Your Games. Your Experience.

July 1 2012. Happy Canada Day!

Soon you will go to London for YOUR Olympics. They will be different than anything you’ve ever done including World Championships, World Cups and other Olympic Games. How they effect – and affect you – is up to you. Everyone is different and being different is just fine. Today I’d like to share with you some advice from the experiences of two incredible competitors, Christine Nesbitt and Clara Hughes.

A year ago, I asked World and Olympic Champion Christine Nesbitt to recount what it was like going to the Vancouver Olympics for her speed skating competitions. I had heard that the atmosphere and noise in the London Velodrome would be similar to that of the speedskating oval in Richmond and I wanted to pass on any tips to Tara Whitten, Zack Bell and our other track cyclists. Her message got back to me a bit late for their test event – but I believe the experience she recounted can surely resonate with you all.

What stuck me in her message was how the energy from the Games – the competition, crowds and the media – resonated with her differently than her teammate, Clara Hughes. Even though both women would win medals at those Games, Christine realized that the way she needed to handle the Olympic energy had to be HER way – not Clara’s or anyone else’s. Some are inspired by the Olympic energy and ride it like a wave – some people need to separate it out and stay focused on their own very specific (and very well trained!) task at hand.

With Christine and Clara’s permission, I’ve copied parts of notes they’ve both written to me. Clara’s note is part of an incredible message that she wrote to the Canadian 2010 Olympic Team after racing her first of two events, having just carried the Canadian flag at the Opening Ceremony.

From Christine…(Note- Vancouver was Christine’s 2nd Olympics, she had won a medal in 2006. In Vancouver she was favoured to win a medal in 2 or 3 of her 4 events)

I remember feeling so overwhelmed by the crowd that I wanted to cry before my first 500m race. (We race two of them.  They take a combined time.) When the gun went off, all I could think was “use it”, but if you’re thinking it, you’re not doing it…  

I had spoken to Clara Hughes before my races, and she is a different kind of athlete from me.  She had already raced the 3000m, and she said that the roar of the crowd propelled her and gave her extra energy and willpower…that kind of thing. She really knows how to get that magical extra ‘je ne sais quoi’ they say the Olympics brings.  I found, this was not true for me.  

My second 500m was much better; I was more relaxed and enjoying it. Also, I didn’t feel the pressure (because the 500m is not one) of my specialty distances.  

Once the 1000m came, I thought I had gotten my nerves out, but when you know it’s ‘your’ distance, nerves will be there no matter what. I wasn’t really prepared for this. I had never gone into an Olympic race being the number one, hands down favourite.  It was not fun at all.  

I was tight, and over thinking everything in the first 600m. I was analyzing how my race was going, judging off of my pair (who actually had a terrible race, but I thought it was good, so I misjudged what I was doing–not the right place to focus).  I remember crossing the line for my 600m split time with one lap to go, and I swear I heard the crow go silent.  I knew I was way off pace. At this point, I finally brought the race back into my own hands, into my own mind, and under my own power.  And this is what gave me the ability that day, despite (what was to me) a disastrous race, to win.  

Ok, I gave you basically a summary of my race, and how it didn’t go well. But I think it all stemmed from the crowd, and underestimating my own nerves under that intense sound, and pressure, and energy.  Since the Vancouver Olympics, I have vowed to myself that no racing, not even the next Olympics, will be so un-enjoyable and so stressful.  I have been working on finding something that makes me smile. When people say ‘relax’, that’s not helping me.  I’m a very intense competitor, and I love my focus and game face. But I’m learning, I can still crack a smile 22 minutes before my race, or when I’m gliding around the ice 7 minutes before I race, or when my coach and I make eye contact for that last time before going to the start line.  A brief smile or laugh helps me relax my shoulders, and lets me feel that biting pressure of my blades into the ice.  It allows me to relax, to feel the things that I have worked so hard for, and remind me of how confident I am in my ability and in the program I follow.  That energy from the crowd can really propel you – I understand that now.  But for me, I need to feel this mini relaxation before and then that energy can pour into my race.  

Christine Nesbitt, 2010 Olympic Champion in the 1000m. Since she found her ‘smile’ she is World Champion in the 1000m, 1500m and has a silver in the Team Pursuit.

From Clara…

I competed yesterday and it was incredible.  I have never raced within a tunnel of energy like that.  I felt like my heart was open and all of the cheers, screams, cowbells and drive of the crowd went in and propelled me forward. Seriously!

What I really want to share, however, is the perspective I had after the opening. Being chosen to carry the flag was a huge honor.  It was exciting.  It was nice.  It was beautiful.  But…… and this is a big ‘but’……. the feeling I had while leading the team was more a  realization than anything.  I realized that even an honor this huge, this special, well, in the end, it does NOT compare to racing.  It does not compare to competing.  It does not compare to having the chance to perform and to push myself and to have the opportunity to challenge myself, to face the deep down fears that we all have as athletes when it is game time.

Carrying the flag made me realize that I GET TO RACE AT THE OLYMPICS and that this alone is something that will never, ever compare to anything else in life.  It made me hungry to compete.  It made me aware of the chance I had and have in these Games to put myself out there and max myself out.  It made racing yesterday and the thought of racing again next week seem like the greatest thing in the world. When these Games are over, for me, as for at least a few of us, it is all over. Nothing in life will ever feel this way again.

So what I am saying, I think, is do NOT LOSE THESE MOMENTS that you have in front of you.  Go into these events with a big, open heart, and let the energy of this nation and all Canadians inside.  You will receive an inspiration unimaginable.  Don’t get me wrong, I was not in the oval waving, smiling or conversing with the crowd: I wanted to rip someone’s head off I was so hungry to race.  But I let the whoops and the hollers feed me.  It was amazing.

You will have many honors and special events in your life, but nothing will be like being an Olympic athlete and competing.  

May you all have wings that allow you to soar,

Clara Hughes, 2006 Olympic Champion, 6x Olympic medalist and only athlete to have multiple medals at both summer and winter games. Clara will be part of Canada’s Road Cycling team in London 2012

Be who you need to be at the Games to get the most from yourself and your team. There is no right or wrong way to be an Olympian – stay true to who you have been to get this far – it’s been working brilliantly.

Between now and the 2012 Olympic Games I will be sending out a monthly email. Think of it as a talking point; you may agree with me, maybe disagree… It may serve as a heads up or reminder to some ups and downs that are a natural point of believing that you can more than just go, more than just compete, but compete at your very BEST at the Olympics. My goal will never be to add to your stress, but to help you wear it well.

Marnie McBean

Three time Olympic Champion – Rowing

3 thoughts on “Your Games. Your Experience.

  1. Hi Marnie,
    I have met you once before, I am a team member of the Rowbust Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Team from London, Ontario. You were at our 10th Anniversary festival in 2009 and got some pictures with Tracy, one of our team mates who was battling her 2nd round of cancer. She passed away 18 months ago but loved that day!
    Cheryl McLachlan, our Coach, loved that you spent that time with us also and your words were just what we needed.

    I was reading your note from Clara and Christine and it suits our team also as we get ready to compete in Montreal on July 27-29 for Nationals. We feel the same things that they feel and I”m sure you have felt.

    So, just know that your notes are impacting more than just the Olympic athletes…… has a much bigger impact!

    Thank you very much,
    I look forward to reading more!

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