Amy Donaldson: Champions must master fear and foe

Published: Sunday, March 11 2012 8:20 p.m. MDT

Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi is carried off the field after his team defeated the Oakland Raiders 33 to 14 in the Super Bowl II game in Miami, Fla. on Jan. 14, 1968.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain. — Mark Twain

Fear is powerful.

Not only can fear keep a person from accomplishing his or her dreams, it is so toxic that it can keep a person from even dreaming in the first place.

My job is to tell the stories, explore the struggles and revel in the accomplishments of others. I talk to athletes almost every day who make it their life's work to break down barriers — in the mind and of the body.

They thrive under pressure, they welcome a challenge and they understand that it's the struggle that makes a person strong.

And after years of listening to their stories, the whys and the hows of their accomplishments, I understand that being afraid is part of being successful.

The best athletes do not take to competition because they are without fear.

The very best athletes admit they feel fear; they acknowledge their struggle with self-doubt; they confess that they don't always have faith in their teammates or coaches; and they know that sometimes we humans have expectations that simply can't be reached.

But what makes them the best is their ability not to let fear influence their decisions. What makes them great is they are not afraid to try.

In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail. — Vince Lombardi

Fear likes to be in charge. It's bossy; it's callous; and maybe most importantly, it gets stronger when it wins.

So when the best athletes feel fear, they open their arms and embrace the very things that scare them most. They feel the fear constricting their hearts, threatening their freedom, and the brave, the best, they run right into the dark, dark, dishonest heart of it.

Take for example Bryan Fletcher. Diagnosed with leukemia when he was 4 years old, his mother saw his desire to take on the intimidating sport of ski jumping as a way for him to be normal.

While some parents might worry about perfectly healthy children flying off ski jumps, Penny Fletcher worried her son might never know all the reckless abandon that accompanies being young.

"At that point, I didn't have a very great life expectancy, "Bryan Fletcher said. "So she just figured, 'Let him do what he wants to do.' I loved to hit the jumps on the side of the trail, so she let me give it a try."

She let him fly.

She gave him permission to be brave, to be bold and to embrace the beauty of life, even when an insidious disease was part of it. It is not surprising that he made the sport part of his career as a Nordic combined athlete. And on Saturday, he stood atop the podium in Norway, the best in his sport on that day.

Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure. — George E. Woodbury

Maybe the most debilitating type of fear is the fear of failure — seeing a talent in yourself and then letting self-doubt convince you that it might not be real or that losing would be too painful, too humiliating. That is far more haunting than giving a challenge everything you have and being beaten by someone who is faster, stronger or maybe just more talented.

Resi Stiegler is an alpine skier who struggled with injury so often and for so long that she started to wonder if she was really as good as she once believed herself to be.

After all, if you're truly talented and you work hard then eventually you'll win. Right?

Not always. Some of the best have never won the prize their sport considers the ultimate award. Some of the best did not have their best moment, their best performance on the day the world gave out that honor.

Stiegler has never won a World Cup in Giant Slalom. But she kept training, kept pushing herself and kept believing in herself even as her body failed her injury after season-ending injury.

"When you have a day like today," she said after earning her first podium, a second-place finish in the Giant Slalom on March 3, "you're very happy you didn't give up on yourself."

She said it was the doubt, the fear and really the mental fatigue when she was healthy that worried her most. Instead of walking away, she fought harder for that prize. Her win came not in being first, but in being determined.

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. — Mark Twain

Every time Haley Hall Steed considers slashing to the basket, she fights her fear. The BYU senior point guard had never had an injury that kept her from playing basketball until her freshman year with the Cougars. And then she had three consecutive season-ending knee injuries.

"When it happened a third time, it crushed me," said Steed. "I thought I was done. I thought, 'Wow, I've rehabbed for three years. I don't want to do this again. I can't do this again.' A lot of what I felt was, 'Well, I guess it's not in the cards for me to play. I guess I'm supposed to do something else.'"

But the brave don't do things because they are unafraid. They do them because they are unwilling to surrender their dreams. She battled back and became a conference leader in assists. Her leadership, work ethic and talent helped the BYU women to a WCC title last weekend and their first NCAA tournament trip since 2007.

"Going through something hard was a blessing," she said. "You really do become a better person through trials."

She doesn't play with the same reckless abandon that once defined her game. But when she feels the fear, she fights it. She plays through it; she chokes it down and makes it smaller every day that she chases her dreams.

That's the thing about fear.

It can be powerful. It can rule a life, steal freedom and cause pain.

Or it can be vanquished, one glorious decision after another.

Every time the world's best stand on the edge of a jump and choose to fly, they make fear irrelevant.

Every time they push out of that chute on top of an icy mountainside, they make fear insignificant.

And every time they dare to believe in possibility, or find joy in risking failure, they make themselves brave.

Even the best are really only fearless one triumph at a time.

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