Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“That’s What I Want to Do”

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 5, 2011

One of the great joys of being a writer is that, through your books, you get to meet some pretty amazing people. One of those in my world is Hermes (Ioannis) Melissanidis from Greece.

Hermes

Melissanidis became Greece's first gold medalist in 90 years with this performance in the floor exercise

Hermes won a gold medal in gymnastics at the Atlanta Olympics. Here’s the video if you’ve never seen it. I met Hermes because of Gates of Fire. He wrote to me, telling me that he once had to perform in a gymnastics final when he had a broken rib. He was going to withdraw, but he happened to have Gates in his gym bag and he was reading about the Spartans. He competed and won.

I asked him how he got into the sport.

When I was four or five, I saw gymnastics on the television for the first time. It blew my mind. I went straight to my mother and father and announced to them, ‘That’s what I want to do. I’m going to win a gold medal in the Olympics.’ My family are all doctors, so they naturally said no. They thought I was crazy. There was no way they would let me train for hours and hours a day for years and years just to learn a few tricks on the rings or the uneven bars or the pommel horse or the floor exercise.

So I went on a hunger strike. I stopped eating. I told my parents I would not take another bite until they agreed to let me train. I refused food for three days. They tried to tempt me with ice cream and chocolate, but nothing would make me bend. Finally on the fourth day, my mother and father said okay, they would let me train in gymnastics—but I could not neglect my studies and I must still go on to medical school. I said okay. We made an agreement.

So many aspects of this story are amazing to me, I hardly know where to begin. First, how fortunate Hermes was to find his passion so young—and to recognize it and embrace it without fear and without hesitation.

Second, a hunger strike. What five-year-old even thinks about such a thing? Can you imagine this little tyke defying his parents like that? That’s what Rudy Tomjonovich would call “the heart of a champion.”

Third, Hermes was a pro. At four or five years old, he was already a professional. He didn’t want to play or dabble at gymnastics; he was ready to commit full-time to years and years of killer training. He was in for the long haul—and with all his heart.

After I won at the Atlanta games, the Greek journalists of course were very excited. One came up to me with a microphone in my face and asked with great enthusiasm, ‘How does it feel to produce the performance of a lifetime here when you needed it most? How did you achieve that peak moment of greatness?’

I was so angry. I had to bite my tongue not to say something I would regret. Because I could see that this journalist had no understanding of athletes or of performance. So I smiled and gave the answer she wanted. But what I wished to say was this: ‘Don’t you understand that this was not the performance of a lifetime? I have performed this floor exercise in practice ten thousand times. Five thousand times I have done better than this! I did not have to exceed myself or go beyond my limits. I have trained for years to reach this level. This is it. This is what I am capable of every day.'”

We’ve been talking in this space about amateurs and professionals—and the difference between the two. Hermes was a pro at four years old, and I can tell you, from what he has done in his subsequent career (he is acting now, based in London) that he has not deviated one iota from that mind-set. [He did become a doctor, by the way, at the same time he was taking home gold in gymnastics.]

I asked Hermes once about his diet. What sorts of food did he eat to support the incredible expenditures of energy in training and to build up the strength that a gymnast needs. I expected him to say he ate three porterhouse steaks a day with liver-and-whey shakes at every meal.

I have glass of whole milk for breakfast with a little honey and some royal jelly. For lunch a salad, maybe with some fish. Dinner, chicken and a salad.

That’s it? That’s what your coaches prescribe? How can you train that hard, all those hours, on just that small amount of food?

Hermes touched one finger to his temple. He smiled. “It’s all up here,” he said.

We can cite the commitment of a pro, the dedication, the application of will, the drive to succeed. All these are present with Hermes, that’s for sure. But the heart of the story to me goes back to when he was four or five.

Love of the game. Hermes saw gymnasts on TV for the first time, and he knew at once: “That’s what I want to do.”

Everything since has been simply reinforcement.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

14 Responses to ““That’s What I Want to Do””

  1. October 5, 2011 at 4:10 am

    What?! No dietary supplements? No “PRO-tein” product? No magic bullet? I eat chicken; how come I’m not a gold medalist?! 😉

    Seriously, though: thanks for sharing Hermes’s story with us, Steven. Imagine how different (and depressing) this story would be if Hermes had allowed others to guilt him, or if he’d thrashed around worrying about “what to become”: gymnast, doctor, actor…?

    Hermes is a great example of why commitment to one thing doesn’t have to mean the permanent death of all your other interests and desires.

  2. Mike
    October 5, 2011 at 6:07 am

    Inspirational & powerful once again. Stories like this keep you motivated, reinforce your beliefs and keep the mind on the prize. If only we were all as certain about those goals so early in life as Hermes!

    Cheers Steve

  3. Mike
    October 5, 2011 at 6:08 am

    Inspirational & powerful once again. Stories like this keep you motivated, reinforce your beliefs and keep the mind on the prize. If only we were all as certain about those goals so early in life as Hermes!

    Thanks Steve

  4. Mike
    October 5, 2011 at 6:08 am

    Inspirational & powerful. Stories like this keep you motivated, reinforce your beliefs and keep the mind on the prize. If only we were all as certain about those goals so early in life as Hermes!

    Thanks Steve

  5. October 5, 2011 at 7:04 am

    Thank you–once again you post what I need to read. I’m in bed with a concussion, but I realize now I can still get my writing for the day done.

  6. Michael Kelberer
    October 5, 2011 at 7:24 am

    I’ll bet that if I looked up “Turning Pro” in the dictionary, there’d be a picture of Hermes

  7. Sonja
    October 5, 2011 at 9:27 am

    Wow! What a great mindset! Inspiring.

  8. Bob Krist
    October 5, 2011 at 10:27 am

    “I did not have to exceed myself or go beyond my limits. I have trained for years to reach this level. This is it. This is what I am capable of every day”

    That is the best articulation of insight into what it means to be a professional I ever read.

    • October 11, 2011 at 5:20 am

      I second this. A true pro.

  9. Jason
    October 5, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Great story. Wayne Gretzky said that parents come up to him all the time and ask him how they can make their kids into champions like him. He said “YOU can’t make someone a champ. I asked for an ice rink in my backyard as a little boy and while everyone else was out playing, I was on that ice every moment I had a second.”

    It’s amazing to see that fire in someone so young. You know nothing can stand in their way.

  10. October 5, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Great story, very inspirational especially in a country where the word “expensive” usually equates to “best” regardless of quality. No supplements, no expensive doctors, equipment, shoes – just a mindset.

  11. October 5, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    Must. Practice. More.

  12. October 5, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Oh, my…during reading this shipment, I had so many flash backs to my basketball career. I too committed to being pro at early age and I too achieved great successes with it. When I quit playing basketball as pro, for a while I thought my life will be ‘over’. But guess what? I found another -> ” I want to do this” -> and I graduated at the best biz school in country. Then I found another one and I am living it day in and day out. Even Hermes did not stop living when his gymnastic career was over, he found another “I want to do this” and that is a great reminder for everyone, that we have the ability and potential to be pros all life long, if we chose to.
    😉

  13. October 11, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    Great story, and a wonderful reminder of the high level of commitment we should strive for in achieving our visions for ourselves.