Dear 80-year-old Boris,
I know it’s been a long time since you competed in the Olympics, but I hope you haven’t forgotten all of the mountains you had to climb to get there.
As an old man, I hope you’re not just staring at photos from Rio, remembering only the glory. I hope you still think about the struggle, too.
Do you remember the lunch rush at McDonald’s?
The smell of stale french-fry grease in the air, and the line of customers that seemed to go on forever — every single day? Remember the pissed-off looks on their faces when they thought you were taking too long?
I do. I still remember that deep fryer in the corner, and how the floors were always slick with oil residue, even after they had been freshly mopped. You’re lucky you were wearing those weird nonslip safety shoes they made everybody rock. You couldn’t have afforded any setbacks back then.
Just two years before the Rio Olympics, you were a 21-year-old college dropout, bagging fries.
Remember that feeling of standing behind the register all day, just waiting for the time to pass, waiting for your opportunity to clock out so you could go train by yourself? You knew, deep down, that flipping burgers and working the register was only temporary. It wasn’t your true calling.
You were meant to run. You knew, man.
But nobody else knew.
The customers at McDonald’s definitely couldn’t tell. Those people in line had no idea you were the fastest kid in your elementary school. Or that you had run the 400 meters in under 50 seconds in high school. They didn’t know that you won the 800-meter gold at the indoor and outdoor NCAA D-II championship your freshman year.
The customers at McDonald’s didn’t see greatness. They just wanted to make sure you didn’t forget that extra packet of barbecue sauce.
To them, you were just another kid who couldn’t keep his grades up, who dropped out of school, who moved back home with his mom. Who was doing this now, and probably would be forever.
They didn’t see greatness. They just wanted to make sure you didn’t forget that extra packet of barbecue sauce.
Can you still feel that relief of clocking out every night? Standing in the parking lot, waiting for a ride home from your friend since you didn’t even have your own car? After your shift was over, you’d power-nap for an hour, grab some food, then head out to the train tracks.
That’s where you went to run, all by yourself, out where you could be free from any distractions. You’ve probably found a way to block it all out of your mind by now, but I still sometimes think about it. It was a battle. I know some nights you felt like you’d be better off at home just relaxing, but you never once let yourself quit. You had to keep going, even though nobody was watching.
You’re lucky you had a coach who lectured you the way he did when you were young. Over and over, pounding it into your head that you had the potential to be something special on the track — and that it was up to you to make the most of that potential. It took a few years to finally sink in, but eventually those words were what got you through your eight-hour shifts.
As you kept training, you kept getting faster. First you were shaving seconds off of your sprint times, then tenths of seconds. But no matter how fast you ran, you never felt like it was fast enough. You had something to prove, even though there wasn’t a single person watching, aside from maybe the conductor of a passing freight train.
You had to be faster than everybody else. That was your mind-set.
Do you ever think about those walks home?
It probably doesn’t seem so bad now, but I still sometimes think of those nights when you’d barely make it home because you had pushed yourself too hard. You’d be so exhausted from the hours of sprinting that you weren’t really sure if your aching feet could carry you back to bed.
Then you would wake up, go back to work the next morning and do it all over again. You weren’t training for the Olympics at that point. You were just training. No particular career goal in mind, just something inside of you that made you have to run.
And it was hard. Days or even weeks would pass by where you thought all of the hard work might be for nothing. How many people are able to make a career out of running? In the back of your mind you thought you might have to become a policeman, or join the Army. Or become a firefighter like your mother once suggested, after that day she found out you had dropped out of college and called you in tears, begging you to get your life together.
You told her that you just needed some time, that you’d find a way to make it work eventually. She bought it at the time, but it’s hard to tell if she really believed you.
But she sure was proud when you got invited to train at Big Bear, wasn’t she?
You never once let yourself quit. You had to keep going, even though nobody was watching.Boris Berian
You ignored the first message on your voice mail. You weren’t sure if it was real or just someone playing a prank. You hadn’t competed in a real event in almost three years. You’re lucky you got called again the next day, and that the running coach on the other end of the line insisted on personally taking you under his wing to train.
How did he even know about you? A friend of a friend, he said. He made it clear that he believed in you, even though everyone else you had met at college thought you had pretty much fallen off the face of the earth.
You didn’t know what agreeing to train with him would even really mean at the time, just that it was probably less dangerous than training by yourself beside the train tracks every night.
“Work hard. Be positive.”
That’s what he kept telling you at Big Bear. That became your mantra. If you followed that advice it would all work out for you in the end. Do you still hear him saying it? I do.
It was echoing in your head when your plane landed in Rio.
I know you remember Rio, but do you remember the feeling of unpacking your bags in your room in the Olympic Village? That’s when you realized they could never take it away from you. Forever after, you were going to be known as an Olympian.
It was a long way from the McDonald’s inside the Colorado Springs Wal-Mart.
And it wasn’t the way you planned when you were a kid, back when running was just a hobby you enjoyed while you weren’t playing Halo in one of your friends’ basements.
It certainly wasn’t the path you had in mind when you were spending your days surrounded by fast food and angry customers.
But it really happened. Don’t just remember that you made it to the Olympics. Remember why.
And remember, the next time you’re standing in line for a coffee, or waiting at a drive-thru, take a moment to think about the person working there. Look them in the eye. Maybe even try to learn their name. Think back to the time when it was you who was standing on the other side of the window, faking a smile and handing out bags of food to strangers.
Because you never know. One of those strangers might be exactly like you. Just biding time, doing work before doing work, and trying to tap into their own greatness.