My Best Day Ever

by Ron Backes

It may seem strange, but my best day in my track and field career might have been the most difficult day for me. It was the day I placed fourth in the shot put in the 1988 Olympic Track and Field Trials. Yep, that’s right, my best day ever was the day I missed making the1988 Olympic Team by one centimeter. Like most stories, I need to go back in time to help you fully understand the impact of that day on my life.

When I was twelve years old I made it my goal to compete in the Olympics. Over time this track and field goal became my athletic career goal and soon it became my life goal. I was consumed by it. It defined me as a person. I was Ron Backes, the shot putter.

I was fortunate to have success in track and received a lot of press because of it. This was especially true leading up to the 1988 Olympic Trials. I had just finished a good college career where I was a Big Ten Champion, National Champion and a school record holder in the shot put and discus at the University of Minnesota. I was ranked in the top ten in the world and on the verge of achieving my life goal of competing in the Olympics.

My training leading up to the trials was fantastic. I was in the best physical shape of my life up to that point and as it turns out, ever. I threw 70 feet in practice three weeks out and was backing off the weights so I could really peak at the meet. (I usually threw three feet more in meets than I did in practice so I was looking forward to a big throw.)

Unfortunately, a week after my 70’ practice throw I pulled a muscle in my right leg. It was severe enough that I couldn’t practice much except for doing therapy and stretching. Those two weeks were very difficult for me. (Quite possibly the worst thing for an athlete to experience is an injury that prevents them from practicing or competing. It’s like your value as a person has somehow been diminished because in some way you think of yourself as being broken or defective.)

My coach, Steve Forseth, and I decided to still take the trip down to Indianapolis for the Olympic Trials and see if my leg would hold up. We arrived in Indianapolis the day before the competition and went to a practice facility to test the leg. Fortunately, my leg felt good enough to compete the next day. This was the first time I was able to throw the shot since my injury two weeks earlier.

The shot put qualifying round was held early in the morning and the finals are held later that evening. I threw well enough in the qualifying round to finish in the top 12 and advance to the prelims and finals. My leg actually felt good but I had lost some of the punch I had three weeks earlier and my timing was not totally there.

I felt some confidence coming back going into the prelims and it sure was great to be able to throw again. I started to realize that my dream of competing in the Olympics that was birthed 13 years earlier might actually come true. I used my first throw to get a mark but the result was less than spectacular. My second throw felt good but was not a far throw. My third throw felt pretty good and measured out at 67-8. That put me in third place going into the finals. My fourth and fifth throws were ok but I just couldn’t finish with a big throw.

I was in third place going into the last throw of the finals. Since the Top three finishers make the team and based on how the guys before me were throwing, things this week were looking good. That was until Jim Doehring stepped into the ring. When his shot hit the ground I knew it was going to be close but when the mark came up on the board I couldn’t believe it, 67-8 1/4. I still had one throw left but couldn’t come back and I finished in fourth place. In my opinion, being an alternate on the Olympic team in the shot put might as well be the same as finishing in last place because rarely does one of the top three not make the trip with the team.

As you can imagine, I was physically, mentally and emotionally devastated. My girlfriend at the time made an interesting comment when I finally caught up with her after the competition. The first words out of her mouth were “What’s wrong with you? After the competition I didn’t see you cry, get upset or angry. You just sat there on the bench. You looked like you didn’t even care.” I think she misread my body language. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t care as much as I didn’t feel anything. I was totally numb. I felt empty and to a certain extent, worthless. I had invested so much of my life into this dream and to have missed it by a quarter inch left me feeling devastated.

So how could this have been “My Best Ever” in track and field? As a result of this significant defeat I began to really examine my life for the first time. I discovered how shallow my life was and quite frankly, I discovered that I was pretty shallow.

Over the next four years, while I trained for the 1992 Olympics, I did make some positive changes in my life. However, it seemed like I was repeatedly making “New Years Resolutions” and then falling back into my negative patterns and behaviors. All along I felt that something was missing and it took me until just a few short weeks before the 1992 Olympic Trials to discover what it was.

Through a series of struggles, much of which were a result of my own moral failures, I was at a low point in my life. However, on the outside everything seemed fine. I was ranked very high in the world rankings and Trials were right around the corner. But on the inside, I was really hurting. I started to realize how selfish I was and how many people I had hurt along the way. My heart was breaking and I was looking for an answer to the emptiness I was feeling inside.

A friend invited me to church and I finally found what I was seeking. The concept of a “sinful nature” became a reality to me. I realized I wasn’t sinful because I had done bad things but rather I did bad things because I was born sinful. The Bible says in Romans 3:23-25 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood….

Are you kidding me? Justified freely? Boy was that good news. I was at the end of myself and realized that I was separated from God. I was in desperate need of forgiveness and God was offering it to me through the His Son Jesus.

Two weeks before the 1992 Olympic Trials I asked God to forgive me of my sins and put my faith and trust in Jesus and what He did for me on that cross. Missing the team in 1988 was my “Best Day Ever” because it was the start of a journey that led me to a right and personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I was finally free from the guilt and bondage of sin and now was able to become the man God created me to be. I was now in a relationship that was going to last for eternity and I had the certainty that I was going to heaven. (Thinking about hell always had scared me.) My life and my lifestyle totally changed. I started to see life from God’s perspective. I stopped using offensive language, started reading the Bible, I started to be others focused and found a peace inside I had never known before.

Two weeks later I competed in the 1992 Olympic Trials in New Orleans (photos). I finished third in the shot put (results), qualified for the US Olympic Team and fulfilled a dream that started 17 years earlier.

Ok… that was a pretty good day too.