Lessons from Sochi*

I spent the first eighteen years of my life in Miami, Florida.  The result? I was pretty adept at running in scorching temperatures with 100% humidity.  That and… Winter sports were lost on me.  I did learn to be a fairly proficient downhill skier thanks to a very well off best friend whose father owned the biggest travel agency in South Florida, but I had no access to most winter sports.  The funny thing? For a person with a very limited history with cold weather, I have a huge affinity for the Winter Olympics.  This year I found myself watching a lot of the coverage just to see the competition play out.  Our DVR had very little available space thanks to this obsession, but I gained a few insights from all of that avid TV viewing.  Athletes regardless of their native land and regardless of their preferred sport display some amazing similarities.  The cold weather athletes in Sochi taught this fair weather triathlete a few things…

Sochi

The Importance of Control:
Marathoners, cyclists, curlers (Curlers?!), and alpine skiers all exhibit amazing amounts of control.  One of my favorite examples of control and self-awareness in sport is biathlon, an event that combines cross-country skiing and shooting.  I can’t imagine racing toward a shooting range, red-lining it on cross country skis, then stopping briefly and controlling my breathing and heart rate enough to hit a target the size of a golf ball.  The ability to race at just the right speed to quickly cover the course and still be able to shoot accurately is incredible.  Like biathletes, in triathlon we’re lucky enough to call on different skills during the same race, but a biathlete’s breathtaking sense of control inspires me to think about pacing and transitions in a whole new way.  In a race it is so easy to forget restraint, let loose, and let go, all the while risking the latter portion of the competition.  The mental focus and forethought biathletes exhibit would serve us all well.

The Importance of Resolve:
In triathlon we’re fortunate to have wave or mass starts; you and 500 of your closest friends all toe the line together.  While this might make for some scary swim conditions, it makes for great racing.  You know exactly where you stack up and where your competition is.  Many athletes at the Winter Olympics don’t have it so easy.  Long distance speed skaters race head-to-head two at a time but the real competition is most likely not the one other athlete he or she is on the track with.  The real competition could be in a heat far removed from their own.  Bobsledders have to compete ONE team at a time. They are constantly striving to have their best run because even a head-to-head match up isn’t a luxury their sport affords.  The resolve these winter athletes exhibit, always racing against the clock, is admirable and could teach us a thing or two about pushing ourselves to the limit without an audience, without competition, when no one is looking, and when no one is beside us.

The Importance of Support:
One of the best moments this year was American Noelle Pikus-Pace’s medal winning skeleton run.  When she crossed the finish and saw her blazing-fast time she literally jumped off the track and into the stands, all the while letting out yelps of joy and “We did it!  We did it!  We did it!”  Her elation was palpable.  It’s impossible to refrain from smiling when you see her reaction.  As you watch Noelle kiss her family members and soak up their love you get a sense of how important support is for every athlete.  Four years ago, Noelle placed a heart-breaking fourth place at the Olympic Games in Vancouver.  With the support of her family and friends she persevered and trained and worked tirelessly to return to this world stage.  As a triathlete it’s so hard for our family members to continuously and consistently support our hobby.  Our sacrifice usually means their sacrifice.  Having the support of those around you can change EVERYTHING.  (Just ask the three Russian men who rallied in the final meters of the men’s 50k cross country race with the help of the home crowd to sweep the podium in Sochi.) It’s important to nurture the relationships we have with our loved ones to keep that support structure strong and resilient.

The twenty-second Winter Olympiad was full of harrowing stories and important lessons.  I suspect wherever two or more athletes are gathered comradereie, competition, and learning experiences are created.  If you’re in the market for more life lessons and a healthy dose of inspiration, the Paralympics start March 7th.

Small Fish

In his new book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that sometimes conditions traditionally perceived as disadvantageous can actually be advantageous.  At first glance a fight between David and Goliath is a no-brainer.  Goliath is a giant who can crush the tiny shepherd with nary a thought, right?  Maybe not.   We initially fail to consider David’s speed, agility, and resourcefulness.  The small shepherd used the disparity in size to his advantage – to fight Goliath on his own terms, not the giant’s.  The book goes on to ponder the good that can come out of other less than desirable circumstances like large class size, dyslexia, being the underdog going into a game, and even losing a parent.  All of Gladwell’s chapters present fascinating data in a new light, but one chapter in particular stayed with me.  In this chapter, Gladwell tells the story of a woman, who while growing up, wanted a career in the sciences.  Through grade school, middle school, and high school she excelled in math and science, but when college rolled around something interesting happened.  She floundered.  She registered, attended, and studied for college-level science courses and she could not hold her own.  After a few semesters she completely changed her track, dropped the science classes, and ultimately majored and obtained a degree in a completely different field.  Why the change?  This woman who wanted to be a scientist for as long as she can remember, who admittedly still dreams of what could have been had she stayed the course, succeeded in the field she loves until she got to college and then everything fell apart.  The reason for the change, Gladwell theorizes, is this woman’s choice of college.  Instead of choosing a large state school, she chose to attend an Ivy League university.  And with that choice she went from being a very big (successful) fish in a small pond, to a very small fish in a very big pond.  Was she still smart and driven?  Sure, but no more so than everyone else around her.  She didn’t stand out at Brown or have the feelings of success or accomplishment that she would have enjoyed had she attended a school with a less prestigious student body.  When she looked around her organic chemistry class she felt inferior for the first time in her life.  Would she be a scientist today if she went to the University of Maryland instead of Brown?  Probably.  In her case, attending an Ivy League school, something almost all of us think of as being an advantage, turned out to be a disadvantage.

This season, I, like the woman Gladwell introduced to us, went from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a very very big pond.  This change was not lost on me.  Going into the 2013 season I was quite worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle the stress or the expectations of racing as an elite athlete.  My first race as a professional triathlete, the women’s pro field included Leanda Cave, Mirinda Carfrae, ITU superstars, and past Ironman champions.  Not only was I worried about my race, I was worried about my performance compared to these women’s performances.  I was worried about my swim, my bike, my run, and my ego.  Going into 2013, I thought it would be fun to race as a professional for a year – experience the perks, rub shoulders with the big dogs, check the box, and move on with life.  Not surprisingly I found myself toward the middle or bottom of many race results.  Surprisingly, even though my ego took a hit, my spirit wasn’t dampened.  Unlike the woman in Gladwell’s book, as the season went on, I became more emboldened, more motivated.  I might have been a small fish, but I was a small fish with big dreams.  After competing in nine half ironman distance races and qualifying for Worlds 70.3, I decided to add one more race to the 2013 calendar – Ironman Florida.  The last time I did an Ironman I was burnt literally and figuratively.  Soon after the race I told my coach that the full distance wasn’t for me and I would never toe the line at one of these races again.  But racing my heart out this season as a small fish changed something. I wasn’t going to let anything intimidate me – not a pro start list, not a hurtful comment, not one bad race, and certainly not a race distance.  The result?  A huge PR.  In Florida I covered 140.6 miles in nine hours and thirty-eight minutes.  (I am happy with the time but never ever satisfied.)

Changing ponds can be pretty amazing… And this small fish?  She’s gettin’ bigger.

My good side... Bringing it home.

My good side…
Bringing it home in Panama City.