Wednesday, September 20, 2006

JSB: Find Your Own Event

One of the greatest athletes ever produced in America, Bob Mathias, passed away on September 2. What he accomplished still boggles the mind. And it was all because of a gift of God.

Mathias grew up in the farming town of Tulare, California. He was sickly as a kid, but his doctor father put him on a regimen of vitamins and naps, and Mathias’s body responded. That was the gift of God—this amazing athletic machinery that came into being before the age of steroids. Soon, Bob Mathias was beating everybody in almost any physical endeavor.

But no one expected what happened next. At the age of 17 he went to the 1948 Olympic Games and stunned the world by winning the gold medal in the decathlon. And this was only his third decathlon ever. His first competition was a mere 6 weeks earlier.

Mathias came back an American hero, went to Stanford, played football and, in 1952, he won the Olympic decathlon again. No one had ever done that before, and only one man (Daley Thompson) has done it since.

Mathias went on to serve in the Marine Corps, was a popular spokesman for athletics and was elected to Congress, where he served four terms. He is survived by a wife, five children and ten grandchildren. An All American story.

They made a movie about Bob Mathias in 1954, with the shocking title “The Bob Mathias Story.” Starring…Bob Mathias. He did all right playing himself, but the film is best remembered as capturing this amazing athlete in action.

After seeing the movie as a kid, I decided I wanted to become a decathlete. Unfortunately for my aspirations, my body was not made for decathlons. I wasn’t particularly fast, couldn’t jump particularly high, and my arms were better suited to shooting silky jump shots than putting the shot or tossing the discus. In other words, I wasn’t built for ten of the ten decathlon events.

So I found my place in basketball, and was happy about that. Every now and then – such as when Bruce Jenner won the 1976 Olympic decathlon – I’d feel a twinge. But it would pass, because I had found my athletic place in another sport.

BTW, years later I was in Starbucks when Bruce Jenner walked in. As he was waiting for his latte, I edged up to him and said, “Say, aren’t you Bob Mathias?”

He laughed (whew). We had a nice conversation. I told him as a kid I wanted to be a decathlete. Jenner said, “And then you woke up?”

I laughed (forced). But we both agreed it was a body thing. Jenner has these legs like industrial springs, and a wide upper body. My legs are more like pylons from a New Jersey dock.

The point is we come into this world with certain potentials and limitations. This is as true for literary talent as anything else. And it doesn’t do a writer any good to feel bereft because he or she can’t write like so-and-so. You’re not supposed to. You’re supposed to write like you. That way of writing is unique, if you’ll let it be. Put your heart into it.

Find your own event, and work at it with all your passion and love. Write your book (“There is only one story in the world,” Ray Bradbury said. “Your story.”) And every moment you spend writing is another moment spent not comparing yourself to another writer.

When you’ve given it your all, you can rest. You’ve brought something into the world no one else could have. And, as writer Leonard Bishop reminds us, if you strive to write a great book, and don’t quite make it, you could very well succeed in writing a book that is splendid.

“If you want big,” Bishop says, “you dare big.”

Set the bar for yourself. Don’t try to high jump eight feet if your previous best is three. But do set it higher. Work up to the next level. Make it all a competition with yourself. This is how you grow as a writer.

Oh, and by the way, if Jenner had challenged me to a free throw shooting contest, I would have smoked him.

James Scott Bell is the bestselling author of Presumed Guilty and Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure. His website is


At 6:59 AM, Blogger Matt said...

Thanks for a very encouraging post that applies to just about any area of life.

At 8:00 AM, Blogger lisa said...

I agree with Matt. This was great, Jim. It's so easy to get into the comparison game in a way that becomes debilitating and not the healthy "reach for the stars" way.

At 8:18 AM, Blogger Tina said...

It reminds me of those feelings one can have about a great book or piece of writing (like your post!) "I wish I'd written that..." But, we have to write OUR story. Still, it's nice to be inspired and to feel a jolt from another, more talented person. It moves one to try and top their own writing skill.

At 8:52 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

I feel like I've just heard a masterpiece sermon!

I feel encouraged.


At 9:34 AM, Blogger Ed J. Horton said...

Reading your post was a great way to start my writing day. Thank you!

At 11:47 AM, Anonymous Vasthi said...

Yes. Yes. Yes!

At 2:59 PM, Blogger Richard Mabry said...

Jim--At the risk of giving you "delusions of adequacy," this was a great story and an inspirational message. (But you must overcome this excessive modesty about your free-throw shooting skills).

At 7:00 AM, Anonymous Athol said...

Thanks for sharing this wisdom, Jim. For me, it comes at just the right moment.

At 9:32 AM, Blogger Brian said...

I loved this: "And it doesn’t do a writer any good to feel bereft because he or she can’t write like so-and-so. You’re not supposed to. You’re supposed to write like you. That way of writing is unique, if you’ll let it be. Put your heart into it."

I have to tell myself that all the time. Sometimes I get discouraged when I read something I've written and say "That's not as good as so-and-so would have written it." But that doesn't matter. So-and-so didn't write it...I did. Thanks for the encouragement. Great post!

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Cara Putman said...

As a teenager I was on a swim team. I loved it because the competition was really against myself. The goal each race was to win, but if I bettered my previous time, I could still feel good about the result. (And since I'm not hugely athletic, it was nice to have the secondary goal)

I'd never thought about applying that startegy to my writing. But it makes great sense. Thanks.


Post a Comment

<< Home