The View From My Study – 28th April
I love the Olympics, and one of my favourite stories features Fu Minxia, a petite 13-year-old whose memorable diving exploits off the 10m board with the city of Barcelona as a back-drop, earned her victory in 1992. Her tale, told in Simon Barnes’ brilliant A Book of Heroes, is not just about gold medals though; it is about determination, perseverance, composure and, ultimately, the importance of working out your true identity.
Fu Minxia was plucked from her poor, working-class parents at an early age due to her gymnastic talent. The Chinese sporting regime at this time was to train gifted youngsters and push them to their limits. Fu Minxia was found to lack the extreme flexibility to make it as a top-level gymnast so she was diverted into diving instead. Amazingly, when she first began to plunge into the pool as an 8 year old, she could not swim – her coaches had to tie a rope around her waist and hoist her out!
With a training regime of ten hours a day, seven days a week, plus school study on top, Fu Minxia’s life was rarely her own and so, despite the enjoyment that came from success, she had no time to be herself or understand and enjoy who she was. Four years after winning in Barcelona, she competed at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta where she picked up two more gold medals. Then, as a 17-year-old at the peak of her talents, she retired, her popularity forcing the authorities to allow her to go to university to try to lead a normal life.
In her words, “I just wanted to be a kid, without any pressures.” And for the first time in her life, she could eat and do what she liked. After a couple of years, she looked so different from her former self that someone asked if she really had been an Olympic diving champion. Bristling at this, it made her take notice. “It made me realise I loved the sport and could do it on my terms,” she said, upon reflection.
Fu Minxia’s terms were to train again but for half days only and take weekends off. Soon, she qualified for the Sydney Olympics, competing for China once more, but also, more importantly, competing for herself. In Sydney, she won her 4th gold medal, again with a near faultless display, after which she retired for good, properly satisfied and, this time, happy.
The point is that in order to be truly happy, we have to be comfortable with our own identities. If we do not know who we are, it is easy to get lost or drawn into things that others want us to do. And then we will never be satisfied. So the message ‘be yourself’ this week has been a very important one and it rings loud and clear at a time when there is so much pressure around us to be a certain type. There is no particular type – just yourself, and that’s enough!
“True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” (Brene Brown)
Gareth Jones, Headmaster