In the darkening California evening, two runners led the way around a track in the women’s steeplechase finals at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Sacramento. Though the exhibition event was not on the docket for the Athens Olympics, it would count as a U.S. championship.
The front-runner, however, would not be claiming the title, having been disqualified on the first lap. The second runner, and de facto leader, wore a navy blue BYU jersey. In her last lap of the race, Kassi Andersen (BS ’04) was running strong, on pace for a new personal-best time. She had won the NCAA championship in the event in 2003 and surpassed that time earlier in 2004.
Clearing the water barrier for the last time, Andersen landed hard on the side of her foot. Somewhere down in the water, her ankle rolled, foot bones broke, and she fell.
Lying in the water pit, she looked up. Ahead of her loomed one more hurdle and 200 meters of track. She rose and began to run, limping down the track. She cleared the final barrier, sending a stronger jolt of pain through her body, and kept going. Somewhere in those final 200 meters, a runner passed her, but Andersen pushed herself across the finish line for second place at 9:45.52, only one second off her personal best, despite the injury and the fall. She had pushed herself to her limits—past her limits, perhaps—in a quest for excellence.
Citius. Altius. Fortius. The three-part Olympic motto calls athletes to swifter, higher, and stronger feats. But what may be most significant about these Latin terms is what they don’t say. The terms use the suffix ius, which means “more,” not issimus, which means “most.” The motto could very well have been citissimus, altissimus, fortissimus—swiftest, highest, strongest. Don’t the Olympic Games, after all, exist to honor the best in athletic achievement?
But “best” terms, while climactic, are also definitive and final. If one is truly the best, then there can be nothing better. It is a pinnacle. An absolute.
“Better” leaves room for growth. It inspires improvement. It opens the door to the possibility that an athlete can be a little faster, a little higher, a little stronger. “Better” also applies to every athletic situation. An athlete can perform a little better in this moment, given these circumstances, than he or she might have with less effort. An athlete can dig deeper and give more, despite adverse weather, emotional distress, a costly mistake, or an injury.
That’s what Justin S. Wilcock (BS ’05) did. In 2004 Wilcock was one of three U.S. men to climb the pale-blue 3-meter springboard in Athens. Severe pain from a stress fracture almost kept him out of the water, but Wilcock didn’t go to Athens to sit at the side of the pool. So he ascended the ladder and dove. Six times. His performance was miserable—both in pain and quality. But when he climbed out of the pool after his last dive—in last place for the event—the audience erupted in applause. In that moment, in that circumstance, in that athlete, they had seen greatness. Wilcock had been fortius, stronger than he might have been.
Being swifter, higher, and stronger requires neither perfection nor a gold medal. It requires determination to pour every ounce of one’s soul into the performance.
This summer Kassi Andersen and Justin Wilcock were back at the Olympic trials. In early July, Wilcock was among the divers contending for a slot in both the 3-meter springboard and synchronized diving events. For her part, after four years of trial and setback—including what might have been a career-ending car accident—Andersen doggedly climbed back to the pinnacle of her sport (see “Olympic Trials,” p. 34). This time, however, women’s steeplechase is on the Olympic agenda, and the top runners will go to Beijing.
As this magazine was going to press, Andersen competed in the steeplechase semifinals. Her training hampered by a lingering foot injury, she wasn’t at her best, and she did not qualify for the finals. She was not the swiftest runner. But the Olympic ideal calls for her to be swifter, not swiftest. And she was. Given the events of the last four years, she might have been in the stands—or at home—instead of on the track. But she wasn’t. She was swifter than she might have been. She gave higher effort than she might have given. Her performance was stronger than it might have been. Citius. Altius. Fortius.
Monitor the Olympic progress of BYU athletes on our Web site at magazine.byu.edu/olympics.