Even before the 1920 Olympic Games began, everyone knew that France was going to win the gold medal in rugby. They were the European champions and heavy favorites. Most other countries didn’t even bother sending a team, because it seemed pointless.
The United States scraped together a team and sent them anyway. The American team wasn’t made up of professional athletes though. They were amateurs, but they were strong, tough and athletic guys.
The French press called them “streetfighters and saloon brawlers.”
One of them was named John Muldoon, my great-grandfather.
According to my family, he was a pretty regular guy… a father and entrepreneur. He ran an auto mechanic business, a tow truck company and a gas station. He coached youth football. He was self-made in everything he did. Though he wasn’t a professional, his reputation for being tough and athletic was enough to send him to the 1920 Olympics as a member of the rugby team.
It didn’t matter that the Americans were expected to lose. He didn’t care much about the odds. He was just excited to go have an adventure and be in the Olympics.
On September 5, 1920, the French and American teams met in the gold medal matchup in Antwerp. It was pouring rain, and 20,000 fans came to Olympic Stadium, expecting to watch the French favorites humiliate the American brawlers.
Except, that’s not what happened.
Halfway through the game, the score was still tied 0 – 0. And by the time the final whistle blew, the score was 8 – 0. The American team had won!
It was a huge upset. This team of amateurs shocked everyone and won the gold medal against the odds.
Their obstacles didn’t matter. The lack of talent and experience didn’t matter. Some of them had been playing rugby less than a year. It didn’t matter. The odds didn’t matter. They were tougher and stronger and faster, and they’d done the unthinkable.
They got their gold medals and went home as Olympic champions.
Four years later, the 1924 Olympics were held in Paris. The French rugby team was even more favored than they had been in the 1920 games. They expected to make up for their embarrassing show at the last Olympics. No team of misfits was going to beat them again.
The French had good reason to be confident, too. Their team was regarded as one of the greatest ever assembled. On home soil, they were expected to crush all the other teams and win the gold. They couldn’t wait to get their revenge and humiliate the Americans.
According to one of the American players, “They were looking for a punching bag … We were told to go to Paris and take our beatings like gentlemen.”
My great-grandfather wasn’t known for taking beatings or being a gentleman, but he went anyway.
When the American team arrived in Paris, they were met with hatred from the French press and the French Olympic Committee. They were cursed and spat on in the streets. Their equipment was stolen. They were told they had to practice in a vacant lot by their hotel instead of on a proper field. In response, they broke into the Olympic stadium and practiced on the official playing field. If the rules were stacked against them, they would simply make their own.
Their opening match was against Romania. The Americans were expected to lose, but they beat Romania 37 – 0! Once again the US and France were scheduled to face off in the final.
The gold medal match was played on May 18th, 1924. More than 50,000 drunk and angry French fans packed the stadium to watch their team defeat the Americans. They wanted blood, and came to watch a blowout victory. The odds were placed at 20 to 1 in favor of the French, with a 20 point spread.
Everyone knew how the game would play out.
So… at halftime, when the American team was actually ahead 3 – 0, the French fans started going crazy.
The second half of the game devolved into anarchy. The French fans were throwing rocks and bottles at the American team. American fans were being beaten up in the stands, and their bodies were passed down to the field to be collected by ambulances. One of the American reserve players was beaten unconscious by the French fans. It was chaos.
On the field, the Americans channeled everything into the game. Their only option was to let their game talk. They held nothing back.
They scored five more times, and beat the French team 17 – 3. They’d done it again. They defied the odds and won the gold medal for the second time… except this time it was in front of a violent mob.
The French fans rushed the field, and the American team had to be escorted out of the stadium under police protection.
But it didn’t matter. They were Olympic champions.
When the papers came out the next day, the press had no choice but to change their tune. They wrote, “The American team is comprised of true athletes, all fast, strong, energetic, and possessing athletic qualities of which we are rarely aware in France.”
My great-grandfather said that the public opinion of them turned around overnight. They had won the respect of the French people. Instead of being cursed and spat on, people bought them drinks all around Paris for the rest of the games.
He came home with his second Olympic gold medal, continued raising his family, running his businesses and led a pretty normal life.
I never got to meet my great-grandfather, but I always loved his story. Not only because he was a badass athlete and Olympic champion, but because of the way he lived his life. He was a fearless guy.
He did everything with courage and determination. He was stubborn, and he never let anything get in his way.
He knew that the odds don’t matter. Only the score matters. – Click to Tweet
So, he put himself out there again and again. Whatever the game, whatever the odds, he made sure he was playing. That’s how you win.
The Odds Favor Those Who Ignore Them
I have a lot more stories of people who defied the odds, but I’ll save them for another day. I want to share an everyday example that happened to me recently.
I’ve caught myself making mental excuses during my No Excuses Experiment. One of them had to do with odds. I was considering sending a really ambitious proposal to a client, but I started second guessing it a bit. I started to imagine reasons why they might say no. I was getting caught up in the (imagined) odds of rejection and “upper-limiting” myself. Luckily, I caught myself.
So, I made a note in my excuses journal and then sent the proposal in anyway. The client loved my idea, and now I’m working on this great project. If I’d let my fear of the odds get in my way, I would have cheated myself out of this great project for my business.
This sort of thing can happen in any area of your life.
I have some really big goals I want to accomplish. The odds are probably against all of them happening, but I still work toward those things every single day, because they matter to me. Sometimes the best things don’t come easy. In fact, they’re usually the hardest of all.
And that’s ok, because I’ll tell you a secret…
You aren’t defined by the goals you reach. It’s the act of pushing through your obstacles, of hoping against the odds and refusing to give up… that’s the only thing that matters. That’s what defines you.
You get to decide whether you’re unstoppable or not.
Remember that the next time you feel discouraged or the odds aren’t in your favor. Just keep working hard, and amazing things will happen.
It’s kind of fun to do the impossible. – Walt Disney
What goals are you working on in spite of the odds?
Ray Simon says
Great real-life story, John. And great storytelling too. We all love to hear about the underdog that triumphed, and at the same time it can be disheartening to feel like the odds are stacked against you. Is anyone really proud or inspired by something that was easy? Did anyone ever really dig deep when all they really needed to do was leave it on cruise control?
This reminds me of Jerry Rice’s comments when inducted in the Football Hall of Fame. He said that he never took the time to enjoy his career because he was working so hard (out of fear of failure). Even as a winner of Super Bowls, he made himself the underdog in his mind and it drove him to unimaginable heights.
It’s not pretty to think of always working so hard to achieve, to have not gotten to a place where one can relax and say, “I’ve made it”, but instead to constantly stack the odds against you – whether in the outside world or in your own mind. But maybe that’s what it takes to be a champion. I don’t know, it’s tough to say. Thanks for prompting this reflection.
John Muldoon says
Yeah, Ray. That’s a really good question. I know I really struggle to celebrate my wins and just be still and content with whatever I’ve accomplished. I think the real answer is that a balance must exist. We have to be able to push yourselves to succeed and also to celebrate our successes. I totally don’t have that figured out though.
Perfect. I really needed to hear this today.
John Corcoran says
Wow, great story, John. Thanks for sharing it.
John Muldoon says
Thanks John. Glad you liked it.
Wow, that was a great story. It really pulled me in.
And, yes, your great-grandfather was a badass!
John Muldoon says