Thousands squeezed into the SAP Center in San Jose, California—loyal fans, gymnastics royalty, friends and family. Years of sacrifice and hard work brought three young women to this sacred place. This was a point of athletic accomplishment for them as elite gymnasts, fighting to secure their spots on the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Olympic Team.
Thunderous cheers and electric excitement saturated the arena.
It’s now my great pleasure to introduce to you the five ladies who will represent the United States of America in Rio de Janeiro, the announcer boomed. Simone Biles. Gabrielle Douglas. Laurie Hernandez. Madison Kocian. And Aly Raisman!
But the names of the three others did not bellow through the speakers.
They fell just shy of the Final Five, who would later make history during the 2016 summer games, capturing 12 medals for the U.S.
As the crowd erupted in applause, the announcer proclaimed their names.
They will be joined by the three replacement athletes. Please welcome MyKayla Skinner, Ragan Smith and Ashton Locklear.
They ran to the floor and hugged their five teammates. And as the fanfare continued with red, white and blue confetti exploding from the ceiling, the three stood in a moment that brought both amazement and complication.
MyKayla (20), Ragan (16) and Ashton (19) made it to the Super Bowl of their sport—the Olympics. But as alternates, the hope of competing in these games didn’t come with a guarantee.
In life, we don’t want success to arrive through disappointment. But the collision of the two can help us see who we are as we learn how to struggle well.
Cru® staff member Stacie Fletcher met the alternates while covering the Olympics with Athletes in Action® last August.
Stacie’s connection to gymnastics runs deep. As a child, she competed, and as a young adult, she coached. She understands this highly competitive world.
“The alternates are there, training every bit as hard,” Stacie observed. “At any moment, especially in the world of gymnastics, someone can get hurt and you would immediately be on the team.”
The three young women traveled to Rio but exercised and lived an hour away. The Olympic Games only host competitors.
They stayed in constant preparation, ready to perform should anything happen. And they understood that even with each successful somersault, split leap and perfect dismount, practice could be the extent of their Olympic journey.
To keep their hearts motivated, they continued to train hard and used FaceTime to connect with their teammates in the Olympic Village. The alternates committed to cheer for Team USA and had no regrets, even though they didn’t compete in the games.
“Behind The Scenes Look: Alternate Ashton Locklear’s Rio Journey” (Charlotte Observer)
During one practice, Stacie spoke with International Gymnastics Hall of Famer Kim Zmeskal, who trains Ragan. Stacie asked Kim about the tension that comes when dreams don’t reconcile with reality.
“How do you motivate them?” Stacie asked. “How do you motivate yourself?”
Kim knows first hand the bumps that arise in competitive athletics. Her career included Olympic gold medal hopes just within her grasp but never captured.
In 1991, she became the first American gymnast to win an individual gold medal in the All-Around at the World Championships in Indianapolis, and she also competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic games.
“It cannot be just about who is number one,” she said. “That doesn’t make it wrong to shoot for number one. It doesn’t make it wrong to get it. It doesn’t make it wrong for celebrating it.”
When you consider the effort and talent needed to even get close to that goal, Kim pointed out, you can recognize what it took for the alternates to get to Rio.
Like the alternates, we can’t get away from struggle in the midst of pursuing goals. Sometimes you get exactly what you want but not the way you expected it. Incredible success and incredible failure can be entwined. What can we learn from these women about perseverance and how to manage disappointments?
Dealing with pressure is a skill that some people have naturally, just like having speed and flexibility, Kim said. Some can deal with it better, but pressure is practiced.
Moving toward difficult situations may seem counterintuitive. Self-preservation is instinctive, yet as believers, Jesus invites us to deny ourselves, embrace struggle through our crosses and follow Him.
God understands the delicate balance we face living in the midst of struggle while also needing renewal and encouragement. So, He also calls us to rest.
Through it all, we can have confidence that the Lord uses spiritual refining through testing to help us mature and become more like Him.
Kim said she wanted Ragan to remember who she was in Rio while she trained. No matter what, Ragan was still an accomplished gymnast. That would be true whether she was home in the U.S. or competing abroad.
Maybe you can’t change your struggle, but you can decide how you will face it. Hardships will affect you, but they don’t have to define you. The anchored identity Jesus gives believers through the gospel helps us remember who we are in Him. God’s Word renews our minds, and even when we may forget who we are, He does not.
We can easily thank God when our lives are good. But challenge hits hard when life deals a heavy blow.
Kim said she was fortunate enough to have some very high highs in her life while walking through disappointments, too. She is equally thankful for both.
Difficulties and even tragedy regularly intersect our lives. The pain doesn’t feel fair and the loss doesn’t seem right. But we don’t live without hope. God walks with us in the good, and especially in the bad, giving us wisdom that can provide fresh perspective in the midst of a struggle.
MyKayla discovered a new outlook during her Olympic journey to Rio. Struggle sets you up for the future and can be a powerful asset if viewed wisely.
“You want to give it your all, and it could be your last meet, or it could be more meets after,” she said. “But you just want to make it the best that you can and go out and fight for every moment.”
For MyKayla and her teammates, everything was worth it.
Melody Copenny serves as a journalist with Cru®. She’s an Atlanta, Georgia, native and University of Georgia graduate with a bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism. She enjoys the intersection of creativity, theology and popular culture in her writing projects.Contact Me
Stacie Fletcher works with Cru®’s Digital Products department and has been a staff member for 16 years. Outside of sharing Christ with the world, her passion is gymnastics, which she has been involved with since childhood—as a gymnast, a coach and a blogger.Contact Me
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