The Weight of Silver
The full body blow from a rubberized door sends her in an awkward spiral to the pool of chocolate water below. She bobs up in a spin then swims through the mess like she knows what she is doing. A brawny-brown woman fish. Slippery liquid clings to her body like a bucket of spilled paint. A streak of whipped cream foam across her cheek. The television announcer's voiceover tells me it's Alison Gregorka, a 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic silver medalist from the women's water polo team. She is competing on the winter version of a bizarre game show called Wipeout, and the pool she is swimming in is the staged equivalent of a vat of hot chocolate. I prepare to change the channel. But what is an Olympic athlete doing on a humiliating game show like this?
As a hyper-exaggerated form of athletic slapstick, Wipeout exceeds the boundaries of common sense. Contestants as human pinballs on an enormous obstacle course. Contorted bodies bounce off massive rubber balls before careening into the water. Arms flail. There are unrestrained screams from both men and women. Giant foam covered barriers are straddled in an obscene manner. Spinning clock-like spokes take someone out at the legs, and soaking wet contestants climb back up only to get sucker-punched in the head by an oversized boxing glove.
Should a person survive numerous qualifying rounds, he or she can compete in a final round for a cash reward of $50,000. A prize big enough to diminish any sting from embarrassment, regret, or dislocated limbs. Alison, I thought, must want a crack at the competition and the cash. She is an athlete. She is agile. She needs money. Suddenly my expectations that Alison would do well increased. Her proficiency in the pool might benefit her in getting out of the water quickly. I have to root for her, she'd won a silver medal. In the Olympics.
The television footage cuts to an earlier take of Alison's initial interview with the show's host. Alison, a pillar of strapping arms and don't-mess-with-me thighs, is wearing a white-accented navy blue top and red athletic shorts with white piping. Her patriotic choice of colors is appropriate; she looks all-American pretty with her shoulder length blonde hair pulled neatly back from her forehead to reveal aquamarine eyes and unblemished skin. The host, predictably attractive and almost fashionable, is wearing a dull-colored, half-zipped down jacket, an un-tucked shirt, a beltless pair of tight jeans, and mukluk style boots. Her semi-messy head of billowing dark curls does little to disguise her delicate frame, and she looks more mischievous little pixie than well-put-together game show host.
She tilts the hand-held microphone to Alison and asks, "What's that around your neck?"
Alison smiles at the camera, holding up her medal with the forefinger and thumb of each hand. "This is my 2008 Beijing silver medal for women's water polo." She emphasizes the word "silver."
The host looks impressed.
"Let me hold onto it while you do the course," she says. She sounds sincere.
Alison seems surprised at the request. Still, she removes the medal from her neck as the host says, "You don't want to lose that. It's so valuable."
The exaggerated "so" sounds odd. But Alison has already placed the medal in the host's mitten-covered hand. The host makes no real effort to grasp it.
She lets it drop.
I hear myself gasp.
Alison jumps forward a little. I hear the bouncing clink of heavy metal off-camera.
"Did she just drop that on purpose?" I say out loud.
There's no one else in the room.
Alison rolls her eyes. Her lips have come together in a resigned straight line. The host disappears from view to pick up the medal from the platform they are standing on.
There is a brief shot of a semi-bewildered Alison saying, "Ouch."
The footage returns to the host, now standing with the medal in her hand. She shrugs her shoulders at Alison and says, "Take it easy. It's not like it's gold."
The entire television footage of Alison's introduction was about twenty-five seconds long. Long enough to spotlight the perception that a silver medal just isn't good enough. More than enough time to poke a bit of fun at a good-natured Alison. But somewhere along the line it felt like a comedic boundary had been crossed, and the script writers for Wipeout had forgotten to let Alison in on the joke. Of the numerous times I have watched this clip, I am certain that Alison was never aware that the host would intentionally drop her medal. I wondered if the drop felt more like a slap in the face. If in that moment, the sting from losing the gold flushed her cheeks with embarrassment. If her silver medal was a nagging reminder of what could have been.
It's a phenomenon experienced by many Olympic silver medalists. An underlying unhappiness with what they've earned, and an unrelenting comparison to the winner. A belief that their own life would be much better if they'd won the gold. Social psychologists refer to this internal evaluation as counterfactual thinking: the influence of events that didn't happen, or almost happened (counterfactual) vs. what actually did happen (factual). Thomas Gilovich, a Cornell psychologist who co-authored a 1995 study on counterfactual thinking as it relates to Olympic athletes, compares this experience to a fundamental principle of psychology; a person's objective achievements often matter less than how those accomplishments are subjectively interpreted. In a National Public Radio interview, Gilovich states that the silver medalist's upward comparison to someone they evaluate as better off than they are can leave them more tormented than pleased. That despite being one of the best in the world, the silver medalist doesn't focus on the triumph over many, but on the loss to one.
If that's the case, the loss of the gold medal must feed on a silver medalist's psyche like a vulture on a dead carcass. The insatiable hunger for an explanation leaves the athlete no choice but to gorge on the "if only's." Everything would be better for me if only the judge had awarded me a fraction of a point more. If only I leaned at the tape. Jumped an inch further. Kicked that shot to the right instead of the left. Held my breath longer. Ate two peanut butter sandwiches instead of one. Used my lucky shoelaces and called my mother. If only I trained with someone else for the year. If only I tried harder.
I could have won the gold.
Since silver medalists are more likely to torture themselves with thoughts about what might have been, it's comforting to know that counterfactual thinking can go both ways. Downward counterfactuals, in most cases, can be a good thing. Like a shot of self-esteem in the arm. It's what bronze medalists experience on a regular basis—they compare themselves to the athletes below them who didn't earn a trip to the podium. For them, it is a triumph over many. Their most vivid counterfactual thought is coming in fourth and not getting a medal at all. They are happy to say "at least I've earned something." It's also psychologically harder for the bronze medalist to imagine winning the gold, two spots away, and much easier to appreciate the fact that they were one step away from nothing.
So why doesn't a silver medalist imagine themselves as one step away from the bronze? Why not acknowledge the victory, too, over a multitude of world-class athletes? It might make them more grateful for the silver. Gilovich tells us that there isn't enough of a counterfactual temptation, or a change in status, to go down. The athlete would still earn a medal, but neither the silver nor bronze medalist would win the event. For the silver medalist, there is too much of a "qualitative" difference between first and second. Winning the Olympic gold means the highest respect. Honor for your country and extraordinary validation for the effort. And in the modern commercialization of the elite athlete, the gold medal also represents monetary gain, notoriety, and exaltation.
It's a heady combination that's hard to ignore.
In 1995, the Gilovich research zeroed in on the defined rank and placement that the Olympic Games had to offer. He and his colleagues suspected that an Olympic athlete's counterfactual thoughts might cause levels of dissatisfaction that departed from a clear linear order. They also wanted to see if the effects of different counterfactual comparisons were strong enough to cause people who were objectively worse off (bronze medalists) to feel better than those in a superior state (silver medalists). The three-part examination began with NBC's coverage of the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona.
In the first part of the study, two tapes were made and edited. One of them portrayed athletes immediately after they had just won a silver or bronze medal. The second tape highlighted many of these same athletes at their awards ceremony later in the day. Each tape was shown to a separate group of participants where they were asked to rate the expressed emotion of the athlete on an "agony to ecstasy" scale of 1 to 10. The ratings for both tapes were averaged separately for a "mean happiness rating." On the immediate reaction tape, the graph revealed a decisive jump towards ecstasy for the bronze medalists: 7.1 vs. 4.8 for silver. On the medal stand reaction tape, bronze was still more ecstatic (5.7) than silver (4.3). Though both scores lowered after the athletes had a little time to think about it, the bronze medalists earned the win for happiness.
When I first saw the results of the "agony to ecstasy" scale, I realized I'd often thought counterfactually while watching any Olympic award ceremony. I'd be concerned if I saw a facial expression or some type of body language that indicated disappointment. Especially if the deciding factor between medals came down to some miniscule measurement. I'd feel a twinge of regret for the silver medalist. She must be so frustrated to have been that close to the gold. I bet she'll be thinking about that for a long time. Then I'd feel a sense of relief for the bronze medalist. Well will you look at her. She looks so happy to be up there. She must feel so lucky to have made it.
Although there's a psychological term for what I was doing, I'm not sure I liked it. If I thought counterfactually in a more ambiguous fashion, closer to real-life situations, it could be just as unsettling. Feelings of inadequacy, disillusionment, and unhappiness with an accomplishment could strike anywhere. Getting on the wait-list for a first-choice college makes the second-choice school seem less worthy. You are the runner-up in the total number of Girl Scout cookies sold in your troop. The winner gets a bicycle and you get a skateboard. Earning the red ribbon instead of the blue in a pie-baking contest might make you forget how good that apple pie really is. A neighbor gets the new and improved model of the car you got last year. It's not so much a keeping-up-with-the-Jones's kind of moment as it is "I regret getting mine because I think the other one is better."
Part Two of the research involved post-competition interviews by NBC sportscasters immediately following an event. Again the tapes were edited to include only bronze and silver medalists. Study participants were asked to assess each interview on the comments athletes made relative to how they did perform vs. how they almost performed. A phrase like "at least I did this..." would score on the lower end of the ten point scale, while "I almost did this..." would score at the higher end. This time the silver medalists got the high score (5.7) but it meant they were more focused on what almost happened than on what actually did happen. The bronze medalist's scores came in at (4.4).
The participants in this part of the study were also asked to rate how the athletes compared their accomplishments to other competitors using a percentage number from 0 to 100%. There were three distinctions to categorize the comments:
- a. "I could have done worse" or any reference to those that finished behind them
b. "I could have done better" or any reference to those who finished ahead of them
c. "This is what I accomplished" with no reference to any comparisons at all
The results revealed that neither the silver nor bronze medalists wanted to dwell on a lesser performance, nor were they interested in gloating: only a small percentage (7.5%) focused downward on those they beat. Silver medalists, however, were more interested in those who finished ahead of them (38%) than bronze (22%). But the largest differential showed a much more satisfied bronze medalist with what they accomplished (73%) than silver (54%).
Part Three of the study produced similar results. After interviewing 115 silver and bronze medalists directly after their performance in the 1994 New York State Empire Games, the silver medalists once again fell into the abyss of counterfactual thought. Post-competition evaluations of their own performances were riddled with comments about what they failed to achieve. They would have preferred a better outcome. They'd work harder next time. They wanted to win.
They almost did.
Though the Gilovich study provided the evidence the psychologists were looking for, the discussion ends with the acknowledgement that not all second-place finishers are less satisfied. Not all silver medalists are unhappy. "Finishing second is truly a mixed blessing," they write. "Performing that well provides a number of direct benefits that increase our well-being—recognition from others, boosts to self-esteem, and so on. At the same time, it can indirectly lower satisfaction by the unfortunate contrast at what might have been." In the see-saw world of counterfactual thinking, it's clear that Gilovich and his colleagues understand the playground. But one of the best tricks on a see-saw has always been balancing it with your feet still off the ground.
As a high school track and field coach, I looked for that balance all the time. How to make an athlete happy with a performance they weren't happy with. How to have them focus on what they actually accomplished instead of what they didn't. Sometimes the balancing act was easier. During the regular season, athletes were more likely to accept a loss or a mediocre performance because they knew that there would be time for improvement. Time to figure out what worked and what didn't. But as the season progressed, and the stakes got higher, the balancing act got trickier. Especially when the athlete was gifted.
Catherine had shown up to her first track practice as a freshman with a kind of over-enthusiasm that I reserved for the less-than-serious type. I figured she'd barrel around trying every event but would never settle on one long enough to make a difference. She was a talented violinist with a passion for theater. She loved poetry and art history. I thought she'd be one of those girls who had too much fun at track practice because she needed an athletic pursuit on her resume.
I thought she wouldn't last. But her body type, and her competitiveness, squelched any doubts I had. Rugged and stocky, the top-half of Catherine's torso fanned out into powerful shoulders that were more like a stronghold for wings instead of arms. As efficient as these upper limbs were, her thighs powered everything else. Disproportionately long for the rest of her body, they propelled her down the track as if they were doing all the work themselves. Grabbing and pulling at the track to bring a set of muscular calves along for the ride. With wild auburn hair and a face-map full of freckles, I thought she might explode like some kind of athletic firecracker most of the time.
With steady precision, Catherine rose through the ranks as both a sprinter and jumper. She completed her junior-year spring season as the best long-jumper in our league. She'd won the event in every regular meet she'd participated in, including a conference championship, and qualified easily for an end-of-season Regional competition. An impressive fifteen-foot six-inch jump earned her the number one seed going into the championship. Her closest competitor was listed at fifteen-feet three inches. Catherine was confident that she could out-jump her at Regionals. Fellow coaches predicted she would win. Catherine expected she would win.
On the morning of the meet, she bounded off the bus into brilliant sunshine. She ran through the gates of the stadium to check out the coral-red color of the track surface. She couldn't wait to run on it. I watched her flitting around the arena like a dragonfly, barely touching down long enough to examine the long jump pit and the starting lines for the 100 and 200 meter dashes. She was chatty with an official, and she hobnobbed with other competitors. When she'd covered everything, she ran over to me.
"Coach, can you count my steps?"
Her approach for the long jump was crucial. Starting from the same point on the runway each time would ensure a consistent takeoff from the board.
"Of course," I said. "Let's get the mark now, because you have to run the 100 trials in less than an hour."
I counted. Catherine practiced run-throughs to make sure her final step would land squarely on the takeoff board. We tape-measured the distance, too. After she was satisfied, she prepared for the 100 trials with stretching, relaxed strides on the grass, and short bursts out of the starting blocks. She spent the rest of the morning between the two events, warming up, cooling down, and staying loose, trying to make it into the finals for each one. She qualified in both. Catherine had the best jump of the day in the preliminaries: 15' 6". But she was concerned. The girl in second place was close with a 15'4".
"I think I can get sixteen feet," she said to me. "Remember when I hit 15-10 in practice? That was two weeks ago. Do you think something's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong. You've had to run a trial heat of the 100 already, and then the finals. Are you forgetting that you came in third in the 100 an hour ago?"
There was a hint of a smile piercing her left cheek.
"You know that you're asking a lot of your legs."
"I know. But I really want this."
"I know you do. Try not to worry. Just jump."
She took a cleansing breath and went back to the pit to warm-up for the finals. Since she was the top seed she'd jump last in each of three rounds. During the first round, we listened for each of her opponents' measurements. All fourteen-footers or low-fifteen's. Then the girl in second place hit a 15'7" inch jump to take the lead.
Catherine's first jump was another 15'6".
She looked at me as if she wasn't quite sure what happened. I told her there was nothing wrong with that jump. Just try again. Maybe add some speed. She was impatient through the second round. There was little change: 15'7" was still the jump to beat. She made a slight adjustment to her mark at the top of the runway, moving back a little. Then she leg-pummeled the pavement and flung herself off the board. The official pulled the tape: 15'11". She whooped it up a little. Skipping back to me, she grabbed my hand. We waited.
Every jump in the third round made us squirm. Another opponent hit a 15'6". Two more hit low fifteen's. Then the 15'7" girl hit an astounding 15'11.5". Catherine's face fell, but she congratulated her opponent before she went to the top of the runway.
She stood there longer than usual. Rocking back and forth onto her lead leg. Fussing with her hair and smoothing out her shorts. She glanced at me, steely-eyed, just before she began her thundering run. She hit the takeoff board and soared. Sand flew from beneath her feet as she toppled forward in the pit.
The official shook his head.
"Foul!" he said.
Second place by half-an-inch.
Catherine was close to inconsolable after her loss. My usual philosophy of "focus on what you did accomplish, not on what you didn't" was hard for her to accept. I emphasized her personal best jump and the many things she had done right all day: her preparation, positive attitude, and sportsmanship. Her third place finish in the 100 meter dash, and fifth place in the 200 meters. With awards given through sixth place, she had earned a ribbon in every event she was in. But Catherine had a difficult time getting past the only thing she didn't do. She didn't win.
For Catherine, the balance between achievement and satisfaction fell short that day. Her counterfactual thought process made her miserable for a long time. She told me she would never forget it. She should have moved her mark back even further to account for the go-for-broke speed. She might have won if she did. Like bookends to her season, she'd anticipated a regional title to go along with her conference title. The two achievements would have held her upright through the upcoming State Meet, but now her confidence was shattered.
As much as I understood the way she was feeling, I wondered if the intensity of her reaction was influenced by her own expectations. Or the expectations of others. If the "imagined" outcome played a significant role in the evaluation of her accomplishments. And if her second-place finish would ever be good enough.
When Alison Gregorka's water polo team traveled to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, they were expected to win the gold. They'd won silver in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and a bronze in Athens in 2004. Their team had won most of the major world-class competitions leading up to the 2008 games. They had the strength, the experience, and the desire. It was their time.
In Beijing, they beat China, Russia, and Australia in the qualifying rounds to earn a spot in the gold medal game. They would face a team from the Netherlands that came into the Olympics ranked ninth in the world. But the Netherlands had Danielle de Bruijn. She would score three of the first four goals in the match to put the Netherlands up 4-0 before the Americans knew what happened. The USA battled back, but de Bruijn would score two more. The Dutch were in front at 7-5. The Americans would score three more times, and de Bruijn would score again. Tied at 8-8, and with twenty-six seconds to go, de Bruijn unleashed the game winner for the Netherlands.
Photos of the American team directly after the game, and during the medal ceremony, would have been perfect case examples for the Gilovich study. A trio of girls immediately after the loss shows one with her head down, pain radiating across her face like she doesn't understand it. The second, teeth clenched in a grief-stricken smile, holds on to her teammates. The third looks off to her right with no expression at all. An observer wrote that the team left the Yindong Natatorium with long faces, having to compose themselves before "begrudgingly accepting the silver—again."
Gregorka's teammate Natalie Golda wiped away tears. "It's an amazing thing to have an Olympic medal," she said. "But we had the game. Like, we had it in our grasp and we let it slip away." She said you couldn't be angry with a silver medal. She said it was bittersweet.
Later, at the awards ceremony, the team stands in a haphazard line wearing crisp red and white warm-up suits. Each woman holds a full bouquet of red roses set in lush greenery and accented with thin white ribbons. Many are stoic, but others slouch. One athlete stares deeply into her flowers. Another bites her bottom lip. The tallest athlete's eyes are angry, her mouth tight, and the teammate next to her is distraught. Someone is visibly sad, almost weeping. Alison is among them, and she, too, stares ahead as if she isn't really there. She is the only one that is smiling, yet the weight of silver seems to hang from her neck with more burden than joy.
Olympic medals are heavy. Heavy enough to embody the earth's precious mineral deposits from which they are forged. Heavy enough to meet the Olympic standards for size and thickness. Heavier still to hold the history of all previous Olympiads. To bear witness to Nike, the winged Greek goddess of victory, and to give substance to the Olympic creed: Citius. Altius. Fortius: Swifter. Higher. Stronger. Heaviest of all to symbolize the weight of the effort it takes to earn one.
Alison Gregorka's silver medal from Beijing was not the biggest, nor the heaviest of all Olympic medals. It was smaller than most, but it was the only Olympic medal ever inlaid with jade. She could carry it with her long after her performance on Wipeout. Long after she'd won one thousand dollars for the fastest overall time in an early qualifying round. And long after she was eliminated in the next round. One step away from the finals.