There are plenty of success stories that play out in front of the world during the Olympics. But sometimes the most inspiring examples of athleticism, courage, sportsmanship, and perseverance happen off the field of competition. Some athletes have to overcome unthinkable injuries in order to claim glory.
Most skiers understand that when you face the downhill slope at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour sometimes the mountain wins. And nobody knows that truth better than Olympic downhill skier Lindsey Vonn. From 2006 to 2016, this 33-year-old endured nine major injuries and underwent five surgeries. Despite the constant rehab, Vonn has amassed quite a library of victories. She has won four World Cup overall championships, eight World Cup season titles in downhill, five titles in super-G, and three combined titles. Vonn was also the first American woman to win a gold medal in downhill at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Now, viewers can watch Vonn compete in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, a run that Vonn has said will be her last. "You are only limited to what you push yourself to," says Vonn. "You can always get better.
During the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Kerri Strug and the rest of the US women's gymnastics team (also known as the Magnificent Seven) dominated the all-round competition. Nearing the last rotation, Strug needed to land a solid vault for the team to secure the gold medal. In her first attempt, Strug under-rotated during her maneuver, which caused her to seriously injure her ankle. Due to some disappointing scores by her teammates, the team would need a high score on Strug's second vault attempt. Limping to the start, Strug pushed through the pain and nailed a 9.712 score—on one foot. "Believe in yourself and your dreams," says Strug. "Not your fears.
After leaving gymnastics, Strug was an elementary school teacher, a staff assistant with the White House Office of Presidential Student Correspondence, and joined the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile and Delinquency Prevention staff as a presidential appointee. More recently, Strug was a correspondent during the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Three months after winning the 2015 Junior title at the U.S. Championships, figure skater Bradie Tennell fractured both wings of a lumbar vertebra and spent the entire summer in a back brace. Though she competed in the 2016 season, her performance suffered due to her injuries. She later learned that she had a stress fracture in a different lumbar vertebra. Medical professionals recommended physical therapy in order for her to continue to compete. Tennell spent months doing physical therapy and pilates and when she finally did return to the ice, she took it slow and safe, focusing on staying healthy.
In 2017, Tennell won several competitions, including taking the bronze in the 2017 Skate America and later winning the 2018 U.S. National Title. Figure skating fans can watch Tennell compete in her first Olympics in the upcoming Pyeongchang Games. "With my injuries in the past and how I feel about myself now, I feel like I'm really just coming into my own," says Tennell. "I'm really excited to see where this sport takes me."
For men's short track speed skater J.R. Celski, the 2010 Vancouver Olympics should have been the dream that got away. During the Olympic trials 500-meter semifinal race, Celski's right skate sliced into his left leg while he was making a turn. Celski left the ice on a stretcher with many people wondering if he would be able to return to the sport, including Celski himself. The injury required emergency surgery, 60 stitches, and five months of grueling rehabilitation.
But Celski arrived in Vancouver determined to cast away any doubts of his ability to compete and win at the Olympic games. When it was over, he earned bronze medals in the 5000-meter relay and the 1500-meter. Four years later, he qualified for the Men's Olympic team in Sochi 2014, winning a silver medal in the 5000-meter relay.
Today, Celski is ready for his third Olympic appearance in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February. For a young man whose dreams could have been cut short during the Olympic trials in 2010, Celski is on track for great things. "I developed this—I don't know, like a burning love almost inside of me that I just wanted to get up and I just wanted to skate every single day and get better," says Celski.
It's true that everyone loves a winner. But as these four champion athletes prove, sometimes winning isn't about a medal, a record time, or even a high-profile product endorsement when the games are over. Instead, the challenge of overcoming seemingly insurmountable hardships or failure is the foundation where true victory begins.