Without question, we all strive to do the very best that we can. And, it probably goes without saying, that, to a large extent, we are limited only by our own capabilities. Be it singers, actors, athletes or even students, from a very early age, prodigies often make themselves known to those around them. The challenge often faced by those that show such tremendous early success is to maintain exceptional levels of performance. This is very often easier said than done.

Born October 12, 1975, Marion Jones showed great talent even as a very young athlete. At age 8, living near Los Angeles, her family traveled to watch the torch relay leading up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. In fact, that very night, she went to her bedroom and wrote on a chalkboard, ”I want to be an Olympic champion.” Her destiny was made at that very young moment. She set her dreams in motion with a dogged pursuit.

By the time she reached high school, she broke several records in track and field including winning the California state championship in the 100 meter sprint for four straight years. Before her senior year, she was offered a spot on the American 4 x 100-meter relay in the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain. For reasons that are not entirely clear, she declined to participate. In fact, in 2000, Jere Longman wrote in The New York Times: “Depending on who is telling the story, Jones either wanted her first gold to come in an individual event or her mother would not let her participate because her grades were insufficient.’’

After winning further statewide sprint titles in high school, Jones accepted a full scholarship to attend the University of North Carolina in basketball, where she helped her team win the NCAA championship in her freshman year. However, despite her success on the basketball court, Jones later made the decision to concentrate on track and field and to pursue her Olympic dreams from childhood. From that point forward, she became a dominant figure in women’s track and field, winning several consecutive 100 meter championships on a world stage.

Then came Jones’ shining moment. In the 2000 Summer Olympics, she became the first female athlete to take five medals – three gold and two bronze. Despite striving for five gold medals, this was an unrivaled accomplishment and she was without question the media darling of those Olympic Games. For the next several years, she continued to show success, but not quite at the same level, until 2006 when she came roaring back to top form, clocking her fastest times in nearly four years.

From her childhood prophecy to the top spot on the Olympic medal podium, Marion Jones was a true icon within track and field and a role model to young girls all across the world. But what came next was nothing short of devastating – to Jones, her teammates and aspiring athletes the world over. Despite taking years to admit to her wrongdoings, finally in October 2007 Jones tearfully admitted to using banned, performance enhancing steroids prior to the 2000 Summer Olympics. She publically stated, “…with a great amount of shame…I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust…and you have the right to be angry with me… I have let my country down and I have let myself down.” And just a couple of weeks ago, on April 10, 2008, Jones’ former relay teammates paid the harshest price for her doping offenses, losing their gold and bronze medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The lessons to be learned from Marion’s experiences are many. While striving to be the very best is a commendable pursuit, we must always remember to do so without veering from one’s moral compass – by breaking rules or laws. To do so in order to achieve a higher standing is not only inexcusable, but can bring immense pain to many innocent bystanders. For me, being 2nd, 3rd or 4th best in the world of track and field, as Marion would very likely have been had she not taken performance enhancing substances, is a far greater achievement than the path she chose.

Furthermore, what is amazing to realize from Marion’s story is the fact that this truly world-class athlete suffered from insecurities. You may be asking yourself how such an incredibly capable competitor could lack confidence in herself. But how many of us fail to attempt things in our lives simply because we don’t believe we can do them. I have been fortunate in my life to have people around me who encouraged, even pushed me [reluctantly at times], to reach beyond my comfort zone. What they instilled in me was the understanding that failure is acceptable and, in many ways, desirable for it rewards us with lessons that could not otherwise be learned.

Marion could have remained a true superstar within track and field if she simply understood the valuable insights that her story offers to all of us. As hard as it may be at times to reject myriad shortcuts that may seem harmless at the time, I have gotten comfortable over the years taking challenging, but more honorable, paths to achievement. I might have gotten where I am today faster had I taken “other” paths, but I so enjoy sleeping well at night knowing that I practice authentic leadership, as Heidi Forbes Öste talks about in her Women Sharing Wisdom blog.

Nina nets it out: Striving to achieve the very best is something we all should do each and every day. But never forget that honesty will always win out over false achievement. Also, don’t let personal insecurities wreak havoc on your decision-making. Rather, have confidence in your abilities and strive for your personal best. While we may each be our own worst critics, we are also our own best competition. Please share your own stories of times you chose the more difficult “high road” versus taking a seemingly easier, but less-than-honorable path.