By Annah Johnson
The most recent installment of the Diversity Lecture Series from Grand Rapids Community College’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on Tuesday, Oct. 13, featured the positively infectious Ruben Gonzalez, a four-time Olympian, author, and full-time motivator.
In 1984, 21-year-old Gonzalez was told he was past the prime age to start learning a new sport, let alone master it within four years to qualify for the Olympics. Instead of letting doubt deter him from following his dreams of being an Olympic athlete, he pushed forward. That perseverance and belief brought his dreams to fruition in the Calgary Olympic Games in 1988, then on to Albertville in 1992, Salt Lake City in 2002, and Vancouver in 2010 – making him the only winter Olympian to participate in four Olympic games in four different decades. Since then, he has become a best-selling author and a widely respected keynote speaker on mental toughness.
His lecture, titled “You Are Bigger Than Your Struggle,” began with his life story. An adventurous young Argentinian boy who immigrated with his family to Queens in the late ’60s then moved to Houston became enamored with the toughness of Olympians. Being a hard-headed kid, he was known as ‘Bulldog’ to his friends. He knew at the age of 10 that his tenacious bulldog mentality would be what would get him to those opening ceremonies. Urged by his father to surround himself with people who have ‘walked the walk’ and read the real-life adventures that people had written in biographies, Gonzalez began to channel all of his mental energy toward making his dreams a reality.
“Success leaves clues,” Gonzalez said, detailing the advice his father taught him. He explained that the books you read and the people you hang around with are essential to who you become as a person – essential to your success.
After going to Houston Baptist University, getting a degree, and playing collegiate level soccer, he was ready to find a way into the Olympics. Gonzalez knew from a young age that he wanted to be an Olympian, but he also was aware of his skill set – which wasn’t exceptionally athletic.
During his lecture, he explained that “you have to marry your desires with your talents.” Knowing this back in 1984, he reflected on his strengths – tenacity, perseverance, and grit. So he had to find a tough sport that aligned with his gifts. That’s when he found the luge.
Quite literally, he chose his adventure. Gonzalez further recounts his initial struggle to be accepted into the training program in Lake Placid, he was told that he was too old, 9 out of 10 people quit, and broken bones are a given.
“I hope it’s 10 times harder than what you’re telling me. I hope it’s a hundred times harder. Because the harder it is, the easier it is for me. Because I’m not a quitter, I’m Bulldog,” he told the doubtful man on the phone.
Of the 15 members of his training team, he was the only one left after the first year. A few years later, he competed in the Calgary Winter Olympic Games. In 2002, because of his inspirational story, he was invited to carry the Olympic torch for the Salt Lake City games. The torch bore a motivational message that was the perfect summation of Gonzalez’s life, “Light the fire within.”
Since his four Olympic competitions, Gonzalez has become a professional inspirational speaker and author. His written works and speeches center around the themes of success, courage, and perseverance. This is all possible by envisioning success through imagination. Surrounding yourself with winners, and coaching your mind to feel what winning feels like. Gonzalez explained that this is a common method for success, fueling your obsession with deeply personal, vivid imagery of what you want to achieve.
“I might have been jogging, I might have been lifting weights, I might have been eating dinner, I might have been walking down the mall. But do you know what was going on in here all the time?” Gonzalez said, motioning to his head, “I could see myself walking to the opening ceremonies…I am there.”
His success was not by coincidence nor accident, his effort was purposeful. Gonzalez closes by explaining how he put in the work, found the people to emulate, studied the coaches, visualized his success, and actualized his dreams doing so.
“What are the chances somebody like me can make it to the Olympics, even one time? I wasn’t a great athlete, I didn’t get started till I was 21, I lived in hot and humid Houston and I go pick the luge, for Pete’s sake. What are the chances? I mean, you might think it’s one in a million,” Gonzalez said. “It wasn’t one in a million, it was inevitable.”