Advice from an Olympic Champion: Embrace your Fears

The hardest part of any task is starting. 

Every time the Olympics come back on TV I end up calling my rowing partner Kathleen Heddle, or she calls me. How did we do that? How did we win at the Olympics? And… how the heck did we win 3 times, becoming Canada’s most successful Summer Olympians? I always thought of Olympians as superheroes, and I know I’m no super hero. I can’t speak for Kathleen, but for myself – I know all of my faults and weakness. I never ate, hydrated or rested like I imagined an Olympic Champion should have. I never liked stretching; still don’t. But we did win. Winning – winning 12 World and Olympic titles, countless World Cups and other rowing races started somewhere. Being a career champion started somewhere. 

Growing up, I was always a competitor – but I wouldn’t claim to be a winner. I played lots of sports, but I wasn’t talented at any. I was lucky to find rowing; because I saw it in a TV ad and in a movie I looked up a local rowing club in a phone book (that’s Google now <wink>).  Wow. I loved it. Turns out I have natural “water feel”– and sitting on my butt, going backwards, and really physically suffering over and over again was something I could sink my teeth into. But being comfortable winning, winning big important races? That was still foreign to me, that was scary. 

Until Kathleen told me it scared her too. That changed everything. 

In 1991 Canada hadn’t won a medal at the World Championships for years. European crews actually felt pretty safe (lucky?) when they drew Canada in their race; but Kathleen and I (and the rest of our team) felt we had the potential to change that. But potential means nothing at a finish line and we had learned the year before– we’d had real potential to win bronze at the World Championship bronze but went home a disappointed fourth. Gutted.

Before the 1991 Worlds, our season would start in Lucerne. For rowers, the Lucerne World Cup is traditionally the biggest World Cup race of the calendar year. Because each event can include multiple entries from countries, some would say that it was harder than the World Championships. I recall the night before those finals so clearly. That day, in the semi-final for the women’s pair, Kath and I had defeated 4 of the top 6 seeded crews including the 1stand 2ndseeds. The talk around the regatta was that we would win the final the following day. That was pretty heady stuff. 

I remember lying in bed trying to sleep. In the darkness I spoke to Kathleen across the room, who was also unable to sleep. “We beat everyone today”, I said with a can-you-believe-it tone. Kathleen is a quiet person at the chattiest of times, eventually her reply came “I know.”

 “We could win this tomorrow,” I said. Again, a thoughtful pause and she said “I know.” 

I thought about my next comment. I knew what I wanted to say… but sometimes saying a thing, admitting to a thing makes it real, makes it a bigger problem then you want it to be – but I whispered it anyway…. “I’m scared”.  

What had I done? What had I said! I had admitted to fear! Did this make me weak when she needed me to pretend that I was strong? 

In the dark, she finally replied, “Me to.” 

Her “Me to” changed everything. If Kathleen Heddle, the person who I trusted more than anyone, the most talented athlete/rower that I knew – if Kathleen Heddle was scared then being scared must be normal. I didn’t worry about my fear after that, I embraced it. I allowed it to be present, in concert with my confidence. After that I slept well. And in the morning – we started to win – a lot. 

Now, I have the honour of being the Chef de Mission of the 2020 Canadian Olympic Team, and that moment, when Kathleen normalized the fears and doubts that came with my ambitions – that moment is what I want to share with Canada’s team. 

Tokyo will be my 10thOlympic Games. I went to 3 as an athlete, 2 as media and this will be my 5thin a mentoring type role. I’ve worked with Winter and Summer Olympians, rookies and veterans. There is no one athlete, sport culture or path to the podium that is the same, but the emotional rollercoaster that our ambitions take us on is a shared experience.  

The Canadian Olympic Team chooses to embrace “Be You” as a value statement. We perform at our best when we are treated as equals and are empowered to be our authentic selves. This refers to our social and cultural self – as well as the powerful emotions that come with believing in extraordinary goals. Part of our authentic self is accepting that fear and doubt are as normal a part of our path as confidence. The presence of fear doesn’t make us weak; it shows us that we have assigned great value to our goal, that we care. I want us to be comfortable caring more, not less. Capable of doing more, not less. 

In Tokyo – and as importantly in the build-up to those Olympic Games – I hope to fill whatever role our Team Canada athletes need; mentor? mascot? It’s up to them, it’s their Games.  I also hope that I can help them realize that it’s ‘normal’ people like them, like us, who achieve incredible things. 

Train hard enough to be confident, care enough to have fear; start a career of winning somewhere.   

I am so happy to share the news! I have been named as Canada’s Chef de Mission for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic Games

TORONTO, Ont. – Team Canada’s Chef de Mission for the Tokyo 2020 games Marnie McBean poses for a portrait at the Argonauts Rowing Club . Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj

July 1, 2019

OTTAWA (July 1, 2019) – Toronto native Marnie McBean, one of Canada’s most decorated Olympians, has been named Team Canada’s Chef de Mission for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The Canadian Olympic Committee made the announcement Monday on Parliament Hill in Ottawa as part of official Canada Day celebrations.

McBean made two Olympic appearances in rowing where she captured four medals, including three gold, making her one of just two Canadians to be a triple gold medallist at the Summer Games. The other is Kathleen Heddle, McBean’s partner in the coxless pair at Barcelona 1992 and in the double sculls at Atlanta 1996. They were also members of the champion eights crew in Barcelona and won bronze in the quadruple sculls in Atlanta.

McBean says she still is not sure how she was able to accomplish what she did at the Games.

“Looking back, it’s incredible to me that I was able to have so many amazing Olympic moments,” said McBean. “It’s like, how did “someone like me” do that?” 

“At my first Games, I’m not sure which was the bigger asset, the volumes of our training and preparation or the fact that we were young and naive.”

“As Kathleen and I approached our second Games, the expectation that we would win threatened to take away all the joy but we found a way to keep the lead. It’s true that winning never gets easier.”

Over her rowing career, representing Canada from 1987 to 2000, McBean won a total of 12 World and Olympic medals. 

An Officer of the Order of Canada, McBean was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 1994 and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1997. She is a recipient of the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Medal and has been given the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. In 2002, she was presented the Thomas Keller Medal by World Rowing in recognition of her outstanding international career.

Canadian Olympic Committee President Tricia Smith, who is a four-time Olympian and Olympic silver medallist in rowing, says she is delighted for her fellow Rowing Canada Aviron alumnus.

“I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Marnie over the years and have always been amazed by her accomplishments. She is an incredible individual. Since her own sport success, she has been an inspiration and mentor for many of Canada’s athletes, helping them succeed even beyond the field of play. She is a legend in our sport and I know she will be equally as exceptional as Chef de Mission!”

The responsibilities of being Team Canada’s Chef de Mission will not be anything new to McBean. Since retiring from competition in 2000 due to a back injury, she has been an active athlete mentor and advocate.

“In Sydney, when the chance to medal disappeared with a blown disc in my back, I learned more about myself, kindness and the Olympics, than I could otherwise have imagined,” said McBean. “I suppose the door to my becoming a mentor opened right then.”

McBean has worked with the Canadian Olympic Committee in the recent past as a specialist in Olympic Athlete Preparation and Mentoring. Her objective was to prepare athletes emotionally and psychologically to give their best performance possible at the Olympic Games.

“Canadians used to be uncomfortable declaring their confidence on the world stage, and it showed in our performance – we were putting our goals in chalk instead of stone,” said McBean.

“Without arrogance, now Canadians bravely project readiness and our ambitions indelibly in stone. To find that courage, the message I share with elite athletes, school kids and corporations, is that there are no superheroes out there. It’s ordinary people like us, like you, who achieve incredible things.”

While her focus will be performance on the field of play, McBean says one of her main objectives will be to create a safe and welcoming environment for Team Canada to speak openly about their passions outside sport.

“It is our role as the Mission Team to do everything we can so that when an athlete’s Olympic competition begins they are in peak condition. Athletes shouldn’t arrive to their field of play exhausted and stressed from trying to negotiate social and cultural barriers.”

“Our team is going to be a safe and open space for self-expression and dialogue. We make ourselves stronger when we include everyone, consider all perspectives and weigh critical feedback.”

Fifty-six years after hosting the Olympic Games for the first time, the city of Tokyo will welcome the world again from July 24 to August 9, 2020. The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Program will feature 33 sports with 339 medal events. More than 11,000 athletes and officials from 206 countries are expected to attend the Games.

MEDIA CONTACT:

Josh Su, Specialist, Public Relations
Canadian Olympic Committee
C: 647-464-4060
E: jsu@olympic.ca 

What Super Heroes Don’t Tell You

Aside

Speaking at TedXBelieving that we can achieve success and big, seemingly infinite, goals can seem impossible for us “normal*” people. For the likes of Super Hero Buzz Lightyear, who will readily leap “To INFINITY and Beyond!!!” it’s a breeze. How do they do that?!

This weekend I spoke at a TedX event at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. I titled my presentation “What Super Heroes Don’t Tell You” and had a lot of fun delivering my message.

I used a few big-event examples from my rowing career that tended to push my ego to believing that I was special. It’s easy to think that crossing an Olympic finish line in 1st place can make a person believe in their own Super Hero status! But almost invariably for me, something happened immediately after each of my big achievements that served to remind me to put my feet back on the ground. I was just a normal person who was doing some pretty special things; not a special person, and certainly not a super hero.

Eventually I figured it out. Continue reading