6 Ways Chronically Ill People Are Like Olympic Athletes


The achievements of the athletes at Pyeongchang are so cool and impressive! Their physical achievements are truly awesome. But what’s going on in their heads and hearts is just as key to their wins. They have had to cultivate some very specific inner qualities to achieve what they have.

As I considered what those may be, I came up with six. And I realized that I’ve had to nurture similar attitudes that mirrors much of what these athletes embody. I know it’s so easy for us to dismiss what we have to do and to be as mere utility. We are the way we are simply in order to survive while we navigate chronic pain, extreme weakness, lack of restorative rest and a whole host of other ailments. But we have much in common with Olympians, and that should give us some pride.

While the achievements of these athletes inspire me, I do miss the physical freedom I used to take for granted. I deeply miss dancing ballet, especially, and dream of being able to move to music again. I wish to express beautiful feelings with my body rather than my body expressing hurtful feelings in me.

But after nearly 20 years, I am acutely aware of the dangers of overdoing exercise. To this day, when I am feeling the slightest bit able, I will exercise and run around wild like a chicken let out of the coop only to crash for days or weeks after. I love to move when I can and sometimes can’t help myself.

It’s hard not to, right? I know it’s not just my experience with this illness; many others know this too. Further, the perils are medically documented too. As an National Public Radio report noted last fall – for people with chronic fatigue syndrome, more exercise isn’t better.

Figuring out that Goldilocks sweet spot of not too much and not too little is so challenging because the point of overdoing it changes and moves. Still, we try. It’s challenging to do what I need to pace myself when I’m feeling OK and able in that moment.

But until researchers help us and figure out that sweet spot, while watching the Olympics, I will work to better embody the inner qualities of these amazing, successful athletes.

Here are six ways we who live with chronic illness resemble Olympians:

1. Purity

Athletes focus on being pure and sick people have to as well. Taking care of yourself is key and not a self-indulgence for either athletes or for those living with illness. We maintain daily rituals to clean and purify our bodies and are mindful of the need to get good rest. Aware of the impact of what we put in our mouths, we eat healthy, nourishing meals – as best we can. A mind that is pure, deliberate and free of disturbing emotions is another aspect. We both are mindful of that and work to have that clarity through visualizations and meditations.

2. Persistance

We don’t give up. Athletes stay laser-focused on their goals and when they fail, they try again and again, however many times necessary. They figure out a way to work through the obstacles or explore ways to work around them.

Those of us who live with illness are just as resilient. We grow, learn and strive to do better. We work hard to persevere. We fail a lot. But we get up and keep going, again and again. That takes guts and determination, no less so than an Olympian.

3. Passion

Athletes show up. Their commitment comes from a burning desire to achieve.

For sick people that motivation comes from a desire to survive. We meet life as fully as we can. Our love for that which we care deeply about intensifies. We are passionate about the things we know are essential.

The drive and love of the sport helps the athlete prioritize their passions. Our drive and love of life prioritizes ours.

4. Curiosity

Olympians are engaged learners and endlessly search for knowledge. They literally study themselves, their movements, their habits. They then evaluate and adapt. And they re-evaluate as necessary. Athletes constantly do this self-evaluation in order to streamline their efforts, increase the efficiency of their energy output and maximize the results of their training.

Those living with illness do this as well. We have to self-study because we need to know how to preserve and harness our energy, our most precious commodity. We survey to see if certain foods trigger specific symptoms. We examine if particular habits cause undesired outcomes. And we assess if specific attitudes can lead to feeling agile and able enough to pursue our goals.

Both of us study our strengths and weaknesses because we just want to get better and better.

6. Humility

Because of the cycle of triumph and defeat, athletes are aware of the vagaries of chance and of the many factors beyond their own control. Right now, the athletes in South Korea are struggling with the weather – the wind specifically and changing schedules. Those of us who live with physical ailments know intimately that the control they have over their own bodies is illusory. We never know what storm is going to hit us. We both have had to overcome obstacles or figure out hot to side step them. As a result, both athletes and sick people, have a greater familiarity of the unknown. And are humbled by that awareness.

6. Perspective

Great athletes deal with disappointments all the time. People who are sick are just the same. So both of us learn a sense of perspective that helps us to cope.

Like athletes, we face hard truths and immovable blocks. We accept reality at whatever stage we are in. We can not afford to lose sight of our goals, so we work hard to see the bigger picture. We do not sweat the small stuff.

Great Olympic athletes inspire all of us with their amazing feats and medals. But as they stand on the podium and listen to their national anthems and look at their rising flags, I will be thinking not only of their athletic achievements, but also of their inner spirit and traits. We who live with illness share many of the same qualities as Olympic athletes – not because we want to, but because we must.

Motivated by this, I recommit myself to being more pure, more persistent, more passionate, more curious, more humble and to have more perspective. I will strive to be more like these Olympians.

There is one big difference between an Olympian and a person who lives with illness. For the athletes, these character traits and all their efforts are harnessed for a competition every four years. While we both work hard for years and years with dedication, ours is lifelong effort without retirement. For us, our daily tasks are Herculean tasks, and we must work at it every day. We get no reprieve nor accolades for our achievements.

What exactly do we achieve? Survival.

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Image provided by the Olympic Facebook page

This story originally appeared on Wellspring Stones.


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