As a former slightly above-average competitive swimmer who has put in more than a few laps in Denver-area pools, I can’t help but be inspired and impressed by, and a little envious of, the remarkable stories of multiple adoptees who have qualified to compete at the Tokyo Olympics.
And, as someone who has facilitated search and support groups for Colorado adoptees for more than 20 years, I can’t help but be attuned to what may be happening in their inner worlds as they are thrust into Tokyo’s eerily silent global arena, carrying the hopes of a nation, saturated with the desire to make family, coaches and their hometowns proud.
Led by gymnast Simone Biles, whose undisputed dominance barely creates a media ripple when she wears a GOAT patch on the back of her leotard, this year’s contingent includes Colorado gymnast Yul Moldauer; diver Jordan Windle; world record holder hurdler Keni Harrison; and Jessica Long, the second most-decorated American Paralympian of all time, who holds 23 swimming medals and will compete in her fifth Paralympics.
Moldauer was born in Seoul, South Korea and adopted by Peter and Orsa Moldauer of Arvada before he was 1 year old. He graduated from Golden High School and has competed in all-around events for the University of Oklahoma, winning 20 NCAA Championships medals, 10 of them gold. His fiery, fist-pumping enthusiasm, yelling “Let’s go!” after completing each successful routine at the 2021 Olympic trials, caught the attention of sports commentators.
All Olympians must possess a certain grit, discipline and determination in order to achieve their goal. But there is something special about the way adoptee Olympians carry themselves, some intense fire burning brighter in their eyes, something deeply profound when they thank their adoptive parents for all their support during interviews. It makes us ask how this person, who was transplanted into a new family, has overcome their obstacles, society’s stigmas, and personal identity issues and demons (in Biles’ case, sexual abuse by team doctor Larry Nassar) to arrive at this moment?
In an April interview with NBC TODAY show’s Hoda Kotb, who recently had adopted a child, Biles said she felt called by God to come back not only as a competitor, but in order to use her platform to change a system and culture that allowed dozens of girls to be subjected to sexual abuse. As it turns out, Biles stepped back from competing in the women’s team event after recognizing that her psychological well-being was affecting her performance, and therefore her ability to contribute to the team. I cannot imagine the pressure she feels; I can relate to several of the “demons” she referenced when announcing her decision.
Is the key to success nature, nurture, repetitive training, or a supportive family? Running coach and blogger Dominique Stasulli points out that genetic factors can play a significant role in the success of elite athletes, but 10,000 hours of training over a period of ten years can also develop world-class talent.
All of the adoptees I’ve mentioned credit support from their adoptive families as a vital factor in their development and success.
Another driving force we adoptees encounter can be a quest for perfection in order to prove ourselves lovable. Adoptee, attorney, author and former Atlanta Falcon Tim Green described his quest for Boy Scout merit badges, a high GPA and football honors as a quest to prove his lovability in his book “A Man and His Mother.” I was relieved to see another adoptee put such a confession on paper.
I do not know any of these people personally, and offer this idea simply as a general observation. But in sports that call the athlete to perfection, with winners and losers defined by tenths of points and hundredths of seconds, it can be easy to conflate medals and all the accompanying accolades and benefits, with love.
I leave that issue to the athletes and their sports psychologists, and wish all of them great success in Tokyo. I hope that the resilience they have been forced to develop as a result of being welcomed into the world with a “goodbye” serves them well. But the critical outcome is not tied to the color of a medal, but in their ability to embrace and love, rather than abandon, themselves in clutch moments.
The Tokyo Olympics is not only a global sporting event, but also an opportunity to applaud and honor every person who was relinquished or adopted for running, swimming, walking , crawling or dragging themselves along in their own personal Olympiad each day.
Whether you are currently experiencing the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, you are inherently, unconditionally lovable. Life’s ultimate challenge is learning to embrace that truth, with or without Olympic medals.
As Colorado’s Yul Moldauer says, “Let’s go!”
Richard Uhrlaub, M.Ed., serves as president of Adoption Search Resource Connection in Denver. He was adopted and raised in Denver. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.