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Britta Gustafson: Teamwork makes the dream work

Dreams can teach us self motivation and how to get back up after a fall

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

When I hear John Williams’ “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” echo out from the TV speakers, I’m instantly transported back to the summer of 1988, when I watched the story of gold medalist Nadia Comăneci as part of the lead up to the summer games in Seoul, South Korea.

It had been more than a decade since the young gymnast achieved a perfect score at the age of 14, but a made-for-TV movie brought her story into my living room in the late ’80s. And I was starstruck.

I transformed our tiny TV den into a gym, swung from the rafters, tumbled across the couch and stuck every landing like a pro. In my innocent mind, a place on the podium was just a cartwheel’s worth of determination away.



Back then the Olympics had little competition for our attention. For two straight summer weeks, if you turned on the TV you tuned into the games. And for that summer, I was sold on the dream.

After persistent begging, my parents signed me up for gymnastics that fall. Conveniently, practice took place in the Red Brick gym (where it still presides, with a much more professional edge). At the time that also was the elementary school, so the commute was easy.



Donning our little leotards (mine a light blue ballet hand-me-down), we worked together to roll out a giant mat on the gymnasium floor. We stretched, and then to my surprise, the other girls my age began bouncing and flipping and sliding into perfect splits. By the end of day one, my Olympic dreams were dashed.

I guess I personally lack the gene that motivates a serious competitive edge. But I found that although I wasn’t destined to tumble my way to fame, I could be part of a fun team and enjoy a sense of belonging. It was a great season. Fun — oh, definitely fun — and I made some lifelong friends. I continued practicing my acquired gymnastics skills as a cheerleader all through high school. To this day, an occasional handstand, toe touch or cartwheel might still be met with impressed giggles from my own kiddos.

And because it is Aspen, I grew up to watch a number of my friends follow their podium dreams to fruition. In this valley, an athletic edge seems par for the course. As for the Olympics, yes, I’ve known a few classmates who made it in skiing and snowboarding. I have friends who succeeded in bike racing and achieved modest fame in their hockey and skating dreams.

But now that we are the parents, I suppose some of those unfulfilled dreams that did seem within our reach never left us.

With parents all around me signing up their own toddlers for ice-skating, hockey and impressively dedicated ski lesson schedules, I’m fairly sure that many harbor high hopes of one day reaping vicarious athletic glory.

Of course, it seems hard to imagine that any parent might choose to discourage their young children from following their athletic passions, no matter how lofty. After all, we want to encourage our kids to keep dreaming big. I guess the only aside is to be sure that it is our kids who have those dreams and not the coaches, parents or community pressures which have implanted the pursuit.

Along the road to realizing their dreams, we should probably keep our own fantasies in check. From my perspective, the journey is far more important than a gold medal.

Developing character by working as part of a team seems obvious. But I’ve noticed many try so hard to give their own kids that competitive edge that they often lose sight of the concept of team in an effort to elevate their own child to greatness.

Teamwork offers an opportunity to develop a strong work ethic and gain a heightened level of responsibility. I’m not sure that private lessons and personal coaches allow for the same lifelong skill sets.

I learned pretty early on that when you are not the star on the team, the importance of self-motivation and resilience come to the forefront; you are almost forced to recognize that your athletic skills do not define who you are.

In this magical land of Aspen, where we want to believe that children can be whatever they want to be if only they try hard enough and start young enough, sometimes we inadvertently set up our own kids for a hard fall. For most, even with the best of the best opportunities, reality eventually catches up. And even for those who I have watched rise to greatness, the comedown can still be a hard landing if there is not a solid foundation of resilience padded with virtue.

Dreams are beautiful in the way that they can teach us self motivation and how to get back up after a fall. As parents, perhaps we can do better to support a passion that can last and encourage character development despite what is often an unattainable level of athletic perfection in a community that thrives on competition.


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