In this story from June 1977, former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby shares how a lesson her mother taught her helped her deal with the vicissitudes of athletics—and of life.
The woman was a famous movie star. She had come to visit her daughter at the summer gymnastics camp for girls that my husband and I run near Fresno, California. When the time came for the daily workouts, the actress watched her daughter from the sidelines. The girl was good, though not good enough to ever compete at a championship level. And I noticed, today, how nervous she was.
When the girl finished, her mother called out: “That was awful. You looked like a sack of potatoes tumbling downhill.” The girl burst into tears. My heart went out to her.
I found myself remembering the day one of my own gymnastic performances put me close to tears. I might have gone ahead and shed them, except for something my mother said to me then.
When my mother was carrying her first child, she was stricken with polio, and she has been confined to a wheelchair and crutches ever since. But she never let that discourage her. She managed to raise five children and have a career as well.
One day I decided to join a gymnastics program at a nearby park. Before long. I was totally absorbed in it. By 1972, I was on the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team for the Olympic Games in Munich. I couldn’t think of anything else but winning a gold medal.
It had become my habit, during practice sessions and the warm-ups before a contest, to pray—asking God for the strength and the control to get through the routine. That day in Munich, I was tense with the determination not to disgrace my country and myself. But, though I competed to the best of my ability, I didn’t win a gold medal. I was crushed. After the winners were announced, I joined my parents in the stands, all set for a big cry. I managed a faltering, “I’m sorry. I did my best.”
“You know that, and I know that,” my mother said, “and I’m sure God knows that, too.” She smiled and said ten words that I never forgot: “Doing your best is more important than being the best.”
Suddenly I understood my mother better than ever before. She had never let her handicap prevent her from always doing her best.
Now I went over to the sobbing girl and put an arm around her. “Honey,” I said, “I’ve been watching you improve all summer and I know you have done your best, and doing your best is more important than being the best. I’m proud of you.”
She smiled at me through her tears. Maybe somewhere, someday, she’ll pass those words along.
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