The Olympics sow a common dream, that children can one day become champions. The triumphant music, the billowing flags, and the rags-to-riches vignettes lure us into believing that gold medals and Wheaties boxes are available to any child who dreams big enough. One athlete whose backstory will be front and center this week in Rio is Paralympian Dartanyon Crockett. Dartanyon won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Games in the sport of blind judo, and he arrives in Brazil ranked second in the world in his weight class. When I met him in 2009, he was transient, hungry, and had never heard of judo. At first glance, Dartanyon fits the underdog narrative that we crave in our sports stories. But when you scratch beneath the glossy surface, you’ll find it takes more than a dream to make it out of where he came from.
Dartanyon is legally blind. Born with optic neuropathy, a condition that causes vision loss, he can barely make out the facial features of a person sitting a few feet away. His mother died when he was 8 years old; he then went to live with his father, in a crack house. Dartanyon attended a high school in Cleveland, Ohio, with a graduation rate of less than 40 percent. I met him there when I was a feature producer at ESPN, and he was a senior on the wrestling team. My story was focused in part on his accomplishments as a visually impaired wrestler, where at 5-foot-7 with muscles bunched like walnuts, he was a winner in multiple weight classes. He achieved this success despite subsisting on the soggy mozzarella sticks and bruised apples served in cafeteria lunches.
Dartanyon told me that he wanted to wrestle in college the following year and one day attend law school. In the next breath, he admitted that he had never been on a college visit and hadn’t taken his SATs because he didn’t have the $26. As I filmed in his classes, I noticed something curious. He would doodle the phrase “Destined For Greatness” on the tops of his papers.
He knew how to hope for his dreams. He didn’t know how to hope toward them. He had the will, but he didn’t know the way. Worse, he didn’t know he lacked a way. He seemed oblivious to the damning limitations on his life. And as I would soon discover, Dartanyon’s poverty was even more disabling than his visual impairment.
I was raised with Olympic-sized ideals and the belief that with determination and perseverance, one could overcome any circumstance. And yet as I met Dartanyon’s extended family, I was struck by how hardship engulfed multiple generations of families. Nearly everyone I met struggled with unemployment, poverty, or addiction. Why wasn’t the “determination + perseverance = success” formula working?
As I sat and listened and pieced together the personal stories, one fact grew clear: My blueprint for betterment was critically flawed. Families like the Crocketts had inherited their history. They were born into a set of disadvantaged conditions that cascaded into subsequent negative outcomes. As children, they attended underfunded schools and returned home to overstressed, oftentimes single parents who were not equipped to nurture their emotional development. As teens, while their parents worked, many turned to the streets looking for a sense of belonging and a cure to boredom. They moved frequently and experienced more episodes of hunger, homelessness, and unemployment than children living above the poverty line.
Your money, your family, your security, your will, your future. Poverty takes a percentage of everything, indefinitely, until the cycle is broken.
Yet Dartanyon wasn’t told this as a child. He was only told to dream. And so he believed he was destined for greatness instead of a statistical sentence. After sitting beside him in abject poverty for several months, I agreed. And then I decided to do something about it.
After harnessing donations from ESPN viewers who were inspired by his story, I helped Dartanyon apply for college and lined up the resources he’d need to succeed. The publicity drew the attention of the U.S. Paralympic Committee, which offered him residency at the Olympic Training Center to study and train in the sport of blind judo. Housing, a competitive outlet, and three meals a day—we had found his winning lottery ticket, I thought. My work was finished.
I was wrong. Dartanyon began failing at every turn. He failed his classes, failed to get up for morning weight lifting, failed to adjust socially to his now stable environment. What might seem like minor setbacks feel like major threats to an individual who has lived in the toxic stress of poverty, and Dartanyon often shut down in the face of daily challenges. His childhood taught him to endure his circumstances, but nothing and no one in his life showed him that he could overcome them.
Dartanyon’s pathway out required more than handing him opportunities. The journey required constant support over many years. It required a love free of strings and full of patience. Dartanyon and I worked tirelessly to reprogram the debilitating mindsets he carried out of poverty and take strides toward self-sufficiency: He learned how to pay a bill, plan ahead, have conversations with those in authority, utilize community resources, and develop healthy interpersonal relationships. Of equal importance, he learned to verbalize his traumas, to talk about them rather than shroud them in shame. Talking became like oxygen. It gave him life. And as he came to understand the history he had inherited, he grew less likely to repeat it.
And this is where it can get uncomfortable for those preferring to punt to a government program, because poverty has less to do with running out of money and everything to do with running out of useful personal relationships. The effective choice is to share in another’s vulnerability, to enter into their weaknesses and uncertainty. The courageous act is to speak healing truths that make souls stronger. The necessary investment from those of us in positions of strength is to put the needs of another before our own, even when inconvenient.
Our country is crying out for people who will cross the divide—who will venture into poverty, take a seat, learn the stories, and respond with love. People who make a difference in the world don’t wait to see if someone else will do something. They are willing to feed one family, educate one child, and mend one broken heart.
Today, Dartanyon is thriving. He is the 2014 blind judo world champion, a UNICEF ambassador, and a motivational speaker. He is pursuing a degree in social work so that he can one day help kids who grew up as he did. He said he’s learned that the difference between success and failure is having just one person who believes in you. He now wants to be that person for others.
If you see Dartanyon on the medal stand in Rio, resist getting too swept up in the music and fanfare. Remember the scores of children like him who believe they too are destined for greatness, yet are unknowingly thwarted by socioeconomic barriers. Politicians talk about reviving the American Dream, but it’s up to us as individuals to strengthen this ideal by developing relationships with those in need. And when we do, we will find that connection breeds compassion, and out of compassion, the will to act. Ultimately we will find that we can only change this world when we enter into another’s world.
Lisa Fenn is an Edward R. Murrow- and six-time Emmy Award-winning feature producer. She is the author of Carry On: A Story of Resilience, Redemption, and an Unlikely Family, available now from Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers