Since the dawning of the new age of Olympians in 1896, there are have been key moments that have stunned and inspired millions to believe that the Olympics is more than just about the medal. Jesse Owen’s famous gold-medal lap in the face of a chagrined Hitler changed the world’s belief that skin color equaled racial dominance. Greg Louganis’s epic diving fail and winning comeback in 1998 inspired millions with his determination and grace under expected defeat.
Yet, there are many incredible moments of Olympic heroism have gone unsung over the years. From the backwoods of Tennessee to the waters of South Korea, these three competitors have transcended the games to give us a glimpse into the depths of the human soul, and redefined what it means to be an Olympic hero.
1. Yusra Mardini, Rio De Janeiro 2016
As the 2015 conflict in Syria came to a violent head, many natives realized that the safest course of action was to flee the country. After the dangerous journey through Lebanon and Turkey, the final ordeal was navigating the treacherous waters of the Greek Isle of Lesbos. For Olympic gold winner Yusra Mardini, it would be the defining moment of her life.
A Defining Journey
Seventeen-year-old Yusra Mardini, along with her sister Sarah and several other family members, navigated the high waters of the Aegean Sea during the summer of 2015. Partway through their voyage, the small watercraft sprung a leak, and the ship began taking in dangerous amounts of water. Although sheer panic ripped through the Syrian refugees aboard the craft, Mardini and her sister stepped up going overboard, using their powerful swim training to the advantage of all on aboard. Their strong legs propelled the boat towards Greece, where eventually, all 20 people safely arrived.
Olympic Failure, Personal Hero
Mardini’s heroism and athletic prowess earned her a top place on the 2016 Olympic Refugee Team, a multinational team representing refugees from violent areas across the globe. As a part of the team, she came in 41st in the qualifying round for the 100-meter butterfly race, 16 places away from the semi-finals. Still, her heroism and athletic prowess before the games undoubtedly makes her one of the most inspiring competitors in the Olympics to date.
2. Wilma Rudolph, Rome 1960
In the small backwater town of St. Bethlehem, Tennesee, Wilma Rudolph was born into a poor African American family, the 20th of 22 children. She was born months early, weighing just four and a half pounds. And, although doctors suggested she might not survive, she showed a tenacity that would eventually make her an Olympic champion.
A Devastating Prognosis
Wilma Rudolph was born a sickly child, contracting polio when she was only four years old. The disease ravaged the tiny girl’s body, attacking her nervous system and leaving her left leg paralyzed. Doctors gave her a devastating prognosis – Wilma would never be able to walk again.
Still, Rudolph and her family insisted she push through it, encouraging her along the way. Her mother, Blanche, massaged her daughter’s atrophied leg muscles every day for years, despite many doctors telling her that it was useless. After five years of being confined to a wheelchair, Wilma shocked her doctors and family by removing her leg brace and walking on her own.
Defying the Odds
Wilma’s spirit grew and she quickly went from walking shakily to running and then to competition sprinting, where she continued winning numerous races and awards throughout high school. Her speed and agility caught the eye of track and field recruiters from Tennessee State University where she was accepted on a full scholarship. Still, opposition continued to mold and define her.
After her speed earned her a top spot in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Rudolph was devastated by an ankle injury just days before competing. Despite the severe pain and agony, Wilma stepped up and ran her fastest during those games, winning gold medals in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 400-meter relay. The little girl from Tennessee, to whom doctors told she’d never walk again, earned the title of “Fastest Woman in the World,” becoming the most decorated female Olympian up to that point in history.
3. Lawrence Lemieux, South Korea 1988
The dangerous winds of South Korea were no match for the sailing prowess of Lawrence Lemieux, a Finn (dinghy) class competitor in the 1988 Summer Olympics. His speed during the event was rivalled only by the gold medal winner, Bruce Kendall. Yet, while Lemieux lost the race, the heroic nature of his disqualification has made him even more revered than any other Finn winner since.
A Foundation for Good
The weather during the small-craft rowing competition was dangerous by anyone’s standards. Thirty-knot Winds had kicked up the water, creating swells 10-12 feet high. Lemieux knew the fear of traversing the high winds and waves. In New Zealand, he himself had faced the risk of being lost at sea for hours before a rescue ship found him. Later, he had submerged his skiff during a race in the cold waters of Sweden, only to be rescued by a competitor who saw he was in danger.
Still, it wasn’t thoughts of rescue that filled his mind in September of 1988. Lawrence Lemieux came to win.
A Heroic Sacrifice
In the heat of the race, Lemieux was in second place, trailing the leader by only a handful of yards. That was when he saw Singapore sailors Shaw Her Siew and Joseph Chan go under the waves. Within moments, the extreme currents had swept Chan over 20 yards away from his small boat. In addition, the water-filled jacket that Chan was wearing to improve ballast weight was dragging him under.
Although distress crews were on hand to rescue capsized ships, Lemieux knew the rough waves and weather would make finding the bobbing heads of the two men very difficult, so he did the only thing he thought right: he abandoned his chances for gold and navigated the treacherous waves to pluck the men out of the drink.
Although his sacrifice eliminated his chance at a medal, it earned him a rare and prestigious Pierre de Coubertin Medal for exemplifying the Olympic spirit of good sportsmanlike conduct. More than that, it set him apart as being one of the most truly heroic Olympic competitors of all time.