It’s a good mirror test for every man: look yourself in the eye in the morning and ask yourself how much time and talent you’ve wasted. It’s like asking how much better you could already be. “I take nothing for granted,” says Mario West. With reason: West’s biological mother was a heroin user. He entered foster care in the home of his now-adoptive mother, Lisa West, when he was just three weeks old, and doctors told her he’d probably been born addicted.

“He was jittery, stiff. I couldn’t put him down,” she says. As West grew, he had learning disabilities and trouble with fine motor skills. But then came a flash of something else. When he was three, Lisa took him to the circus. “One of the performers rode with him on an acrobat’s bike,” she says. “And for no apparent reason, Mario stood up on the handlebar and did a flip off it. He landed on his face, knocked out a tooth and needed 17 stitches.”

From that day on, he was a gymnast. He’s 18 now, and headed to Ohio State University on a gymnastics scholarship. He has a shot at qualifying for the United States national team and then the Olympics. It’s a funny way to fall in love with something, but we’re often driven to defy physical challenges. We try something, it hurts and we want to make it hurt less – not by avoiding it, but by succeeding at it. Sure, any 18-year-old kid can build his body.

But West? His pursuit of fitness has led him to a fractured sternum, ankle and fingers. At a national team qualifying event last year, he fell and broke his foot. Shoulder tendinitis and knee problems create daily pain. Still, he persists. “I just thought success was the only option,” he says. “Gymnastics trains your mind to think like that. Even when you did well, you have to do better. Success is the only way.” Think of that the next time a muscle burn slows you down. “I delete everything I can in my brain because I know if I don’t do something right, I’ll be ticked off about it,” West says. “So I tell myself, Your fear, your anger don’t matter. Finish your job. Most times, it works.” The other times, he guts it out.