Meet the “Warrior Mensch”

No more than twenty minutes after we first met, I was struck by the Second Mystery of Olga.

The First Mystery of Olga was, Why is she aging more slowly than other people?

The Second Mystery of Olga concerned her temperament. I simply could not reconcile this sweet, grandmotherly woman who was inviting me in and offering me tea with the athlete so ferociously competitive on the track that she gets tunnel vision before meets? How can those two people live in the same body?

Certain personality traits incline us to certain lines of work, and certain levels of success within those lines of work. Turns out, there is a ‘performance personality’ and a ‘longevity personality’ and perhaps also a ‘happiness personality’. And at the junction of all three axes sits Olga.  Think of that zone as the place where Performance and Staying Power and Life Satisfaction meet. It’s a rare place to live, but Olga’s not quite alone there. Mariano Rivera is there beside her.

Rivera is the New York Yankees pitcher, the best closer in baseball history, who retired recently at age 43. Rivera is obviously nowhere near Olga’s age bracket, but 43 is paleolithically old for an active professional baseball pitcher, especially one who relied on heat instead of canny knuckleball movement. Rivera not only played into his mid-forties, he dominated. Not long ago, New York Times books columnist Michiko Kakutani was inspired to weigh in on Rivera. She memorably summed up his personality in three words:

“Gentleman, Warrior, Mensch.”

Rivera was every bit as universally loved, off the mound, as he was feared by batters while on it. He was thoughtful and gracious and well-spoken and did heroic work in the community. Some other force seemed to be giving him energy, extending his warranty, stretching his years of high performance and giving him the ability to turn his ferociousness off and on like a light switch.

For Rivera – and for Olga too — that force, I believe, is faith.

Many elite older athletes profess deep faith—the subject came up again and again in my discussions with masters tracksters. Now, this is partly a generational story: most older North Americans were raised in a faith, which means if you’re without belief at Olga’s age you probably had to actively give it up at some point. But there are other ways in which the overlap between belief and high-level sports might not be coincidental.

Athletes get better by pushing themselves to their “ultimate limits.” They emerge stronger than they would have been without that test, just as the repentant sinner is often said to be “closer to God” than the righteous soul who always stared straight ahead, and so never glimpsed the temptation that was shadowing him in his blind spot. Adaptation is a physiological fact, but it’s also a spiritual notion.

Whatever your position on faith, there’s no denying it gets results. The faithful are on to something, in that they live longer and apparently happier lives, moment to moment. There’s evidence that they use their time better and are better long-term planners.

Athletes running with the tailwind of faith have an almost unfair advantage, it seems to me: spiritual doping. “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure, said Chariots of Fire’s Eric Liddell, in one of Olga’s favorite lines from the movies. When you believe you’re running for a higher purpose like that, there’s almost a duty to marshall all the competitiveness that is in you.

This explains the ferociousness of the Warrior Mensch — the Warrior part. The “Mensch” part comes from the obligation to help other people similarly tap everything that is in them, not just on the track but in their lives. You don’t have to be religious to have a high degree of menschness – but you do have to have lots of humility, and a healthy appreciation that it’s not all about you.

 

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