When people find out that I competed in the Olympics, they assume I’ve always been an accomplished athlete. But it isn’t true. I was not the strongest, or the fastest, and I didn’t learn the quickest. For me, becoming an Olympian was not developing a gift of natural athletic ability, but was, literally, an act of will.
At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, I was a member of the U.S. pentathlon team, but the tragedy of the Israeli athletes and an injury to my ankle combined to make the experience a deeply discouraging one. I didn’t quit; instead I kept training, eventually qualifying to go with the U.S. team to Montreal for the 1976 Games. The experience was much more joyous, and I was thrilled to place thirteenth. But still, I felt I could do better.
I arranged to take a leave of absence from my college coaching job the year before the 1980 Olympics. I figured that twelve months of “twenty-four-hour-a-day training” would give me the edge I needed to bring home a medal this time. In the summer of 1979, I started intensively training for the Olympic trials to be held in June of 1980. I felt the exhilaration that comes with single-minded focus and steady progress towards a cherished goal.
But then in November, what appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle occurred. I was in a car accident and injured my lower back. The doctors weren’t sure exactly what was wrong, but I had to stop training because I couldn’t move without experiencing excruciating pain. It seemed all too obvious that I would have to give up my dream of going to the Olympics if I couldn’t keep training. Everyone felt so sorry for me. Everyone but me.
It was strange, but I never believed this setback would stop me. I trusted that the doctors and physical therapists would get it handled soon, and I would get back to training. I held on to the affirmation: I’m getting better every day and I will place in the top three at the Olympic trials. It went through my head constantly.
But my progress was slow, and the doctors couldn’t agree on a course of treatment. Time was passing, and I was still in pain, unable to move. With only a few months remaining, I had to do something or I knew I would never make it. So I started training the only way I could – in my head.
A pentathlon consists of five track and field events: the 100-meter hurdle, the shot put, the high jump, the long jump and the 200-meter sprint. I obtained films of the world-record holders in all five of my events. Sitting in a kitchen chair, I watched the films projected on my kitchen wall over and over. Sometimes, I watched them in slow motion or frame by frame. When I got bored, I watched them backwards, just for fun. I watched for hundreds of hours, studying and absorbing. Other times, I lay on the couch and visualized the experience of competing in minute detail. I know some people thought I was crazy, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet. I trained as hard as I could – without ever moving a muscle.
Finally, the doctors diagnosed my problem as a bulging disc. Now I knew why I was in agony when I moved, but I still couldn’t train. Later, when I could walk a little, I went to the track and had them set up all five of my events. Even though I couldn’t practice, I would stand on the track and envision in my mind the complete physical training routine I would have gone through that day if I had been able. For months, I repeatedly imagined myself competing and qualifying at the trials.
But was visualizing enough? Was it truly possible that I could place in the top three at the Olympic trials? I believed it with all my heart. By the time the trials actually rolled around, I had healed just enough to compete. Being very careful to keep my muscles and tendons warm, I moved through my five events as if in a dream. Afterwards, as I walked across the field, I heard a voice on the loudspeaker announcing my name. It took my breath away, even though I had imagined it a thousand times in my mind. I felt a wave of pure joy wash over me as the announcer said, “Second place, 1980 Olympic Pentathlon: Marilyn King.”
The education of a man is never complete until he dies
Chicken soup for the soul – By Marilyn King As told to Carol Kline