keester. The adrenaline in his body numbed the new hurt, and when he went out there, he said to himself, "You worked 20 years of your life for this moment, you worked so hard, it's four minutes and 40 seconds, you give 100% or you don't do it at all." Out he went on to the ice, more alone than he'd ever been. He heard nothing, saw nothing. He set up for his famous quadruple, couldn't get enough power off his damaged leg to create four rotations, and turned it into a triple. On the axel toe, he felt something in the lower part of his stomach give. On the triple loop, when the pain became agony, he thought, "if I can make it through the loop, I can make it." When he finished, the pain took over.
The world closed in on him then, he said, "and I felt really small."
After the press conference, one of my colleagues said of the child in Barrie, "I really hope we don't find out the little girl crapped out in that competition."
I thought, you silly bugger. You've missed it all, you've missed the point: It's the voyage which is the teacher, which leaves you, breathless, trembling, and at the moment when you are most entitled to feel huge, feeling small.