I can’t write about courage and ignore the Olympics. It’s a dream for so many: every four years, athletes from all over the globe come together to represent their countries before the world. To qualify, to attend, is an achievement of itself; to medal may be, for most, the pinnacle of their achievements on earth.
And every four years, the Olympics gives us shining examples of courage. It takes a lifetime of dedication and sacrifice to get there–after such a sustained effort, it’s predictable that most of the participants will be willing to go to great lengths to make sure they give their best effort, that they don’t let their team or their country down.
We saw a memorable example of such courage two nights ago. A young British gymnast named Ellie Downie, halfway through her floor routine, made a tumbling pass that ended in a fall full onto her head and neck. It was the kind of fall that makes one cringe just to watch, the kind of fall that might result in a concussion at best. She got to her feet, clearly dazed, and tried to continue her routine, but after taking a moment to collect herself, she stepped off the mat and her coaches helped her out of the arena.
I haven’t seen a diagnosis. I don’t know whether she has a concussion or a neck injury or no injury at all. But it seems like a good bet; if she were a player in the NFL, concussion protocols would have put her on the bench for the rest of the game.
Instead, she came back to the arena a short time later to compete in her next event, the vault.
It’s not hard to understand her thinking, really. A gymnast’s career is incredibly short; few can perform at the elite level long enough to qualify for a second Olympics. It’s almost cliche to see gymnasts competing through injuries. If she was going to have any Olympic career at all, it couldn’t wait for a diagnosis.
But she could have sat it out. She could have chosen to play it safe, not to risk further injury, and no one would have judged her for it.
But her team needed her vault to qualify for the team competition, so she returned. She performed her vault twice, stuck the landings, then sat down.
The next few days will tell whether doctors clear her to return for the final competitions. But for a few brief moments, Ellie Downie showed us what courage looks like.