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.   

Be Extraordinary – Western Alumni Gazette – A chat with Marnie

A chat with Marnie about Performance and Winning

by Jason Winders, MES’16, PhD’16 | October 13, 2017

One of the most decorated athletes in Canadian history – most notably as a three-time Olympic gold medalist – Marnie McBean, BA’97, LLD’03, shares what she learned from a life on the water at Western and beyond.

My ultimate thing was not to win, but to get better. Getting better all the time meant attention to detail, to learning, to figuring things out. And all that – that attention to things – took care of winning.

I was not a star athlete. I always made teams. But I was never the star. I was not a scorer or a playmaker. I was a grinder who moved things along. But I have come to understand that everyone is excellent at something; it is the lucky few who find what that is.

I had great water feel. I wasn’t a great rower at the beginning, but somebody saw something about me on the water. And that was me – it was being on the water, how rowing boats moved, knowing how a team moved together. I loved it from the first day.

Get a feel for your water. I cannot hit a three-pointer. I don’t have that kind of coordination. But I have water feel.

When you find that thing you are great at, it is easy to put time into it. It will always feel like a choice. It will always feel like you are choosing to be more. Continue reading

Rookie, Established or Veteran – Seeing Your Self as a Champion Takes Practice

Focusing on task, improving technique and increasing strength are what keeps us in the up-curve of our careers.

Take a moment to picture a champion in your field, a person who achieves success often. See this champion doing something you admire: now see this champion smiling, shaking hands….

What do you see? I’ve always seen confidence, talent (not sure how one sees this, but it’s a feeling I get), good strong posture, and a twinkle in the champion’s eye – as if this champion knows a secret.

Now… here’s an important question – Was it you that you saw? Do you see yourself as a champion?

Maybe you saw a generic person – no one in particular – that’s fine — but could it have been you? (This is possibly a very “Canadian” way to picture success considering how we tend to think of who our “heroes” and role models are. ie – we tend to use composites of people and traits). So. Do you posses the characteristics that you saw? Do you hope to? Are you working on them?

Here is a telling follow-up question, especially if you are a woman — if it wasn’t you – did you picture a woman?

It’s not easy to be that bold, but ego is not arrogance.

When I first started thinking about actually going to Olympics – when I pictured an Olympian, in my mind I saw a male swimmer. He was sort of a perfect specimen – tall, broad-shouldered-narrow-waisted, hairless (?ha!), and almost zero fat on his body. I am none of these things so how could I become an Olympian? Continue reading

Finding answers from the ‘Don’t’ side

don't13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do – 

Digging around the internet I’m always looking for … stuff. Stuff that holds my attention, stuff that gets me thinking, stuff that teaches me something new – or reminds me of things I’ve forgotten. It seems that the following list by compiled by Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker, originally posted in  LifeHack is the kind of stuff that appeals to me  – and apparently to many others. When I found it – it had over 185k shares and where I had found it, reposted by Cheryl Conner on Forbes’ web site , it had been viewed over 2.5million times.

Much of what we study to improve ourselves is from the perspective of what we SHOULD do… but that doesn’t always jive with how I think. Sometimes I find it easier to tell you what, or where I don’t want to eat vs what I do want to eat. Looking for an new job or career? The options can be so vast that we can’t even begin to articulate what we DO want to do – but can can be quite clear on the things that we DON’T want to do. Same with where you want to live, who you want to be with…  etc etc. There is nothing wrong with discovering your answers from the perspective of what you don’t want. In fact – coming at it from that side might reveal more options than you would have included from the perspective of what you do want.

The refreshing part of this list/article is that it’s not hesitant to articulate what mentally strong people DON’T do. And today – that’s the kind of stuff that is resonating with me.

13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do –

Mentally strong people have healthy habits. They manage their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in ways that set them up for success in life. Check out these things that mentally strong people don’t do so that you too can become more mentally strong.

1. They Don’t Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves

Mentally strong people don’t sit around feeling sorry about their circumstances or how others have treated them. Instead, they take responsibility for their role in life and understand that life isn’t always easy or fair.

2. They Don’t Give Away Their Power

They don’t allow others to control them, and they don’t give someone else power over them. They don’t say things like, “My boss makes me feel bad,” because they understand that they are in control over their own emotions and they have a choice in how they respond. Continue reading