Monday, August 11, 2008

The Olympic Hero in Every Mom

When we are young, we think we are strong. We feel immortal. We feel powerful. We feel limitless and chosen.

Then we have a child. Suddenly, we are reduced to bumbling, stupid weaklings. It takes every ounce of strength we thought we had just to make it through another sleepless night. When our baby cries, we cry, undone by the helplessness of not knowing why he’s crying. We despair, thinking our parenting skills inadequate to raising a child capable of thriving in a suddenly dangerous world.

When our child is sick, we grow sick with worry. When our child stumbles, our soul is bruised. When our child’s heart breaks over some perceived injustice, our heart shatters.

I never knew how weak I was until I had a child.

Last night, I was watching the Olympics like several million other human beings on this planet (and probably a few on the international space station), and I saw one of those pithy little overly sentimental profiles that they run periodically to give a “human interest” angle to some of the athletes. The profile introduced us to Oksana Chusovitina.

My definition of strength changed in the course of a few minutes.

Oksana Chusovitina is a gymnast. She’s in her fifth Olympics. She’s 33. She’s more than twice the age of most of her competitors. And she’s a mom of a boy who has fought leukemia.

And she nailed that vault. Twice.

The fact that she’s been competing for 20 years in a sport that exacts so high a physical price that most competitors peak at the age of 17 or 18 is impressive. That alone deserves high praise. To keep her body performing at that level for decade after decade is truly a Herculean feat.

The fact that she’s competed for three different countries (the Unified—formerly Soviet—team, Uzbekistan, and now Germany), during her Olympic career is incredible.

The fact that she’s able to put up with all those squabbling, giggling, petty teenagers surrounding her for so many years is commendable.

The fact that she was able to continue that grueling training and get her body back into competing shape after she had a baby is practically miraculous (as all of us who have struggled to lose those extra baby fat pounds know).

But it all pales when you learn that when she discovered her child had leukemia, her world turned upside down. Faced with a lack of cancer hospitals in her home country of Uzbekistan, she made a life-altering choice. She called a gymnastics acquaintance in Germany and asked for help.

Most of us don’t like to ask for help. Ever. We’ll tie ourselves into pretzels before ever asking anyone else to hold the door for us as we wrestle with 6 bags of groceries. We think it’s a sign of weakness to ask anyone for help. And we want to think of ourselves as strong, of course.

But Oksana asked for help. And the head coaches of a gymnastics club in Cologne, Germany, gave it to her. She moved to Germany where her son began cancer treatment, and she began training with the German club. Because of residency requirements, she couldn’t compete for Germany for three years, so she continued to compete for Uzbekistan while she trained in Germany, all while her son slowly recovered from his leukemia.

In 2006, she finally gained German citizenship, so this year she is a proud member of the German team. And her son, according to the profile last night, is healthy and pretty darn good at doing backbends, himself.

I wonder if Oksana would have retired from gymnastics by now if she’d had a healthy boy who didn’t need expensive, drastic cancer treatments. I’m sure she wouldn’t have uprooted her tiny family and moved to a completely different country, away from family, friends, and familiar routines. But the things we do to save our children are the things we do without thinking about them, without considering consequences to our own lives or bodies, without hesitation, and without fear.

When it comes to loving our children, we are fierce, and tireless, and strong beyond all measure.

Oksana won her first Olympic medal before any of her teammates were even born, and there’s a good chance she could win another one this week at the age of 33, but that isn’t want makes this woman strong. It’s that she had a child, and she makes herself strong to keep him strong.

Go Oksana. Grab that medal. Or not. Whether you win or lose, millions of us mothers feel a little stronger today because of you.

You’re everything an Olympic hero should be, and more: you’re a mom.

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