I wasn’t quite 12 years old when I watched my first Olympics. The year was 1972. The Olympics were held in Munich that year, in a country known then as West Germany.
It was an Olympics rife with controversy, both political and athletic. Palestinian terrorists invaded the Olympic village and, in what became known as the “Munich Massacre,” murdered eleven Israeli athletes and coaches and a West German police officer. Repeating an episode from the 1968 Olympics, two U.S. athletes refused to stand on the victory podium when the national anthem was played. And the U.S. men’s basketball team lost in the gold-medal game to the Soviet Union. Thanks to having to replay the final 3 seconds of the game three times until the Soviet team finally won.
There were also some great athletic performances. Mark Spitz won 7 gold medals in swimming – a record that stood until Michael Phelps burst on the scene. Dan Gable won the gold medal in wrestling without giving up a single point to any opponent – a record that still stands. And Frank Shorter became the first American in 64 years to win the Marathon.
But for me, as a young, almost-teenaged boy, all these controversies and achievements were overshadowed by the singular performance of one man. A man who was given little chance to achieve victory. Both before his race and during his race. That man was Dave Wottle.
Wottle’s event was the 800-meter race. In the final of this event, while wearing his signature cap, Wottle started dead last, several meters behind the pack, and remained there for the first 600 meters. Then, he made his move. He began his “kick.” He passed the first two runners on the transition from the back stretch into the final turn. He passed the third and fourth while on the final turn. He had only three runners in front of him on the final straightaway. He passed the first two with less than 50 meters remaining, and then caught and finished ahead of the last runner by 0.03 seconds to take the gold.
I still recall my emotions as I watched the race. I was stunned. I was thrilled. I was inspired. So much so, that for years I, too, wore a hat while running – yes, that’s me wearing the hat in the cover picture.
I remain inspired by Wottle’s race. Here was a man who began his race in last place. But not only did he begin dead last, he remained there for over two-thirds of the race. That, however, did not deter him. He finished strong. Even near the very end, when he could have settled for second place and a silver medal, he refused to back down. His tenacity and perseverance won him the gold!
RUN YOUR RACE
Our lives are akin to a race. Indeed, the Apostle Paul made this analogy in his first letter to the Corinthians. He wrote, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24, NIV). Many of us start our race – our life – in an undesirable position, or we make decisions along the way that place us in an undesirable position. Leaving us feeling as though we are in last place.
Regardless of how each of us starts in life or presently find ourselves, what matters is how we finish. When the other runners sprinted out ahead of Dave Wottle, relegating him to a distant last-place position, he could have reconciled to himself that that was his fate. He could have said to himself, “What’s the point? There’s no way I can make up this distance.” He did not. Instead, he decided to run harder, not just to get out of last place, not just to finish fourth, third, or even second. No, he decided to run to win. As he passed runner after runner, he kept his eyes ahead; never looking back, only looking forward.
I have known (and do know) many people who never get over their life-race position. They feel their lot in life, the decisions they’ve made, or various unfortunate life events, have relegated them to last place. They refuse to leave it behind and finish the race that’s in front of them. They think that their past defines their future. That their past limits their capabilities. That they cannot overcome their poor life decisions. Nothing could be further from the truth.
No matter where you find yourself in your life-race, don’t give up. Make 2019 the year you began your “Wottle kick.” When you began moving forward. When you began improving your position, one place at a time. Make 2019 the year of tenacity; the year of perseverance; the year of persistence. And don’t look back.