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Failure, and a Journey to the Olympics

And now for the next in our commentary series… Eileen Grench, our resident Olympian, reflects on the thin line between failure and success.

So you know that moment where you’re sitting next to some stranger on a bus, or a plane, and they ask you what you do?

For 18 years of my life, I dreaded this question.

Moments after I admitted I was a professional fencer, the second inevitable question always was; “Did you go to the Olympics?”.  When I’d say no, they would mumble some version of a disappointed “oh.” And put on their headphones back in.

I failed to make the Olympics three times.  In 2008, I failed to qualify by three spots.  In 2012 I lost by one point, total fail. And here’s something that wasn’t in my Columbia Journalism School application: In 2016, I failed too.  I lost in the gold medal bout of the Olympic qualifier, and spent the next two months shaking, crying, working as a secretary, and eating a lot of Chinese takeout.

That’s 12 years of failing, if that’s how you want to look at it.

Psychologically, this sport is already tough. Losing in tennis? Pretty bad.  Losing in fencing? Someone just beat you with a metal rod 15 times. And then the winner tears their mask off, hair flying, and let out a primal roar of victory. Oftentimes straight in the losers’ face.

So imagine that moment in the final Olympic Qualifier in 2016.  I was in front of my teammates, my coach, and all the people who had supported me.  And I lost. And of course, my opponent did this:

[Felix Victory Scream ambi]

I had been training for more than half my life for this moment to turn out differently. That scream haunts my dreams.   

So, you all know the end of the story – I did make it to the Olympics and I did win a match, and as I always thought I was able to prove I deserved to be there.

In a strange twist of fate, the woman who beat me was banned from competition. And I was next in line.

Over the course of my career I did win international medals.  I also strained my bank account, my marriage, my friendships in pursuit of this single goal.

And now I have it, the title of Olympian. And I’m very proud to wear it. But here’s the thing.

Those who didn’t make it made just as many of the lauded Olympic “sacrifices” I did.

And now, when I hear people call me an Olympian, I think: I’m proud, but, I’m no different than before.

I was an almost.

My life has had big changes.  These days, when I’m on a plane and they ask me the same question, I get to say “yes! I was in Rio!” with a stupid grin on my face.

Now they react differently. “Wow!” they say, and pause again before asking… “Did you win a medal?”

“No.” I say, just before they put their headphones back on.

Eileen is still saving up for her Olympic tattoo, and taking donations. Look her up on venmo.

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