What do you think of when you picture the Olympics? Some common images that come to mind are those of larger-than-life figures performing breathtaking acts of strength, speed, and precision. Starting around 700 BC, the greatest athletes Western civilization had to offer would gather and compete in trials of physical prowess. This ancient tradition has carried over into the modern era, leading to many spectacular performances from athletes all over the world.
Not every runner dreams of being an Olympian, but many of them do. These individuals tend to idolize certain athletes who went above and beyond to stress the very limits of their bodies. Here are just a few Olympic runners that serve as inspirational role models and the stories of their amazing accomplishments.
Although his birth name was James Cleveland Owens, a mix-up in elementary school led to this black athlete’s most well-known name: Jesse Owens. Owens showed incredible promise as a track runner at a young age so it was only a matter of time before he would receive his shot at Olympic glory. During his incredible career, he broke countless records for his breathtaking speed and agility.
The reason why Jesse Owens’ story is so inspirational has to do with the historical context of his most impressive accomplishment: winning four gold Olympic medals. The year in which he competed was 1936 and the location was Berlin, meaning that he was a person of color competing in pre-WWII Germany at the height of the Nazi party’s power.
During a time when Adolf Hitler was desperate to proudly demonstrate the athletic abilities of the Aryan race, Jesse Owens completely humiliated him in his own country by tying or breaking nine world records and setting three more.1 In addition to being a positive role model for people of color, Jesse Owens serves as a powerful reminder to anyone that success is the sweetest revenge.
With a proclivity toward the half marathon over all other running competitions and lengths, Mizuki Noguchi began her impressive span of athletic accolades by being crowned Asian Cross Country Champion in 1999. From that point, she ran in several half marathon competitions around her home country of Japan and abroad, placing very highly and setting impressive records.
The zenith of Mizuki Noguchi’s running career was in the mid-2000s. When competing in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, she won a gold medal in the marathon competition.2 Just one year later, she came in first place at the Berlin Marathon, setting a new record for Asian runners as well as a course record for the marathon itself.3 Sadly, this string of amazing wins would not come without hardships.
Although she was set to compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, a debilitating back injury put her out of commission for the next few years. However, she was able to pull herself back into performing condition and complete more running events over the next few years. Mizuki Noguchi is an impressive Olympic athlete and an excellent role model for women, Asians, and the injured due to her consistent effort and unflagging perseverance.
Touted as “The Ultramarathon Man,” Dean Karnazes is a running legend and an Olympian in his own right. Much like Jesse Owens, Karnazes showed incredible promise as an endurance runner at a young age and went on to accomplish incredible feats and set new records. The fields in which he made the biggest impact were endurance running and completing ultramarathons.
Dean Karnazes’ stamina is legendary and has allowed him to complete many incredible feats. He once ran for three straight days without sleeping, covering a distance of over 350 miles. He ran 50 marathons in all 50 of the United States in 50 consecutive days. He’s even completed multiple twelve-man relay races entirely by himself.4 Although he never competed in the Olympic games, he was chosen to carry the Olympic torch from Athens for the 2018 Winter Games, technically making him an Olympics-recognized running legend.
The secret to Karnazes’ unprecedented endurance is his body’s ability to suppress the buildup of lactic acid while running.5 Doctors have theorized that his genetics play a large part in this phenomenon but this is far from the entire story. Diet and lifestyle play significant roles in his success as well; however, Dean attests that it is his mental fortitude that allows him to perform at this level. The true source of Dean Karnazes’ energy and the example that he sets for countless other aspiring athletes is that the mind and spirit can surpass the limitations of the body.