4 Life Lessons From Not Making the Olympic Team

I booked our flights to attend the London 2012 Olympics this week.

It’s almost a no brainer for us to go: two of my good friends will be racing and representing Canada in the Women’s 8+ rowing event. They have an excellent chance of not only making the podium but winning. Since we’re now just a few hundred miles from London, instead of several thousand, I haven’t had a tough time convincing my husband that this trip will be worth it. Add on that my sister is now living in London (and we have a free place to stay) and you can understand how easy it was to decide to go.

We’re excited to don red and white t-shirts and cheer on Team Canada with other rowing fans.

But there’s a small difference between me and the other supporters we’ll be seated with: I was seconds away from being an Olympian myself in 2004.

I lived and breathed the sport of rowing for over a decade. I was a junior champion. I received a full athletic scholarship to one of the top collegiate rowing programs in the USA. I represented Canada internationally in over a half dozen events. I wore the red and white racing suit, I was in the boat when the umpire called out “Canada, Lane 3″ and I crossed the finish line with a bronze medal at the 2003 World Rowing Championships where me and eight other women secured a spot for Canada at the 2004 Olympics.

But I never made it to the Olympics. I came close but I was beaten by athletes that were faster and stronger than me that year.

You might think that coming so close to a such huge goal, and then not making it, would haunt a person. That watching a sporting event, seeing athletes sing their national anthem as the flags are raised, would fill me with pangs of regret and thoughts of what could have been.

But it doesn’t.

I’ve learned more from failure than winning. Eight years after my sporting dreams ended I can honestly say, I’m okay with not making it to the Olympics.

Life has continued, blossomed and brought so many surprising and wonderful events since I retired from rowing. While I don’t have the title of Olympian after my name I have a rich life that wouldn’t be any richer with an Olympic gold medal.

What I did gain from my years of training, racing and then not getting the brass ring are lessons in how to deal with adversity with a smile on your face.

1.) It’s not what happens, it’s how you deal with it.

I’m at the starting line with my teammates for the most important race of my rowing career and what will end up being the pinnacle of my athletic success.

A raging cross tail wind has turned the first half of the 2000 metre rowing course into a frothing mess.

There is nothing fair about these conditions. The boats on one side of the course will get the brunt of the wind. Being hit by a wind from the side will not only challenge the rowers to keep the boat running smoothly through the water but it will require the coxswain, the person steering the boat and calling the race plan out to the athletes, to use the boat’s steering mechanism to keep the boat within the lanes. More steering slows the boat down.

Our boat is on the windy side of the course.

Am I lamenting the poor conditions before the race has even started? Am I thinking how unfair this is and wishing and hoping that the umpires will announce a race delay because of the wind?

No.

I think to myself, I love a tail wind. Bring it on. Throw more wind at us. We’re ready. I’m ready.

Life will throw you curve balls as soon as you think you have it all figured out. You may get bad news upon bad news. You will experience loss, disappointment and frustration at your job, with your family and at the grocery store.

Don’t let your story be about the tragedy or the stumbling blocks. Let your story be about how you dealt with it. Did you let the wind beat you mentally and physically or did you go out there and forget about lane advantages and just race.

Learning to focus on my actions, rather than the challenges, helped me pick up the pieces and find new dreams and goals when I failed to make the Olympic team. It wasn’t easy. I spent a lot of money buying shoes on eBay and tanning (I know – shame on me) to soothe my disappointment. But I also slowly built new dreams and plans. I moved on.

2.) Real friends care about who you are, not what you have.

The national team coach during my rowing era used to ask us, who do you want to go to war with? It was a question that not only affirmed your belief and confidence in your teammates but also made you want to be a better soldier. You wanted to be that person that everyone knew would carry them on their shoulders through the trenches.

I never raced at the Olympics or walked in an Opening Ceremony with the world watching. I don’t have those mementos or memories. But I have something better: fiercely loyal friends that have stuck by me through failure and success. Not making the team didn’t end my friendship with my teammates that did make the team. And in the years since then we’ve kept our friendships despite some long distances. We’ve met up for reunion weekends in snow and sun, celebrated marriages and welcomed new babies.

I don’t have an Olympic medal but I have the friendship of women I respect, admire and would get on a plane for in a heartbeat if they needed me. None of them care that I never went to the Olympics or that I only own two pairs of jeans.

There is a saying in rowing to “keep something in your back pocket” for the third 500 metres of the race. It’s usually the toughest section of the race, before you get a whiff of the finish line and start sprinting. The race can be won or lost in the third 500 metres. I’m thousands of miles away from some of my closest friends but I’ve always got them in my back pocket should I need them. And they know they’ve got me.

Surround yourself with people that like you for who you are – not what you have.

3.) The journey, not the result, is the reward.

I’ve just had the best performance of my rowing career. Everything I thought I wanted I now have.

And yet… I’m not happy.

I realize this as we cross the Atlantic on our return flight from Italy. I had pinned my happiness on a result, on making the team and winning, and now that I have that I see that success doesn’t instantly produce day to day happiness and fulfillment. For many years I had told myself “if I make the team, if I have success, I’ll be happier.” But the truth was that while winning a medal at the World Championships was exhilarating and rewarding for all the work I had put in to it, it didn’t make me smile more.

After getting what I thought was the key to happiness, and not finding it there, I decided to stop complaining about things I couldn’t control. No more counting down the workouts left for the week and no more complaining about 27 consecutive days of rain. I decided to be happy in that day and that moment. I couldn’t control the weather but I could find it in myself to put a positive spin on a tough training week. I could be happy, even if I didn’t make the Olympic team.

If you’re just hanging on for the weekends or summer break or until you hit early retirement, you’re not living. If you’re telling yourself you’ll be happy when you have X amount of money or when you move or when frogs fall from the sky, you’re lying to yourself.

The brass ring won’t make you happy.

You have to find happiness in the day to day. Be it the minutiae of the school run or the daily grind of training for the Olympics.

4.) Take chances.

People die everyday, Frankie – mopping floors, washing dishes and you know what their last thought is? I never got my shot. – Million Dollar Baby

There was a brief period in my early 20′s when my rowing dream was at a standstill. I was at my first post-university job. I had a ‘normal’ life. I was half-heartedly training but knew that if I wanted to make it to the Olympics I would have to quit the job, live off of my meager savings and credit cards and start training full-time.

So, with no real plan on how I would manage it financially, I quit my job and moved to Victoria, British Columbia to train full-time.

I remember when I told my coworkers that I was leaving work a few of them were baffled by my choice. I had a decent job and I was young. I was throwing away some good earning years for a dream with no guarantee.

Before I left I told my mom that I wasn’t sure how I would do it. How would I pay the bills? How would I survive? She told me, jump and the net will appear. It will work out, she said.

She was right.

I got my shot. I had my chance and I swung high and I came close but in the end I didn’t make it.

Take a chance. Even when you’re scared of falling on your face or when you think the odds are too great, the road far too long and the days much too short to pursue your dreams.

Some people never get that chance. Some people don’t even have the opportunity to dream impossible dreams. So when you get an opportunity, when your chance comes, take it. There is no regret in failure, only in not trying at all.

***

Some days it seems far away, my former life as an athlete. My hands are soft now and the cracked and blistered palms of my training days are long healed and forgotten.

Occasionally I’ll be at the gym and hop on the rowing machine. After a few minutes of disjointed strokes it comes back. I get into a rhythm and I can remember what it felt like to race side by side with my friends and teammates. I can hear the sound of the oars turning in the oar locks, the blades releasing from the water and remember what it felt like to sense that boat next to you, to hear the coach yell out a rate change, feel your legs kick harder, your hands move faster and feel your boat surge ahead.

You’re in the zone, your focus is strong and your body is taking the thousands of miles and years of training and making it all look effortless. There is nothing else in that moment to think of except asking your body to dig deeper. It’s painful. Your lungs tighten and your hamstrings are on fire but you find it.

It feels like flying.

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Comments

  1. Rachel says

    This is really beautiful. I am still processing a major failure that happened 1.5 years ago. I’m not yet to the place of peace you describe. I really appreciate this, it brought tears to my eyes.

  2. Sid says

    Oh your description of rowing makes me miss it so much! I was never even remotely near your level but spent a ton of time on Elk Lake in highschool, mostly as a cox. I’ve found nothing so far that can compare to the feeling of a perfectly coordinated eight rowing across a quiet lake on a cold crisp morning.

    • theminimalistmom says

      There is something magical about it when it all comes together, a calm morning, everyone working hard together, and feeling the run of the boat through the water. That’s what keeps you training on the days when it’s not so perfect!

      Nice to meet another former Elk Lake rower :)

  3. se7en says

    I love this post, I love your lessons and I think you shared it all beautifully!!! I so hope you enjoy the Olympics close up , wish I was there!!!

  4. Lauren says

    This is beautiful, powerful, incredible writing. As a former rower – not to mention as a human – this really speaks to me, although your message is universal. So many truths here. I can’t wait to share this piece with others. Thanks for making time to write this.

  5. Teddi says

    I really appreciated this post. Thank you for it. I especially appreciate #4. We’re so afraid of failing that we don’t take the leap to try to succeed. Hearing your story that it doesn’t end you but even the journey is worth it makes it easier to try that crazy idea.

    • theminimalistmom says

      It’s hard to open yourself up to the possibility of failure and disappointment. I’m now in another arena that can break your heart (writing) but failures aside, it’s still worth it to pursue what seems out of grasp.

      I’m so glad I went for it. So glad I’m not sitting here at 34 with a husband and child and thinking, I missed my chance.

  6. Holly says

    What a great post! As a former rower, I can relate to much of it, especially the pain of the last 500m and the surge of energy as you approach the finish. It makes me want to get back in the boat! I was a high school rower who spent many weekends at regattas on Elk Lake. I’m glad that your experiences have brought you so much. Have an amazing time at the Olympics! We’ll be cheering for the Women’s 8+ here in Vancouver!

    • theminimalistmom says

      Another rower!! Fun to see all of us coming out of the woodwork.
      Feels like once you’ve rowed, even if you haven’t been in a boat in years, you’re still a rower. It gets in your blood.

  7. Katy says

    I got teary eyed reading this. The life lessons from our rowing years have been on the tip of my tongue for almost a decade and your posts so vividly and accurately describes them. It was cathartic to read.

    Here is my freaky twin comment on this post: have you every realized that we both won bronze medals for Canada on the same lake, 6 years apart?

  8. shelly says

    This is an amazing post Rachel! You have such an amazing network of friends from your rowing days and I’m so lucky to sometimes be adopted into your group, in a tag along little sister sort of way!

  9. Nathalie says

    Beautiful post! I’ll go as far as saying that it is quite possibly my favourite post of yours since I’ve been reading!
    “So when you get an opportunity, when your chance comes, take it. There is no regret in failure, only in not trying at all.” I LOVE that part- so true!!!
    I am excited about the Olympics, but for you it must be so much more special :-) I hope you’ll enjoy it!

  10. Roz says

    got shivers, teared up and was thankful for the great experiences and friends. thank you for sharing and capturing the whole thing so well.
    have fun in London!

  11. Chloe Banks says

    This really moved me. I was a track and cross-country athlete here in the UK and although I was never going to make it to international standard – maybe not even national standard – my coach thought I could be really good. Not great, but really good. I would have given up anything to do it all but I have weak joints. As the years went by I spent more and more time out with injuries. All I wanted was to get a shot to be the best I could be – so I knew where my limit was – but it never happened. In the end I had to quit running for good. But I don’t for one second regret that I gave it a shot, or all those early mornings/long sessions/hear-breaks that came in between the medals. It made me who I am. Thanks for reminding me of that!

    PS: I’ve just had the pleasure of meeting your twin, who told me about your blog!

  12. Pauline Van Roessel says

    Awesome post Rachel.

    Even though I knew the ending, and knew the story, I love your spin on it all. It is so true.
    I teared up several times.
    And I’m at work – I need to read these at home.
    Lovely to read and oh, so true!!!!

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