With the Summer and Winter Olympics only 5 months apart (thanks covid), the world of amateur sport hasn’t had a dull moment. For many sports, it is the pinnacle event, it is the culmination of all the training, and the moment you dream of since you were a little kid. There is no bigger stage and no bigger event.
Growing up I always loved the Olympics and as a proud Canadian, the Winter Olympics were my favourite. Ice hockey, figure skating, speed skating, I couldn’t get enough of it. I remember the gold medal moments, and the athletes that became household names overnight. And, I find myself once again glued to the TV during the Beijing Olympics.
The Reality of the Games
When I made my first Olympic team this past summer and entered the village, I realized something. Out of everyone competing at the Games, it is only a sliver of athletes that will walk away with a medal. In fact, most Olympians won’t stand on the podium, meaning most of us go home empty handed. And it’s those stories we rarely hear.
I think there is something to be learned from the athletes who don’t “make it” in the traditional Olympic glory sense. Those that come home and feel like they didn’t accomplish their goal that they have been working for at a minimum the last 4 years, but in reality their entire lives. I was one of those athletes who didn’t “make it”, and most of my teammates also walked away without a medal just like me. At the same time, some of my teammates came home as Olympic champions with medals dangling around their necks.
Expectations vs Reality
Going into the Olympics I was confident and hopeful – and I don’t encourage a strategy of hope alone, but I felt optimistic. We hadn’t raced in over a year (once again, thanks covid) and I felt that anything was possible. I had trained hard, was in the shape of my life, had a great support system at home and was ready. My rowing partner and I have a great relationship, and our agreed upon goal was to have our best race and to enjoy every moment.
I wanted to medal, but our goal was focused on having our best performance on the day. If we did that, we would walk away with our heads held high, no matter the result. We knew we had speed, and we knew that all we could control was ourselves. Execution would yield the result. Sounds great, right?
It was great.. until it wasn’t. Slowly doubt crept into the boat and our training camp was off to a rocky start. We started to not row like ourselves and struggled to find a rhythm we recognized. Suddenly, our ability to execute a race we were proud of seemed to be an impossible goal. I stayed optimistic and my confidence from our previous training helped me keep my head on straight, but the cracks were there. In a competitive event like ours, where one second separated being an Olympic champion from coming fifth, a crack in the foundation is game over.
We ended up 12th. And not a 12th place finish where I walked away going, “well that’s just where we are, that was our best race and we aren’t fast enough.” I walked away going, “what in the world just happened.” I had never experienced that level of defeat before. Usually if I don’t succeed, I have a good cry and feel sorry for myself that I’m not fast enough. But this was different, I left the race, the Olympics in shock. It was not the Olympic racing I had emotionally planned for, and it left me with a million questions and no answers.
Onwards and Upwards
After the Olympics I finally got to see my family again. I hadn’t seen my parents since Christmas of 2019 because of the pandemic, so it was time for some much-needed rest and relaxation. At home I was unpacking what had just happened and I didn’t really want to talk about it. Even now, I still haven’t watched our races and I don’t have the emotional capacity to do so. I think it’ll be a while before I get there.
After a bit of time, I started getting the questions… what’s your plan? Will you keep rowing? Will you get a job? What do you want to do? I’m 29 years-old and going into the Games I was undecided of my future. I figured that the Games would help me make up my mind one way or another. Instead, I left even more unsure of what I should do next.
Part of me wanted to return to rowing because I didn’t want to have Tokyo be my last experience. I wanted to walk away from the sport knowing I did what I set out to do. But at the same time fear and doubt racked my mind. I wrote in my diary before our final race, saying that I believed in myself and that I was meant to be there. It is a vulnerable place to back yourself like that, only to fall short. I had a fear of being that vulnerable again, of putting myself through that kind of emotional experience, and not knowing if I could handle the pain if it went sideways again.
Finding the Why
When deciding what came next, I had to decide what my why is. The Olympics taught me that most people don’t walk away with a medal and competing for that reason alone is a dangerous mindset. I needed to figure out my why, and if I did that, I could then decide my next steps.
This wonderful quote was shared with me after the Games.
“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the future generations.”
George Bernard Shaw
When I heard that quote, I figured out ‘my why’. I resonated so deeply with the thought of life being a torch that we get for a moment. My why, is that I want to live my life to the fullest, and that means taking a dip into the unknown and opening myself up again to live in a place of vulnerability.
I still love rowing, and I want to throw everything into this sport and this experience. Chasing your dreams is hard but I think it is worth it.
So, as you watch the Olympic and Paralympic Games, be inspired by the gold medal moments and triumphs, but recognize that even in defeat there is another version of a gold medal moment unfolding.