Knowing Your Limits

Rafer Johnson grew up in Texas as the son of farmworkers.  His family moved to California where Johnson was a star in football, basketball, and baseball.  Although there were few African Americans living in the community, he was elected to be the class president in both junior and high school.

When he was 16 years old Johnson saw the Olympic decathlon trials.  He told his coach:  “I could have beaten most of those guys.”  Johnson didn’t know his limits.  He went on to win the California high decathlon events twice in high school.

Johnson enrolled at UCLA and competed in the decathlon.  He broke the world record in his fourth competition.  He didn’t know his limits.  Later, he won the decathlon at the Pan-American Games.

Johnson was in a car accident and missed two seasons.  There was a fear that his athletic career was over.  But he didn’t know his limits.  In the 1960 Olympics, he won the Gold Medal and set the world record again.

While at UCLA, Johnson also played basketball for John Wooden.  He was also drafted by the NFL.  He didn’t know his limits.

In 1984, Johnson was chosen to ignite the Olympic flame at the Los Angeles Olympics.  He was 49 years old at the time.  To light the flame, he had to run the steps of the LA Coliseum.  And then he had to climb a ladder which would wobble if he didn’t stay in the middle.  By the time he got to the flame, Johnson knew he would be shaking and likely to fall.  He knew his limits.  He had requested a railing to keep from falling but this was denied because it wouldn’t look good on TV.  What he got instead was a fiberglass pole on the top step.  Using the pole to keep from falling, Johnson lit the flame.  Johnson had reached the limit of what was one of the greatest athletic careers in American history.

All of us need to know our limits.  Unfortunately, this seems to be a reluctance to stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zone.  We impose limits on ourselves often leading to regrets later in our lives.  To others, we strive to go beyond our limits, leading to failures that may have lasting effects on our confidence.

Knowing our limits requires serious self-reflection.  It also requires having a mentor who is willing to be honest with us.  Rafer Johnson knew his limits as a young man and how those limits changed with age.  But he also helped others understand their limits when he created a Special Olympics program in California.  When we understand our limits, we can use that skill to guide others in understanding how to find their limits.

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“You will never know your limits unless you push yourself to them.” – Anonymous

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