What is winning?

I had a dream once. Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to go to the Olympics. Technically, I did; I went to watch the Basketball at the London 2012 Games with the hope one day I would represent Team GB at the Winter Olympic Games. Alas, this goal never materialised. I failed. With the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games completed, I have been reflecting a lot on my athletic past and how I am able to look back and say I’m glad I failed. You may be reading this thinking “what?!”….let me explain.

As I have had some time off from work recently, I have managed to watch most of the Olympic Games on TV and I have been listening to what the commentators have said about each athlete: their backgrounds, their expectations and their performances. I’ve also been closely watching their reactions; were they happy, devastated or satisfied? Everyone goes to the Olympics to give their best effort whilst having the honour of representing their country and being in a unique environment where people from all over the world come together to embrace the Olympic values, to become ambassadors for the Olympic Movement. It’s quite remarkable and those of you who watched the Opening Ceremony may have felt a little wave of emotion when you watched the North and South Koreans walk out into the arena under the same flag as part of a unified team. That moment really touched me because to me it symbolises what the Olympism is all about. The Olympics is where we put politics aside and no matter where we are from or who we are (athletes, coaches, officials, volunteers, spectators), we are able to watch sport at its very best and respect the performances and achievements of every athlete. Some highlights for me so far have been Lizzie Yarnold & Laura Deas’s medals in the Skeleton, Andrew Musgrave’s 7th place in the Skiathon, Ester Ledecka’s victory in the Super-G, Mark McMorris delivering a strong performance in the Snowboard Slopestyle after having previously suffered some severe injuries…the list goes on.

Whilst I have just mentioned mostly performances of those who have achieved a podium position in the Olympics, winning can be more than just a trophy, medal or some sort of prize. ‘Winning’ is defined as gaining, resulting in, or relating to a victory in a contest or competition. But I think that is just the tip of the iceberg!

Lets explore the very best, the elite of the elite, the obvious winners: the Olympic & World Champions amongst us! Those who win on the world stage have sacrificed a lot to get to where they are, so much more than we perhaps could ever imagine or come to comprehend unless we have been there ourselves. To attain and maintain world domination in their sport, they don’t just win; they win at all costs. To me, this means making absolutely everything you do be solely for the purpose of benefiting your athletic career to bring about success. Often, when you read articles or listen to interviews about what makes those top athletes so exceptionally good, phrases along the lines of “I work my hardest”, “He/She sets the bar high for his/herself”, “He/She’s very intrinsically motivated”, “I always try and do better” may be used to describe them. Additionally, some will say winning at all costs means working the hardest; whilst that may be true, I can’t quite fully agree with the notion.

If you, like me, are a dedicated athlete, you can apply the above descriptions to yourself. However, most of us cannot sacrifce absolutely everything and entirelty engross ourselves in our training and prepartion for compeittions, which is why we cannot win in the way the very best perceive the concept of winning. Looking at the 2018 Olympians, it is very easy for me to say ‘well that could have been me’. Yes, perhaps it could, but fundamentally I was unable to win at all costs, otherwise I would be in South Korea right now instead of Paris. In the perspective of winning at all costs, I lost, I failed in achieving my childhood dreams. Nonetheless, I still won, just in a different way; let’s explore.

The last season I did before retiring as an athlete was the toughest. I worked incredibly hard over the summer, beginning the European winter at the fittest level I had ever been. I made very good progress in training in Giant Slalom and found new speed in Slalom, but for some reason I couldn’t transfer that into two runs of a race. This led me to believe even if you work hard, it doesn’t always pay off. When I was deciding whether to continue my ski racing career just under three years ago, I came up with the idea of a parachute. A parachute is composed of many strings and I drew one out on a sheet of A3 paper, using a different coloured pen to label each string with a factor or circumstance I believed was holding me back from being the best I could be. To reach the next level, I would have to let go of all of those strings; to cut them lose. Otherwise all the drag created by the parachute would prevent me from skiing fast. I reviewed each string and decided they were not things I could remove. I would always have my parachute holding me back and I would be unable to ski to my full, fastest potential, no matter how hard I worked or how much I may have wanted to. I was unable to win at all costs. Hence I decided to swap my lycra ski suit for a pilot uniform, shortly after I began learning to fly during some time off in the pre-season training period.

Although I did not achieve my childhood dream and win in that sense, I won in many other ways. I am part of the first generation of Youth Olympians and that is an achievement I shall never lose. Those of us who have the privilege of being a part of the YOG family (whether athletes, volunteers, etc) are exposed to a unique environment where we are immersed in a learning culture, having opportunities to network with role models, champions and most importantly young people from all over the world. Only a very small number of Youth Olympians progress to the Olympic Games (6 to 10%) but we are all winners. In the closing ceremony of the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games, Jacques Rogge (the former president of the IOC) addressed us with the following words:

“Dear athletes, we have been inspired by your conduct, not only on the snow and ice, but also during the Culture and Education Programme. You embody the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect. More than anyone, you are responsible for the great success of these Games and now it is up to you to take the spirit of Innsbruck back to your countries. By earning the title Youth Olympian, you are role models for your generation and you have started something special in Innsbruck. No matter what happens in your sports career, from this point all of you are equipped to become future leaders.”

Despite not delivering the performances I had hoped for in my events at Innsbruck, I took away with me far more than any medal is worth. I won tools and perspectives which would grow to be the foundations of who I am today. From my sporting career, I learnt what it means to work hard, to be patient, to be graceful in both moments of success and failure, to overcome any challenge life throws at me and to remain true to myself and who I am no matter what.

Whilst deciding to retire from my athletic career is still to this day the hardest decision I have had to make in my life, I would not change the choice I made and the fact I failed at achieving my dreams. Reflecting back, I now appreciate I failed at ski racing because it was those failures and short-comings which have moulded me into who I am today. I can reflect on my time as a ski racer with no regrets. It would be very easy for me to feel disappointed and wish I had become an Olympian, fulfilling my childhood dream. However, I have really begun to appreciate just how valuable the twelve years of my ski racing career have been. I don’t think an athletic career should be measured by statistics, I think the true measure of success is what you learn from the experience, the challenges you overcame, the battles you won and how competitive sport has enabled you to take the non-technical skills developed as an athlete into the world beyond elite sport. Hence why I now see my failures in skiing as successes and for me, the biggest achievement from my sporting career is who it made me, not how many medals or trophies I won.

Over the last few weeks I have seen some of the Olympians in PyeongChang experience moments of pure joy and some of utter despair, others displaying emotions somewhere in between. Each athlete has reacted differently to their performances based on their expectations, hopes and dreams. I see the medallists and wonder if they were satisfied? Those who win bronze or silver, do they think ‘I could have won gold’? Those who win gold, do they think ‘I could have won by more’? When is enough enough? Wherever they have finished, whether their results are what they were aspiring to achieve or not, every single athlete competing in PyeongChang is a winner. Every Olympian comes home from the Olympic Games with the honour of having represented their country in the most prestigious sporting event. If they achieved their goals then that is fantastic and very admirable, if however they did not, they are still winners as it is failing which teaches us the most about ourselves.

Failure can therefore be turned into success if we accept it, learn from it and become better individuals because of it. Winning in the conventional sense only lasts for a very small amount of time on one day. That’s it. All you get is a medal or a trophy. An athlete’s career is so short compared to the average life span of a human being and can end at any moment, which is why we should live in the moment and make the most of it whilst it last; giving our best efforts but also graciously accepting defeat and use it to make us stronger. We should be able to look back at our accomplishments, both failures and successes, with pride and with no feelings of regret.

When we all reach the end of our athletic careers, regardless of what we have or have not achieved, we are all winners. We all come away with essential non-technical skills which can be applied to any career in the working world beyond our sports. That is the key. We should take these skills, adapt them to our new professions and use our athletic backgrounds to bring something extra to the world of work. We can transfer our passion, skills and values developed from our sporting careers to give back to our communities and embody the use of sport to create responsible, active and engaging citizens.

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