I work two jobs so I don’t live below the poverty line- in addition to competing as a world-class athlete.
It is daunting to dream big because if you fall short, it feels like everything will crumble around you... while the world watches.
After fleeing my country, I had to rebuild my life and raise my children, while continuing to compete.
It's an uphill battle to grow up without athlete role models who look like me racially or ability-wise, so I have to blaze my own trail.
These are just a few of the experiences I have heard from the countless women Olympians and Paralympians I have worked with over the past year in my role as host of the Flame Bearers podcast. While we often put our world’s best athletes up on pedestals, they have very real challenges they face each and every day, and they aren’t getting the media coverage they deserve. As a result, the spectators and fans are missing out, because we aren’t hearing and seeing all of the experiences; we are currently only getting a sliver of the pie.
Despite all of the challenges and changes of the past year, our world's best athletes have been adapting on the fly. If they can roll with the punches, they can teach many of us a thing or two about adapting to change. Here are my top 10 takeaways from these incredible women.
- When things do not go to plan, because they often will not, be a part of making things better instead of waiting for someone else to solve the problem. When Indian Para badminton world champion Manasi Joshi lost her leg in a car accident, she immediately went into problem-solving mode. While she was bleeding out on the road, surrounded by onlookers, she dialed for help and gave orders that eventually saved her life. There is no second shot at life, so make your time yours.
- The only person who can put you in a box is yourself. Nigerian Basketball player Ezinne Kalu was sick and tired of always being thought of as the basketball player - for good reason, as she was the 2019 Afrobasket Most Valuable Player. That said, she wanted to be known for more than her skills on the court, so she became an entrepreneur and launched her own cosmetics company. Ezinne boxed out a few of the haters in the process.
- To make effective change, you do not always want to be the loudest, but sometimes the smartest. People often think of leaders as the loud extroverts, but there are tremendous benefits to different types of leaders, including the quieter introverts. Captain Becky Sauerbrunn has been the rock of the United States women's national soccer team for the past eight years, but because she is not the loudest is often overlooked from the outsiders’ perspective. She’s the glue of this powerhouse team, and her team mates recognise it.
- Focus on what you can control and forget the rest. There is so much uncertainty in our world right now; work on what you have the power to control, and then let go of everything else. Danish rower Ida Jacobsen kept emphasising this point in how she was continuing to stay focused during the pandemic.
- Realise that Olympians and Paralympians are humans too: we tend to put them up on pedestals and think of them as Greek goddesses but they need our help just like others. As Grace Stone, sister of the US' top-ranked sabre fencer, Eliza Stone said, "Olympians might need a check-in and they might need a call. They're going through the exact same things that we all are. If you have elite athletes in your life, humanise them. Check in just as you would your other friends."
- Do not feel bad for yourself if you are different. Use it as a strength and pave the way for future people like yours. US Para swimmer Sophia Herzog was never allowed to throw herself a pity party as a child. Rather, her parents "never felt sorry for [her] and they didn't let [her] feel sorry for [herself]." She fueled her frustration into action for positive change.
- Sport has the opportunity to bridge divides and heal wounds, especially if the athletes are intentional about their time and comments. Iranian gold medalist Zahra Nemati took a chance in working with me around the one-year anniversary of General Qasem Soleimani’s death. She did this because she believes that sport has the opportunity to bring people and nations together. Our nations - Iran and the US - were on the brink of war when I produced her episode, and because of this our collaboration meant that much more.
- Being the best in the world does not mean you are always serious. American mountain biker Lea Davison is one of the most fun-loving people I have ever met. That said, when she is on the starting line, I know I would flinch under her gaze. I used to have the impression that top athletes were all serious, but when not competing, many of our world’s best, like Davison, love to laugh.
- When you have a life expectancy of 18, you live every day to the fullest. Live that way without being told your days are numbered. Chilean table tennis player Tamara Leonelli was born with spina bifida and is now five years past her life expectancy; she’s the first Chilean table tennis player to win gold at the Parapan American Games and is gearing up to win gold in Tokyo. Leonelli's ability to seize each and every moment is her magic.
- Women Olympians and especially Paralympians, do not receive the media attention or credit they deserve. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Chasing Equity report, in the US just 3.2 per cent of sports media coverage is devoted to women's sports. This matters because according to the same report, 70 per cent of female leaders argue that the lack of media coverage limits girls' sports participation. Beyond just overall media coverage, most media outlets do not spotlight athletes with varying physical appearances or experiences. If you are a black woman with limited sight and albinism like Kym Crosby, it is hard to get the media to tell your story and to do so in an empowering way. This is problematic because representation matters. A lack of diverse representation makes it challenging for younger girls to see their future selves in someone who does not exist today. While it is easy to criticise the press, we all play an active role in changing coverage because the media responds to demand. Start tuning in, going to, and supporting female athletes!