The fall of James Magnussen, Australian Olympic Swim team, London 2012
All of us have at some time fallen hard to Earth. Our hubris, arrogance, superiority and judgement have hit us so hard that we have been left gasping for air, mortified, humiliated, shamed and broken.
In the early hours of Monday morning July 30th, Australian time, a team of four elite male Aussie swimmers raced in the 4×100 men’s freestyle relay.
The hype leading into this was massive…the aim and expectation was a certain gold medal, a world record breaking swim, and the adoration of Australia.
Instead, the team didn’t even medal.
James Magnussen from that moment has entered his own private hell. It is indeed an existential identity crisis. His whole identify was founded on the image and belief that he was unbeatable at this time in his swim career, and while the record books indicated this was true, he discovered, on a very public stage, that he is a mere mortal.
Most all of us over the age of 30 have been through some form of existential identity crisis. That sudden decent into confusion and loss about who we really are, because who we thought we were simply didn’t make the cut. We thought we were smarter, better, faster, stronger…
Make no mistake, it is a descent into hell.
At the core of Magnussen’s crisis is the disentanglement of some belief that he was invincible. He made this belief very clearly known to the Australian public. For this, he can only look to himself.
The moment we step into any form of “I am special”, or “I am more special than you” and hold this as true, we have separated ourselves from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that ‘other’ people endure. And in the instant of separation our Achilles heal is exposed. From here it is only a matter of time before the arrow falls, and we are brought literally and figuratively, to our knees.
When we build our world on beliefs based on illusion, then our identity and happiness becomes dependent on these beliefs holding true.
The journey to mature adult is a journey of breaking down these illusions. Its not a skip down the yellow brick road throwing daffodils. It hurts. It cuts. It reduces us to a blob on the floor. Our illusions need to go up in flames. There is a burning. There is darkness.
The bravado of James Magnussen, while certainly built on talent and hard work, had become the illusion. His actions immediately after the swim demonstrated the immaturity of his foundation. His little silent tantrum on pool deck, almost refusing to engage with the reporter interviewing post race, showed a young man in hell, probably for the very first time in his career.
It will take some time for him to fully integrate this experience. It is not one that is learned in 5 minutes. To truly integrate his fall and evolve in wisdom will take deep introspection. And a devotion to this process of wisdom that is equal to his devotion to his sport.
There is a real gold mine at the end of the journey, if he goes fully down the rabbit hole of his interior journey.
He will learn, as we all do, that humility is where our truth lies. That there are parts of life that we have no control over. We can do all the hard work, all the training, we can have the self belief, the confidence and the certainty, and we can be hit by a random bus crossing a road.
To win is not just what we do, and what we believe, contrary to many new age books teaching the law of attraction….to win we also need the Universe to align. We need to step into Kairos time. There is a Universal Law at work here. Beyond the control of one human. Many athletes have learned this well before their gold medal. A brother dying, a silly mistake that caused endless consequences, getting sick, the loss of a parent, injuries that just won’t go away. They have learned that to win a Gold Medal, everything has to line up. Which is exactly why it is so rare. And why we cannot look at the Gold Medal holder as simply the best athlete on the day.
Yes we need to do the work, yes we need to bring the devotion to our discipline, yes we need self belief, yes we need confidence. And then, fully prepared, we need to show up and put it all on the line.
And surrender. Everything. Let it all go. And have what will be, be. This is the hardest work of all.
And when it doesn’t work out, which will happen, we pick ourselves up, we know we gave it our all, and we start working on the next opportunity to go back into the fray, and do it all again.
This is what defines a true champion. Not just lucking out on talent and bravado and hitting the jackpot. No matter how much we dream of that happening, we all know that it is only a temporary condition, because life works in cycles.
We have summer, and winter. We have loss and gain. We have feast and famine, death and rebirth. We celebrate the win even more so when the winner has gone through the crucible of life to reach their goals. Because this is life in its rawness, transcending the obstacle course that life throws at us.
When we have made our peace with this as a part of normal human process, that things don’t always go to plan, that we can only do our end of the game and show up having put everything on the table, then we will know humility. And compassion.
James Magnussen obviously has prodigious talent. I truly feel his pain, because I have been there more than once. Indeed, in my own way I am there now…where every aspect of how I perceive value is being torn apart. (see my last blog)
I pray that one day soon he will look back at this event and be deeply grateful. He has the opportunity to have this event be the one that defines who he is as an athlete, role model and human being. Able to be of service to the inspiration of many others, or to keep the illusion alive and fall again, on his own sword.
Time will tell. May he find wisdom and humility. May we all…
Thomas Merton speaks of this far more eloquently than I.
“Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else. They constantly defile the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea. They bore through silent nature in every direction with their machines, for fear that the calm world might accuse them of their own emptiness. The urgency of their swift movement seems to ignore the tranquility of nature by pretending to have a purpose. The loud plane seems for a moment to deny the reality of the clouds and of the sky, by its direction, its noise, and its pretended strength. The silence of the sky remains when the plane has gone. The tranquility of the clouds will remain when the plane has fallen apart. It is the silence of the world that is real. Our noise, our business, our purposes, and all our fatuous statements about our purposes, our business, and our noise: these are the illusion.” [From No Man is an Island]