Playlist TEDTalks

12 powerful talks from Olympians and Paralympians

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

Winter-OlympicsThe Opening Ceremony for the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi takes place today, which means that — over the next few weeks — we’ll all be watching a steady diet of hockey, skiing and figure skating. To get you in the Olympic spirit, watch these powerful TED and TEDx Talks from Olympians and Paralympians. We dare you not to cry.

Janine Shepherd: A broken body isn’t a broken person
Australian cross-country skiier Janine Shepherd dreamed of winning an Olympic medal. And it seemed like a real possibility until, while out on a training bike ride, she was hit by a truck and rendered partially paraplegic. In this talk, Shepherd shares her story of recovery — which eventually sent her soaring to new heights. It’s a beautiful reminder of the resilience in all of us. (Filmed at TEDxKC.)

Maarten van der Weijden: On surviving cancer and becoming Olympic champion
Long-distance swimmer Maarten van der Weijden became a Dutch national hero in 2008 after winning gold at the Beijing Summer Olympics in the 10km open water marathon race. He did this just five years after recovering from leukemia. And yet, van der Weijden takes calls the idea that he “beat cancer” a crock and warns against notions that a patient has any influence over whether they survive the devastating disease. (Filmed at TEDxRotterdam.)

Jeff Olson: How do we inspire kids to make healthy lifestyle choices?
Alpine skier Jeff Olson competed in the 1988 and 1992 Winter Olympics, and now worries that the torch Americans have passed on to the next generation is a penchant for unhealthy lifestyle choices. In this talk, Olson talks about what he calls “diseases of affluence.” (Filmed at TEDxMileHigh.)

Aimee Mullins: Changing my legs — and my mindset
Aimee Mullins is a double amputee, and a natural-born athlete. She competed as a track and fielder in the 1996 Paralympic Games, breaking multiple records, and, in 2012, was named a Chef de Mission for the US Olympic and Paralympic team. In this Q&A from the TED archive, Mullins shares the story of how she started running late in life, as a college student, and how she got the boost she needed from a determined coach and a new pair of prosthetic legs. (Filmed at TED1998.)

Caryn Davies: The power of teammates
Rower Caryn Davies almost passed out as she neared the finish line in the women’s eight at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Luckily, she made it — and won gold. In this talk, Davies admits that training six hours a day for years was often monotonous, but that her teammates inspired her to keep going — just not in the way you’d expect. (Filmed at TEDxYouth@Bruce.)

Jason Rogers: We all write our own story
According to Jason Rogers, a fencer who won Olympic silver in 2008, we all are writers. In this talk, Rogers gives a short history of fencing and shares his Olympic story, filled with fascinating characters and unexpected plot twists — which needed rewriting in his mind. (Filmed at TEDxYouth@Bruce.)

Sarah Reinertsen: The first woman with an artificial leg to complete an Ironman
Triathlete Sarah Reinertsen was the world champion going into the 1992 Paralympics, but came home empty-handed and devastated. She recalls how meeting another athlete with an amputated leg inspired her to attempt an Ironman Triathlon. (Filmed at TEDxYouth@Bruce, which was dedicated to the theme “Olympic Spirit.”)

Rajyavardhan Rathore: Intelligence doesn’t just come in books
At the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Col. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won the first silver medal for India since the 1900 Olympics in Paris. In this short talk, Rathore stresses that book smarts aren’t the only type of intelligence, and that wisdom earned through business and sport are equally important. (Filmed at TEDxShekhavati; turn on the captions.)

Steve Mesler: When kids meet their Olympic heroes
Olympic gold medalist Steve Mesler founded the organization Classroom Champions, which connects Olympians and Paralympians with underserved schoolkids via Twitter and email. Here, he shares his vision for the program as “Big Brothers Big Sisters meets 21st-century pen-palling.” (Filmed at TEDxCalgary.)

Marlon Shirley: Overcoming obstacles
Marlon Shirley won back-to-back gold medals in the 100-meter dash at the Paralympic Games of 2000 and 2004. In a talk given over webcam, Shirley tells the story of how he overcame obstacles both physical and situational. (Filmed at TEDxYouth@Bruce.)

Bob Beamon on his world-record long jump
In the 1968 Olympics, track and fielder Bob Beamon pulled off the “leap of the century.” Appearing to take flight in the long jump, Beamon’s jump far exceeded the capabilities of the measuring equipment. In this flipped TED-Ed lesson, Beamon reveals that he thought he might’ve broken the world record by a few inches … but instead blew it out of the water.

Isabel Allende on carrying the Olympic flag
Author and activist Isabel Allende may not have competed in the Olympics, but this talk is pure gold. In it, she describes her “four minutes of fame” as one of the flag bearers at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

This piece originally ran in July of 2012. It was updated on February 7, 2014.