Pursuing Excellence
May 1985

“Pursuing Excellence,” Ensign, May 1985, 38

Pursuing Excellence

I’ve been asked to address my remarks to the young men this evening. It is my humble prayer that I may further instill upon them the desire to pursue excellence and to dedicate themselves to serving our Heavenly Father.

I am very honored and proud to have represented my country in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Participating in that great competition is an event that I will always cherish and remember. My involvement in gymnastics, however, has taught me qualities that go beyond athletics. The qualities, characteristics, and keys to success in sports are factors that carry over to all other aspects of our lives.

For those of us who, in any way, had the opportunity to view the Olympic Games, we saw the greatest athletes in the world performing at the very best of their abilities. Many of those athletes scored the most points, the fastest times, or the greatest distances in the history of the Olympic Games.

But how did they do it? What makes a great athlete? I remember a great Olympic champion who once addressed this question. He named some important factors such as great coaching, good equipment, good athletes to train with, or just pure natural talent. All of these ingredients can go into the recipe for a great athlete, and each will help in its own way. But there is one quality that rises above all, and without it, the athlete is not complete. That ingredient is desire.

The athlete with the greatest desire to succeed will stand a greater chance of reaching his or her goal. The same holds true for the student or the musician or whatever it is that you young men aspire to be. A five-year study of many of the United States’ top athletes, musicians, and scholars has recently concluded that “drive and determination, not great natural talent, led to their extraordinary success.” (Los Angeles Times, 17 Feb. 1985.)

In determined athletes, we can see the difference between knowing and doing. Those who really desire to reach their goals will do whatever they must do in order to achieve them.

Our great prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, has in his office a little motto that simply reads: “Do it.” In Matthew 21:28–31 we read:

“But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work today in my vineyard.

“He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went.

“And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not.

“Whether of them twain did the will of his father?” [Matt. 21:28–31]

Let’s not just talk about what we want to be. Let’s not just dream about what we want to be. Let’s just do it, whatever it takes. To reach your goals, you may have to work harder than you have ever worked before in your entire life.

My coach taught me a great lesson in my early development as a gymnast. I was leaving for my first national team training camp. Before I traveled to the camp, my coach told me only one thing. He didn’t tell me to learn any new maneuvers at the camp. He didn’t tell me to try to perform my routines better than the rest of the team. He told me that when I returned from that training camp that he wanted to hear me tell him, with all honesty, that I had worked harder than anyone else on the national team.

So I remember making it a point to be the last one out of the gym every day; and that didn’t mean just waiting at the door for everyone else to leave! Also, I remember that at night, when some team members would occasionally relax with their pizza and beer, I would go back to my room and do more exercises.

When I returned home two weeks later, I was proud to tell my coach, “Yes, I worked harder than everyone else.” I didn’t work twice as hard, just a little bit harder. But it was enough to help me to improve greatly. Sometimes, just a little bit is all that matters.

Let’s realize what the margin of victory was in a few of the events in last summer’s Olympics. In women’s cycling, after the 79.2-kilometer race, the difference between the gold medalist and the silver medalist at the finish line was just the length of a tire. In a pressure-packed swimming relay, the difference between the first-place team and second-place team was only .04 of a second. In many of the gymnastics competitions, the difference between first place and second place was as minute as .025 of a point.

The champions didn’t win by running twice as fast, by jumping twice as far, or by scoring twice as many points as their opponents. In many cases they won by just a fraction of a second, a fraction of an inch, or a fraction of a point. Likewise, and more important, the champions didn’t win by training twice as hard as their opponents. If another gymnast trains six hours a day, I can’t train twelve hours a day. Twelve hours a day in a gym just isn’t healthy! But I can train six hours and fifteen minutes a day. This is where giving it that little extra and going the extra mile makes the difference.

In whatever you want to improve upon, whether it be schoolwork, athletics, music, or studying the scriptures, just give a little extra—every day. Fifteen minutes a day for one year add up to over ninety-one hours. I only use fifteen minutes as an example of how time well-spent can add up. I know that I would be a better individual if I applied this more in other important areas of my life. I sincerely hope and pray that I do this.

There is another little sign in President Kimball’s office. This one reads: “Don’t quit.” We are all going to have hardships and setbacks. But Heavenly Father will not give us a hardship that we cannot overcome. Behind many Olympic champions are stories of incredible hardships that had to be overcome. Just this past summer, many of us had the opportunity to see an American win his country’s first gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling. We saw this big guy crying tears of joy as he stood on that victory stand. Just two years before, he had undergone a serious operation for a rare form of cancer. He never gave up. Now he is an Olympic champion.

As children of our Father in Heaven, we can have setbacks of sin. But we must never quit or give up hope. Heavenly Father has provided a way to overcome spiritual setbacks through the great gift of repentance. He truly loves us and wants to forgive us. All we have to do is to go through the process of repentance, and we will triumph over our mistakes.

I have talked today about pursuing excellence in all areas of our lives. I don’t stand here as a shining example of that. I have achieved a wonderful thing in the world of sports. I only pray I can do better in other, more important areas of my life.

I do know of the importance of setting your goals very high, for if you do this, your intermediate goals should be easier to reach. By setting my sights on the Olympics, I found it easier to become a state or college champion because I always knew I had to improve.

Let’s not settle for mediocrity. Let’s always try our best. Let us decide now what type of person we want to be, and when a difficult situation comes along we will be prepared to pass the test.

I feel very blessed that at a young age I was taught the importance of keeping the Word of Wisdom. I committed myself to keeping that commandment. I remember a very prestigious competition in Germany, when I won the vaulting event. As I stood on the victory stand, I received a gold medal, flowers, and gifts. I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Before walking off of the stand, I noticed another individual coming forward with a silver cup, and I thought, “How great! Another prize!” But as the presenter moved closer with this cup, I noticed it was full of wine.

Turning to my German friend and competitor, I asked what it was for, and he explained that tradition calls for the champion to drink out of the cup and to pass it to the next athlete.

I told him, “Well, I don’t drink.”

He responded with: “Then just take a little sip and hand it to the next person.”

Then I explained, “No, it’s against my religion, and I can’t even take a sip.”

My friend proceeded to explain to the officials in German that I wouldn’t drink it, but for some reason they insisted I take the cup.

So I took the cup and held it high in the air for the crowd to see. And then, without taking a sip, I handed it down to the next person. I admit that amidst the laughter of the crowd I felt a bit embarrassed, but I felt proud that it was easy to say no. I believe that if we make proper decisions before we are faced with a temptation, we will find it much easier to resist that temptation.

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize keeping a proper perspective on our goals. Let us never lose sight of the gospel in pursuing our temporal ambitions. We didn’t come to this world to become Olympic champions, or great doctors, lawyers, or businessmen, or to become rich and famous. We came here to prove ourselves worthy of returning back to the presence of our Heavenly Father. We came here to set and reach the highest goal possible.

I know how hard I worked to compete in the Olympics. At times I trained as much as six hours a day, six days a week. It sometimes seemed it took all of my energy and resources. I think I’m beginning to realize how serious my commitment to the Lord’s work must be if I am to receive God’s greatest gift. Indeed, it will take all of my talent, energy, and resources—my heart, might, mind, and strength—to earn and receive eternal life.

Just imagine what it’s like to be an Olympic champion! Imagine the feeling of having that medal placed around your neck as you stand on the victory platform. It’s a feeling I can’t describe. But let’s realize one more thing. We can all have an experience infinitely greater than that. If we prove worthy, we will return to our Heavenly Father’s presence.

I have a testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I know that Christ lives. I know that Spencer W. Kimball is a living prophet of God. I have so much to be thankful for. My temple marriage to my beautiful wife is worth more than all the gold in the world.

I know I have a long way to go, but I pray that I may always improve and someday be found worthy of all the blessings that Heavenly Father has in store for those that truly serve him, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen.