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Is It Worth It? The Human Endeavor in the Athletic Sphere: Anthony Ervin’s Disenchantment with the Notion of Gold as Glorious

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The Olympic games are the most highly anticipated and globally celebrated collection of athletic events in existence. Every four years the world comes together to observe competition and honor the immense effort put forth by participating competitors. The games bring about an unmatched sense of respective national pride, while simultaneously joining disparate nations in the admiration of a single common consumption: sport. We eagerly cheer on our national representatives in every event, from table tennis to track, whether they perform in teams or as individuals, and regardless of how much or how little we know about their areas of expertise. We take pride in their success, as extensions of ourselves and our nation, and often condemn their shortcomings, expecting more gold and a better best. We revel in their glory, fleeting as it may be, and abandon them the moment their scores or times are forgotten. We prop them up, only to pull the rug out from beneath them. And who stops to think where that leaves them?

        As a collective, we fall short. We allow competition to consume us, though we are merely spectators, and consequently buy into the hierarchical classifications of medals and podiums. Without participating in any sort of conditioning, mentally or physically, we allow ourselves to determine the worth of a select group of human beings merely by their wins and losses. We become the harshest of critics as we lose sight of logic, disregarding what is just, and ignoring all that leads up to the final score. We value performance over preparation, failing to acknowledge what each individual competitor has sacrificed in order to have the opportunity to fall subject to our judgment. Only a fraction of the general public has even the slightest inkling of understanding with regard to what it takes to compete at such an elite level athletically. Due to this lack of understanding, the majority of us devalue the most important elements which come together to comprise an Olympian. The view that speed, skill, and stamina are innate or luck-based characteristics could not be farther from reality; these things must be developed relentlessly, consistently and over time.

The athletes who qualify for the Olympic games are the one percent. They are the best of the best, not by divine ordinance, but as a result of the tremendous discipline, dedication, and drive they have exercised for years on end. These individuals do not lead balanced lives. They don’t get to be spontaneous or indulge in any form of hedonism outside of training, and they cannot afford to be present at even half of the social or familial gatherings the typical person attends. They are incapable of normalcy by way of variability, because in order to attain the seemingly unattainable goals they have set for themselves, they truly must eat, sleep, and breathe their sport. Everything they do must have a direct correlation to athletic improvement. We may have the capacity to conceptually comprehend their sacrifice, but without actually having our nation’s title strapped across our chests and carrying its weight across the finish line, we cannot understand it.

        Anthony Ervin is a thirty-five year old Jewish-Native-American-African-American-Italian swimmer. He has competed in the Olympic games three times, winning the United States four medals (three gold, one silver). Anthony’s performance at his Olympic debut in Sydney in 2000 made him the first African-American to medal in an Olympic swimming competition; and his recent performance in Rio, which produced two gold medals, made him the oldest American swimmer to win a gold medal in an individual Olympic competition. This man has broken records and barriers, through swimming as well as speaking. He is among the few elite athletes to candidly address both the overexposed, glorious side of sport, and the less known, darker end of the spectrum. Two years after winning his first gold medal, Anthony found himself burned out and quit swimming. Unimpressed by the disparity between reality and his idealization of what would follow the actualization of a lifelong dream, he sold the medal on eBay and donated the entirety of his $17,000 profit to tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia. For the next eight years, Anthony experienced life as a free individual unbound by a rigorous training regimen, yet still inhabited a space on the outskirts of normalcy. He overcompensated for all that he felt he may have missed out on, as he consumed and participated in an elevated concentration of indulgence in intrigue. He was less careful and less responsible, and he engrossed himself in a whimsical lifestyle, modeling a mixture of those of teenagers and young adults, and engaging in all of the behaviors he previously knew to stay away from, unbothered by the potential repercussions of this way of living.

When prompted by various journalists to reflect on his Olympic career and the bout of retirement he took between competitions, Anthony references the desire for an immense freedom. One through which a person who has accomplished something significant – who becomes perched atop a pedestal – can look down from their heightened position of brilliance and acknowledge the space between where they are and where they started, as though the free space they now inhabit could be quantified by what they have done to get on top of the pedestal.  But when Anthony reached that space, with a gold medal hanging around his neck, he did not feel free. Rather, he recognized himself as bound by the hegemonic concept of an Olympic gold medalist – a spectacle of entertainment for common consumption. So, he distanced himself from the athletic endeavor and spent time chasing after the freedom he had hoped to attain along with the gold.

In his time away from competitive swimming, Anthony was able to juxtapose life in general and life as an athlete. For those fully engrossed in a particular way of living, time taken away from routine typically sparks a heightened awareness – you recognize that what you have been preoccupied with may not be as sustainable in terms of sufficiently stimulating you as you previously thought; or that there are things out there that you would like to have or do, which never crossed your mind before. So, as Anthony rid himself of repetition and enjoyed a newfound autonomy, he was able to appreciate the tremendous sacrifice that is required of Olympic caliber competitors, knowing full well that the lifestyle he had lead for the majority of his life was extraordinarily divergent from the lifestyle of a normal California kid. During those eight years, Anthony recognized and made peace with the fact that he had worked harder and longer than his peers, but that in life outside of sport he had almost nothing to show for it.

Now, at thirty-five, with four Olympic medals, he speaks candidly of the taxing complexion of dedicating your life to a sport; the financial struggle, the inability to settle down, the self-induced destruction of a perfectly sculpted body, and, of course, the loss of various personal liberties. Anthony chose to return to Olympic standard swimming not because he craved the celebrity of the spotlight, but because he genuinely missed the water. Fully understanding the unglorified nature of athletic glory situated in the real world, Anthony evaded the capitalist and hyper-commodified society we inhabit, in answering the question of what matters to him by choosing to swim anyway. He knows that the intensity of his training and his acquired tolerance for pain are detrimental to his body – he admits to prematurely aging himself in order to become athletically elite, and considers himself lucky to lack requirement for repetitive cortisone shots and surgeries, as he recognizes the poison in syringes and pain pills. He is aware of society’s markers and measures of worth, and is able to keep the values of others separate from himself. He will not define himself by his finances, as so many of us do, or allow the media to construct a false image of him.

When asked whether or not it is worth it to put forth all of the effort required to be able to compete at such an elite level athletically – to sacrifice privacy and spontaneity, and to prioritize your life in a way in which everything cedes your sport – Anthony was honest as ever. He did not give the textbook “of course it is” response that we would get from most top athletes. Rather, he addressed his love-hate relationship with racing – not swimming, but racing; as competition can have a nasty tendency to simultaneously fuel and taint sport – and explained that in reality, it is not logical to make the claim that the benefit brought on by everything that goes into becoming ready to compete outweighs its investment. In an interview with VICE Sports, Anthony laughed as he said, “even though I know it’s not true that the ends justify the means, the ends justify the means”. So, although he is disenchanted by the all-encompassing glorified notion of sport he once adopted, he loves swimming, and for Anthony, the love is worth the sacrifice.

 

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Lillian Feder graduated from UCSD in the Spring of 2014. She majored in communication and is looking to pursue creative writing. She is an ex-collegiate athlete, a writer, and a gym junkie. You can follow her blog at lillyfed.wordpress.com

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Nothing Matters More Than This

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We live in a world where FOCUS is even MORE important than your INTELLIGENCE.

From our never-ending Facebook feed, to our freshly-updated YouTube subscription page, to our email inbox, we live in an abundant world of information.

However, is it really necessary to consume all of this general information?

Will it ever be useful? Will it ever make any difference in your life?

No. Most likely not.

Learning a little about a lot of different things doesn’t really amount to much.

Instead, you should FOCUS.

Focus on learning and applying ONE skill as intensely and deeply as possible.

Focus is where mastery kicks in.

Kobe Bryant wasn’t the best basketball player that ever played because he was the best all-around person.

Kobe Bryant was world-class because he was absolutely great at ONE thing and one thing only: playing basketball.

So instead of consuming as much general information as you possibly can… instead FOCUS.

FOCUS on one topic. FOCUS on one task. FOCUS on one goal.

Because today, more than ever, focus is way more important than your intelligence.

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New Initiative Launched to Restore Memories and a Legacy

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On Tuesday January 30th, Thirty Years After (30 YA) hosted the Legacy Launch, one of their largest, most innovative and interactive projects to date, at the Ahyra Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills.

Sam Yebri, President of Thirty Years After, explains the Legacy Project, “The Project is a grassroots initiative that will help preserve and honor the Iranian  Jewish experience through video for future generations,  and provide an opportunity for every family to capture their parents’  and grandparents’ most compelling memories and anecdotes before it is  too late.”

Doors opened to guest at 7:00 pm where they were greeted with smiles from 30 YA volunteers and staff members. The lobby was packed with guests who were treated to wonderful Iranian street food not often seen or eaten in the United States. The delicious cuisine included Labu (beets baked in their own juice, and typically served steaming hot in a street cart during the dead of winter), Baghali (beans topped with spices, typically served the same way as Labu), Dizi (a meat mash/stew– usually made with lamb, but made with beef and chickpeas at our event), Shohleh Zard (saffron rice pudding), Chos-e-fil (otherwise known as popcorn) and Mahi-Cheh Polo (herbed rice with beef shanks).

The large number of attendees was a testament to the genuine and unprecedented support for the new generation of leaders of the Los Angeles Iranian-American Jewish community.  The printed program for the event listed over 25 generous families and businesses that supported the Legacy Launch and congratulated 30 YA on celebrating their 10 year anniversary.

This event was magical because of the broad range of emotions experienced just by being shoulder to shoulder with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins born in Tehran. Sadness is one emotion that could have been felt while standing in the room, because of all of the untold stories that were not recorded, told or heard. How many stories have we “missed out” on because family members have passed away, younger generations have gone off to college, or simply because we took time for granted? At the Legacy Launch, time stood still for a few hours for the sake of a community recording the past, but very aware of time, embracing beloved memories on video, but also progressively moving toward the future.

Yebri explained, “Our history informs our present and powers our future. This is especially true when our families and community have such a rich legacy of inspiring memories and experiences in Iran and during our exodus to America.  30 Years After  is thrilled to launch ‘The Legacy Project’ as part of the organization’s 10th anniversary celebration.”

Bobby Zolekhian, former President of Nessah Young Professionals expressed, “It was one of the most inspirational events I have been to. I am recruiting people to share their stories. This is something extraordinary!”

Featured guest speakers during the screening included Mrs. Susan Azizzadeh, President of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, Dr. Saba Soomekh, Assistant Director of Interreligious and Intercommunity Affairs at AJC, Megan Nemandoust, Margalit Rosenthal, Liora Simozar and 30 YA President, Sam Yebri.

The dynamic presentation of the screening and its intimate interviews clearly validated that the second and third generations of Iranian Jews growing up in the United States are confidently embracing their unspoken responsibility to record the stories of generations before them for a purpose with a greater cause– maintaining their identity, culture, and traditions.

Learn more about preserving your legacy with 30 YA at https://legacy.30yearsafter.org/

 

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The Honorable Mensch’n: Shanel Melamed

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A true essence of Persian grace and humility, this issue’s honorable mensch is Shanel Melamed, Executive Director of the nonprofit organization, 30 Years After. When she’s not bridging the gap between subdivisions of our own community, Melamed travels and trains in Capoeira (a Brazilian martial art) but always makes sure she is home in time for Kabob dinner with her grandparents on Thursday nights.

30 Years After promotes the participation and leadership of Iranian American Jews in American political, civic and Jewish life. In the last decade, they have become the doorway for anyone who wishes to reach out and build a relationship with Persian Jews, from political candidates, to universities or other nonprofit organizations. While the nonprofit often organizes socio-educational events for the community, its flagship program is their six-month long “Maher Fellowship”, which trains young Persian Jewish professionals in developing leadership skills and educates them on their cultural history and Jewish Los Angeles today. Shanel explains that the fellowship’s mission mirrors the Jewish concept of L’dor Vador, instilling a sense of pride upon first generation Iranian American Jews and subsequently creating a ripple effect on the rest of the community. Melamed intends for graduates of the fellowship to embrace their heritage, and as they enter their first stages of their professions and parenthood, feel entitled to pass on their legacy for generations to come. Shanel believes that,

“People of our generation should be knowledgeable and capable of cross-coding, of how to be American in the Persian Jewish world and how to be Persian Jewish in the American world. There’s no need to be only one of the three…it takes education on identity, culture, and history and our work doesn’t always have short-term return on investment. We’re in it for the long run, but that’s the spirit of what we do. My hope is that as our generation starts having kids, and as they educate them at home, it’ll be very similar to how we grew up- in terms of traditions and values, but maybe with an American mentality.”

Shanel works to make sure that the organization is “educating, empowering and connecting a community of like-minded people that can then be multipliers within their contemporaries of embodying what it means to be all three and how to leverage every aspect of that identity.” She advocates that Iranian American Jews cherish their roots as they serve well in the United States.

In the effort to maintain Jewish values in a modernized world, Melamed believes in letting go of certain outdated mentalities; such as not speaking about the things that plague us or seek guidance and support without fear of backlash from the community, deeming us as “unmarriageable” or tarnishing our family name. The Persian Jewish community is not immune to adversities of the human experience. Shanel explains, “It takes time for the community to evolve. It took the Jews 40 years in the desert. Our generation is in a very tough situation, but we need to embody the changes that we want to see. Since Jewish America has been on the decline for a variety of reasons and Persian Jews arrived here only about 40 years ago, we have a lot to give.” She hopes that the organization impacts the Persian Jewish community to eventually feel empowered enough to “open doors within existing institutions to allow those institutions to welcome our voice as well.” Shanel often noticed that Jewish events in Los Angeles are not very inclusive of Persian Jews, despite their large presence. She explains, “We need to be embraced…not to be forced to change in order to feel comfortable somewhere…it is very uncomfortable to go to a Jewish event and words are being thrown around in Yiddish, and you have to ask what they mean. You don’t feel like you fit in.” Melamed finds it unfortunate that Persian Jews have been underserved for so long and that consequently the greater Jewish community has not been able to benefit from the wealth of Jewish connection and “fierce Zionism” that Persian Jews have to offer. This is where her work with 30 Years After comes in, to “teach young Jews what the Jewish landscape is and how they fit in.”

On the topic of Saturday morning synagogue congregations dwindling, Shanel emphasizes the significance of keeping Friday nights holy: “Because the home has been the epicenter of Persian Jewry, I think we keep the community alive through Shabbat dinners.” Melamed reflects on a quote by Ahad Ha’Am, “‘More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.’ Persian Jews are the epitome of what that means in a modern society, and I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of that story.”

 

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