To say that I am obsessed with the Olympics might be an understatement. For four days, I went to the hottest place imaginable at the peak of August just so I would have an excuse to stay inside, order room service, and watch Olympics all day! Sure, I loved watching newcomers like Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky, as well as longtime favorites Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Those athletes accomplished amazing records and made their countries proud, but it’s the stories of athletes who faced immense challenges either on the road to Rio or once there that really pull me in.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, said, “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” de Coubertin’s words call to mind our theme for the 201617 school year: Rise & Shine. If we rise to the challenge in front of us and we shine in terms of our effort, attitude, and behavior, then we will surely triumph. The 2016 Summer Olympics showed this to me through five lessons, which connect to the five values in the Hamlin Creed: Honesty, Courage, Respect, Responsibility, and Compassion. Some might call these words “Sportsmanship,” but as you’ll see through the images, stories, and videos that I share with you today, all of these values and qualities were exercised by women, not many more years older than you. I hope you will take with you the lessons of these inspirational women who were able to Rise & Shine in their own ways.
The first lesson is one in Honesty: Be Yourself. Wendy’s opening assembly speech this morning reminded us about how important it is to be true to yourself and others. Ibtihaj Muhammad, a fencer from the United States, was the first U.S. athlete to compete wearing a hijab, the traditional head covering worn by Muslim women. Adhering to the tenets of her religion, which dictates that a woman wear a veil or fabric over her head and neck, Ibtihaj Muhammad was fully herself as she competed and won the team bronze in fencing. She could have conformed with the rest of her teammates and all other U.S. athletes by taking off her hijab when competing. In fact, with a helmet that covers her whole head, no one might have ever known. But she didn’t. She chose to be herself.
IIbtihaj Muhammad’s story reminds us how important it is for each of us to be our authentic selves. Ms. Holland Greene often says, “Hamlin is not a place where you check your identity at the front door.” I know at times we would rather fit in with everyone and not stand out too much, but I challenge each of you to consider how much we have to gain from the diversity of perspective and experience that each person can offer when we are our authentic selves.
The second lesson is one in Courage: Be Willing to Lose Sight of the Shore. Courage was no more apparent in these summer games than with the first ever refugee team, comprised of ten athletes who did not represent a country, but rather the 65 million people displaced by war and persecution.
Every single member of the refugee team had a story of courage and triumph over nearly impossible circumstances having to flee for safety, being separated from loved ones, and establishing roots far from home. But I was particularly moved by the story of Yusra Mardini, a heroic swimmer from Syria who last year helped drag a sinking boat full of fellow refugees to safety. When I heard this example of someone rising above such challenging circumstances, I was reminded of a quotation by French novelist Andre Gide: “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” In the past when I had came across this quotation, it was usually on some motivational meme or framed poster of a sunset over the ocean. But here, with the image of a teenager pulling a boat full of people to safety to discover a new ocean, an Olympic team that would give her a “place” to compete I found it utterly fitting. Mardini went on to win her heat in the 100m butterfly, something she could only have done because she had the courage to rise & shine and lose sight of the shore.
As you navigate a new grade level this year and along with that, new classes and teachers remember to rise & shine with courage as you reach for a new ocean, a new opportunity that lies ahead.
The third lesson is one in Respect: The Last Shall Be the First. When Track & Field comes on, I have always wondered why there are so many heats in the 100 meters and why so many of those competing in early heats fall so far behind. It wasn’t until Kariman Abuljadayel of Saudia Arabia competed that I understood it does not matter if you are last, you can still be first. Until 2012, Saudi Arabia had a ban on women competing in the Olympics. This summer Kariman Abuljadayel became the first woman from Saudia Arabia to compete in the 100 meters. She was one of only two women sent by her country to compete in the Olympics. What I learned is that when a country has very few athletes, they may still enter them into a race especially one that is as quick and has as many heats as the 100 meters even if their times are not competitive. Watching Kariman Abuljadayel cross the finish line nearly 4 seconds after the other competitors in her heat (in what is typically only a 10 second race), I found myself cheering for her as if she had won a gold medal. Although she was last in her race, she had accomplished a first for her country and for so many women lacking equal rights around the world.
For me, this lesson is one in respecting all who participate especially those who come in last for to even approach that start line, surely they had to overcome something. Surely, they had to rise & shine.
The fourth lesson is one in Responsibility: Pick Yourself Up. Those of you who read my summer letter to your parents may have learned that I competed against beach volleyball players Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross when I was not much older than all of you. As you can imagine, beach volleyball held a special obsession for me in these Olympics. The matches were usually on at 11:00 p.m. or midnight, and I would do everything I could to stay awake to cheer on these women warriors.
When Kerri and April lost their bid to the gold medal match against a tough Brazilian team of Agatha and Barbara, a team they had beat numerous times before, I was crushed. I looked at April, with sand stuck to her whole body from diving after balls, and Kerri, hanging onto the net and her partner, head hung low. I thought for sure that they wouldn’t be able to rebound in the bronze medal match against the top Brazilian team of Larissa and Talita, who had beat Kerri and April several times in the past. In an interview later, Kerri described how much responsibility she felt to her partner and to herself after having a bad game in the semifinal. And that she felt the stakes were higher in the bronze medal match than in any of the other finals in her three previous Olympic appearances. She said that in a final, you could go home with a medal no matter what, but in the bronze medal match, you could go home without one. To make that happen, she had to pick herself up, dust off the sand, and get to work in her final match of the Olympics.
There are times in middle school when you will make a mistake, you will fail, or something will disappoint you immensely. The true measure of your success will not be in that moment, but in the moments that come after: when you pick yourself up, dust off the sand, and get to work. When you rise & shine.
The fifth and final lesson is one in Compassion: Pick Someone Else Up. Even if you hadn’t known about any of the other Olympic moments that I shared, I am guessing you saw this video after it went viral on social media. Here is a clip from the the 5000 meters semifinal heat. https://youtu.be/dCVlRFWOjgE
I was fortunate enough to see this event as it was broadcast live. I told you I watched a lot of Olympics! Watching it live, what I first saw was a horrible accident, followed by an incredible act of kindness by Abbey D’Agostino as she lifted up Nikki Hamblin after they fell. What amazed me was how after D’Agostino had effectively sacrificed her own race to help Hamblin, she would be the one in need of help. And the person who would help her, again sacrificing her own race, was Hamblin. Because of their incredible acts of compassion, both athletes left Rio with medals. While their injuries precluded them from winning gold, silver, or bronze, they were awarded the Fair Play medal, recognizing their sportsmanship. In this historic race, these women were able to rise up from their injuries and shine in all of our hearts as they demonstrated incredible sacrifice and humanity.
This final lesson from the Summer Olympics shows us yet another interpretation of what it means to rise & shine. Yes, the Olympics and so much of our academic life is about individual performance and growth. But real life is about what we give to one another and the kind of person we are inside.
As you begin the 2016-17 school year, I encourage you to remember these inspirational lessons of Honesty, Courage, Respect, Responsibility, and Compassion and how in each one of us there is a champion who will Rise & Shine.