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Olympic Gold Medalist Challenges Ithaca College Graduates to ‘Fail Forward’

by David Maley    5/17/2015

ITHACA, NY — Noting that she was cut three times before finally making the United States Olympic team, Meghan Musnicki challenged the Ithaca College class of 2015 to “fail forward.” Musnicki, who won a gold medal as a member of the women’s crew team at the 2012 Summer Olympics, delivered the main address at Ithaca College’s 120th Commencement ceremony.

“I for one don’t know a single successful person who hasn’t failed at one point or another,” said Musnicki, herself a 2005 graduate of the college. “More than likely you are going to fail. A lot. That’s okay. Don’t fear failure. Instead, fail forward. By that I mean learn from it, take something away from it. If you can learn something from your failure along your path to success, then in fact it isn’t a failure at all, it’s a lesson.”

Musnicki had three other challenges for the 1,398 graduates as well: to make a plan, but be willing to change it; to exercise their gratitude muscle; and to live in the present moment.

“A big reason people resist taking a chance is because they focus on what they have to give up, rather than what they could gain. My challenge to you is to not have a plan that is set in stone, to not be afraid to deviate from the plan that you have in your head, to take a risk... Is it scary? Yes, most definitely. But I know a lot of successful people that have jumped, and look what can happen if you do it. I happened to come away with an Olympic gold medal. What do you want to come away with?”

Noting that life isn’t just the major events — it’s everything that occurs in between those events — she advised them not to race through each moment just to get to the next one.

“If I am given the opportunity to compete for the U.S. in the Rio Olympics, I want to be able to look back and remember what I went through to get there. When I won my Olympic gold medal in 2012, it was an extraordinary feeling. That feeling wouldn’t have been there had I just woken up and someone presented me with an Olympic gold medal. No, part of what made it extraordinary is that I was able to think back to everything that went into getting me and my 8 boatmates to the top podium. The sacrifices, the successes, the failures. Live all of the moments.”

Also speaking at the ceremony was playwright Tony Kushner, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for “Angels in America,” who was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.

Kushner said that getting an honorary degree is a little like being a fictional character. “It’s very, very nice, but let’s face it, it isn’t real… I’ve had nothing but fun in Ithaca on my way to this degree, while you guys had to work for your degrees, and work hard.”

Kushner issued a challenge of his own to the graduates. After running off a litany of the world’s current ills, from economic inequality and genocide to nuclear proliferation and refugee crises, he urged them to use what they have learned to change the order of the world.

“Parents, teachers, everything worked well enough to deliver you to our ailing and periled world’s doorstep. Now step over, enter and fix everything. That’s the real reason your parents and teachers and you worked so hard for your degrees. The world needs saving and you smart, educated Ithaca Collegians, you are the ones the world’s been waiting for. And time is running out. It really is actually running out.”

Also making remarks were Ithaca College president Tom Rochon, senior class co-president Mia O’Brien and board of trustees chairman Tom Grape ’80.

Rochon reminded the graduates of his Convocation address to them as freshmen four years ago, in which he welcomed them by quoting from the Constantine Cavafy poem “Ithaca,” a reworking of the story of Odysseus and his adventure-filled return to his home island.

“Every difficulty that Odysseus encountered on his journey… added to his skill in overcoming challenges and reinforced his understanding of the values that mattered to him most, which in his case was to get home to rejoin family. Well, your journey to this day has been has been shorter and I’m sure less terrifying than that of Odysseus, but I hope it has been equally rich in adding to your skills and reinforcing your values.

“It’s my privilege each year to offer a quotation, one that I hope will inspire you at key moments in your life to come,” said Rochon. “The quotation is engraved on the back of the medallion that you have been given. Like Commencement itself, these words look forward rather than back. The words are also Cavafy’s, from the same poem, but they express my parting wish to you: ‘I hope your journey is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery.’”