The Grit Of Kristin Armstrong

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Because I Can: Kristin Armstrong [Image by Bryn Lennon via NPR.org]

On August 11, 2016, Kristin Armstrong turned 43. The evening before, she became the only cyclist ever to win three consecutive Olympic golds in the same event. Only cyclist, male or female, across any discipline.

Look again at the picture above. That’s 42 years and 364 days old Kristin showing her gold medal to her 5 year old son Lucas. A gold again in the women’s time trial event, after 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London.

Never Too Old

“Les” Brown, one of America’s top five speakers and author of Live Your Dreams, said once, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” Kristin Armstrong proves it. She is the oldest female cycling medalist of all time.

She told NPR on her third gold, “I think that for so long we’ve been told that we should be finished at a certain age. And I think that there’s a lot of athletes out there that are actually showing that that’s not true.” She retired twice — once in 2010, and then again in 2013; but came out each time. This time, the USA Cycling Selection Committee came under heavy criticism for taking her in.

The reporters in Rio de Janeiro asked her why she came out of her retirement at this age. And why does she still want to compete at an elite level despite her age and several hip surgeries. She wished she had a clever answer for the occasion, but added that she has only one reply:

“Because I can.”

Road To GOAT

She wasn’t even a full-time cyclist until 2001. That year, her doctors told her that she has early stage osteoarthritis in her hips. She could no more run as a triathlete at elite levels.

Triathlons are three non-stop serial events of high endurance – running, swimming and cycling. On hearing her diagnosis, she re-focused her sporting goals into cycling. Thus began her story of becoming one of the Greatest of All Time (GOAT).

On her second comeback in 2015, after three hip surgeries, she went through a grueling training schedule. After being off the bike for three years, she couldn’t train like others. After each excruciating training session, her recovery took long. Also, she couldn’t enter herself into all the big cycling events throughout the year.

On Wednesday, Kristin completed the 29.8 kilometer course in 44 minutes 26.42 seconds. On her first 10 km, as she bolted through a rain, her nose started bleeding. But she kept on through the hilly course. And was 5½ seconds sooner to finish than her nearest competitor Olga Zabelinskaya.

Beneath The Legend

Kristin Armstrong is a normal, just about any person outside the cycling arena. She was born in the USA, but somehow came to attend her high school in Japan. She has an undergraduate degree in Sports Science from the University of Idaho. She is married.

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Kristin Armstrong [Image by Joe Savola via Exergy TWENTY16]

She is a mom too, and has to answer the curious questions of her 5 year old son. After her win, when she hugged him, he asked, “Mama, why are you crying? You won.” Kristin replied just as any other mom in the world, “That’s what we do, we cry when we’re happy.”

By the way, she has a regular job like the rest of us. She is the director of community health at St. Luke’s hospital in Boise, Idaho. It’s her “dream job” and she’s going back to it. Kristin makes it a point to express her gratitude to her employers who gave her a 12-week break for this Olympic event.

Kristin’s Grit

If anything defines her from behind her achievements, it’s her grit. Kristin can take hurt unlike the rest of us, and battle through it in incredible ways.

Grit is “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” as Angela Duckworth defines it. It has two facets — a perseverance of effort and a consistency of interest over time. Kristin has both of these in more than ample amounts.

GRIT may be broken down into:

  • G – Goals
  • R – Resilience
  • I – Integrity
  • T – Tenacity

Goals should be long-term, with many sub-goals spread out over time.

Resilience is about bouncing back, and flexing your mind around tough times.

Integrity is a deliberate discipline towards your goals.

Tenacity, the last point, is at the heart of grit. It’s determination, intensity, and perseverance.

A forced time-off from the field due to physical strains can become the loneliest time for an athlete. Only the ones with true grit make a comeback from that point of desperation. It begins with a belief in the self. And sustains with grit. Kristin has shown it time and again.

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Grit means to be relentless in the pursuit of your goals. It is not about being talented or smarter. Grit is not only about successes; people with grit accept their failures and then make active plans to grow beyond them.

Grit has a background of courage. The exceptionally gritty people as Kristin have the courage to embrace failures on their way to success. These words by Theodore Roosevelt define grit in the most poetic way:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strived valiantly; who errs, who comes again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Grit, as Duckworth says, is a quality that can be learned and put into performance for extraordinary long-term achievements.

Final Words

NBC’s Olympic Cycling Reporter Steve Porino was there when Kristin made the final push for the medal. He said that everyone at the finish line in Rio stood by in awe of Kristin’s tenacity and grit in those final seconds.

Related Reading

In her New York Times bestseller, pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth shows anyone striving to succeed that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence she calls “grit.”

Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, says about the book: “Psychologists have spent decades searching for the secret of success, but Angela Duckworth is the one who found it. In this smart and lively book, she not only tells us what it is, but also how to get it.”

And Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, says: Grit is a persuasive and fascinating response to the cult of IQ fundamentalism. Duckworth reminds us that it is character and perseverance that set the successful apart.”

Grit’s most valuable insight: Grit can be learned, regardless of I.Q. or circumstances.

Grit is a book about what goes through your head when you fall down, and how that—not talent or luck—makes all the difference.

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