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They call it "The Miracle in Lake Placid." It was February 22, 1980 - George Washingtonís Birthday. The story of David and Goliath was about to repeat itself.
The young, scrawny, inexperienced US Hockey team was about to face the mighty Russian Team at the Lake Placid Olympic Games. Nobody thought the Americans had a chance to win. They were just a college squad. The Russian team was the best in the world.
Somehow, the Americans beat the Russians 4-3. It was really a "Miracle in Lake Placid."
After the game, the crowd walked up and down Main Street Lake Placid. Almost on cue, snowflakes began to fall and for hours everyone walked and sang "The Star Spangled Banner," "America the Beautifulí" and "God Bless America."
I was 17 when I watched the Miracle and it inspired a dream in me. An improbable dream, an impossible dream. I dreamed of becoming an Olympian.
Flash forward four years. Itís 1984. Now Iím walking down Main Street Lake Placid looking for the US Olympic Training Center, where Iím about to take up the sport of luge with hopes of competing in the Olympics in four years. Iím 21 years old. Way too old to start a new sport but filled with a fire started by the miracle that happened here four years earlier.
Flash forward four more years. Against all odds, Iím marching in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics where in two days Iíll be competing against the best in the world in the menís singles luge.
Whatís the luge feel like?
People always ask me, "Whatís it feel like to hurl yourself down an icy chute at 90 MPH? Is it scary?"
Of course its scary. Luge has been called the last bit of insanity left in the Olympics. The track is almost a mile long. A mile long chute of mean ice that starts 50 stories up and snakes down the mountain. You take four runs down the mountain in a 50 lb, four foot long sled. The luge has no brakes. Once you start, youíre committed. Thereís no stopping!
The luge is a terrible TV sport. On TV it doesnít look like we do anything. People think all we do is hold on and pray! Well, theyíre 2/3 right. We hold on, pray, and steer a lot. Weíre making hundreds of tiny corrections to have the best line down the track.
On TV itís right up there with archery. Not too exciting. But live, the luge is unbelievable! Youíre standing just a couple of feet away from a 20 foot wall of ice. You hear an eerie sound - the rumbling sound of sled against ice that gets louder and louder as it nears. Suddenly a blur shoots across the ice with a whoosh and disappears down the track.
Athletes from all countries streak above you, below you, in front of you. They wear a helmet and a racing suit so tight that they look like theyíve been held by the nose and dipped in high-gloss paint. The uniform actually makes them look like human rockets. They paint streaks in the ice as they flash by. Youíre so close you can lean over, look them in the eye, and actually feel the wind they make as they whiz by at almost 90 miles an hour.
As they rocket by you ask yourself - Will he make it? Is this really a race? Maybe they arenít racing. Maybe they are being sacrificed. You see them for an instant, and their image becomes frozen in your mind. You watch the racer, murmur something softly to yourself, and swing around to look up the track for the next one. Watching for the next victim.
Would you like to know what it feels like to take a luge run? Fasten your seatbelts!
As you walk up to the start, you can look down the mountain and see the whole track. Youíre 50 stories up, the hair stands up on the back of your neck, your stomach gets queasy, your mouth gets dry. You know what can happen down there.
You sit on your sled. My coach is right behind me. My coach is a four-time Olympian and a three-time World Champion from Austria. Gunther is about 6í6". He looks like and sounds like Arnold Swartzenegger. Coach isnít just an expert. He was the best. He didnít just read about it. He did it. He has the fruit on the trees. When coach says, "Jump." I say, "How high?"
Iím sitting on the sled and Iíll be starting in a few seconds. I close my eyes, I take another mental run, imagining exactly how I will steer each curve. I open up my eyes, take three deep breaths, fasten my visor, hold on to the start handles, rock (one, two, andÖ) pull with everything Iíve got.
Our gloves have spikes on their fingertips. We use them to paddle to build up more speed at he start. Then you lay down on the sled.
As youíre shooting down the track, the speed and the fear increases dramatically. Before long youíre up to 70-80 MPH. At that speed the world seems to turn into a blur. It feels like youíre riding on a bar of soap. Everything happens so fast. Sometimes you ride 20 feet high on the curved walls. You pull as many as 6 Gís. I weigh 200 lbs. 6 Gís feels like you have 1200 lbs. squashing you. It feels like a polar bear is sitting on your chest! You feel like a tape recorder stuck on fast-forward. You zip by trees and crowds and somehow try to stay relaxed. You bump a wall, your teeth chatter and your vision gets blurry. At the end you are exhausted, out of breath, sweating even though it might be 20 below outside.
After crossing the finish line, you sit back up on the sled. As soon as you do, you get slammed with an 80 MPH wind. Then you slow down, slow down, slow down. As soon as you step off the sled the adrenaline rush hits you. The fear hits you like a sledgehammer. Wheeeeeewwww!!!! Iím never doing that again! Thatís it, Iím going back to soccer. Soccerís warm, itís soft, and itís FUN!
You want to quit with every fiber of your being!
Fortunately, there's a walkie-talkie waiting for you at the finish. You see, there's coaches up and down the whole track. The coaches can see things you can't. They actually tape you and later that night you review the tapes to be faster the next day.
I pick up the walkie-talkie, and say, "Coach, this is Ruben." "Ruben, Nach Cmmon!" Whenever Coach says Nach Cmmon, I know the next thing out of his mouth won't be good. My knees are starting to shake...
"Ruben, you must point you toes more, and put your head futhter back! And Ruben you were so late into curve 6. You must steer hahda, hahda, hahda. And Ruben, you must relax, relaaax, be one with the sled..."
Yeah, right! You try relaxing when your going 80 MPH! Sometimes, I finish my run and I really think I was relaxed. As soom as I pick up the walkie-talkie, Coach says, "Ruben, you must relax!" Urrhgh!
Remember I was ready to quit? In the last 18 years I've taken thousands of luge runs. I've wanted to quit after every single one! But after talking to Coach, I'm thinking, "I know exactly what I'm going to do next run. I'm pointing my toes, I'm putting my head back, I'm steering hahda, hahda, hahda on curve 6, I'm going to relax, and lookout, I'm going to be faster than ever before! It only took talking to Coach for 30 seconds to get me back on the sled. If it had not been for the walkie-talkie, I never would have made it to the Olympics. The walkie-talkie kept me from quitting.
I've got news for you. You will have bad days. You're going to have a bad week. You will have bad months. Once in a while you'll even have a bad year. I have. Some days you're the windshield, some days you're the bug.
Whenever things are not working out for you. Whenever you're discouraged. Whenever you are doubting yourself, don't go out and try to figure it out for yourself. When things are not going your way is the worst time to make a decision. You'll be basing it entirely on emotion. Not on intellect. At that time you're bound to make a bad decision. That's when you're the closest to quitting. I promise you. If you quit, you'll regret it all your life.
When things are not going your way, you need to pick up the walkie-talkie. You need to talk to your best friend, your coach, your mentor, your boss. Someone who cares for you. Somebody that will get you back on the sled. Somebody who will get you back on track. Somebody who won't let you quit.
My job is to give you hope. To help you see that you were designed for greatness. To get you to believe more in yourselves.
You see, if you believe something is possible, if you have hope, you will not quit. Hope sees the invisible. Hope accomplishes the impossible.
Napoleon Bonaparte said, "The main job of a leader is to give his troops hope."
My story takes the excuses away. When you hear my story, you will see that if you want something bad enough and youíre willing to go for it, dreams do come true.
Whether you want to be a better dad or mom, a better husband or wife, a better employee, a better boss, a better salespersonÖ whether your dream is to travel the world, or move to a beautiful home in the mountains or by the beach, no matter what your dream is, all it takes to succeed is guts and vision. Vision to know what you want, and the guts to go for it and to never quit.
My story takes the excuses away because I was not a great athlete. I was not a great athlete but somehow I still got to make my Olympic dream a reality three times! I didnít make it because Iím special. I made it because I consistently and persistently followed some universal success principles.
If you follow these principles, you will win too.
I've learned so much about success from my parents, my coaches, and my fellow Olympians that has led me to peak performance. In the next 20/40/60 minutes I'd like to share them with you: the lessons I learned growing up, the lessons I learned training for the Olympics and the lessons I learned from the Olympics themselves. Lessons that I apply to everything I ever tackle. Lessons that can help everybody reach peak performance.
So here we goÖ
Childhood to Lake Placid
I was born in Argentina. My dad was a chemical engineer with Exxon and we were transferred to the US in 1968 when I was 6 years old. Iíll save you the math, Iím 40 years old.
We lived in Queens, New York. I didnít speak a word of English. And to make it worse, I was the only kid in my class that didnít speak English.
You know how kids are, they want to find out something about you that is different so they have an excuse to pick on you. Weíll with me it was easy. I was the kid who didnít talk.
I got picked on all the time. It was terrible. I got picked everywhere but the one place where I wanted to get picked Ė P.E. When they were picking teams to play sports I never got picked. I didnít know how to play football, I didnít know baseball, I didnít know dodge ball, and my dad didnít know them either. So he couldn't help me. You see, I Argentina, all we play is soccer. All we do in Argentina is eat beef and play soccer! Soccer wasnít very popular in the US in 1968. So I never got picked.
After a while, I thought there was something wrong with me. Any day of the week I could have told you what color shoes I was wearing. Because this is how I walked around all day.
I made a big mistake. I didnít realize those kids were just being kids. I should not have taken it personally. They didnít know me. They didnít understand me.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Donít let other peopleís opinion of you become your reality."
And I say to you... Many of you are doing just that. Someone who does not know you or does not understand you, said something to you and you bought into it. And that belief has been holding you back from what you are capable of doing. I tell you forget it. Youíre bigger than you realize. Donít let someone elseís opinion of you become your reality.
Back then, I spent most of my free time doing two things. I kicked a soccer ball against a wall for hours (walls didnít talk back) dreaming of someday being a professional soccer player. Thatís every Argentinean boyís dream.
My other favorite activity was reading adventure books. I loved to read books about people who lived adventurous lives. I read "Around the World in 80 Days", "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea", and countless other adventure books. By the time I could speak English, I would tell other kids, "I want my life to be like a book!" They would ask me , "What do you mean?" And I would say, "I want my life to be filled with adventures!"
People tend to get what they think about and what they focus on. I had my antennas out looking for adventures. And by looking for an adventure, I found mine.
When I was in the 3rd grade I saw the Olympics for the first time. Right away I knew that the Olympics would be my adventure.
I looked up to the Olympians. But what I admired about them was not necessarily their athleticism. I admired their values. You see, this was a group of people that had a dream, they were willing to put everything on the line for it. They were willing to go for it with no guarantees of success. They were willing to train for years and years and some of them made it. I thought, gosh, you have to be so mentally strong and so courageous to to go for it.
I decided I wanted to become an Olympian.
From that day on, I became an Olympic expert. I read everything I could get my hands on about the Olympics. I could tell you the stats on every athlete. I learned about Olympic history and Olympic philosophy. But I was afraid to take action. I was afraid to fail. I didnít believe in myself. All I was, was an Olympic groupie.
Since I didnít believe in myself, I was operating out of wishful thinking. I was hoping the Olympics would drop on my lap. I needed to start believing in myself so I would take action. Once you believe, you are ready to commit. Until you commit, youíll never make your dream come true.
After a couple of years, my dad got tired of listening to me "talk the talk" but not "walk the walk."
The rest of the story is found in "The Courage to Succeed"
Salt Lake City Olympics - 84 MPH - click here
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