By all accounts, Susan Williams wasn’t supposed to be on the 2004 Olympic triathlon team. There were four Americans in front of her in the world rankings, and there were only three potential spots on the U.S. squad that would make the Athens Games (only the second time in history that the swimming, biking and running event would appear on the Olympic schedule). Susan’s name wasn’t on that list, but she made the decision to follow her dreams and goal of making an Olympic team anyway.
To make the team, she would have three opportunities to earn winning finishes or points toward a slot on the team. In the first race, she had one of the performances of her life, but ended up in second place narrowly missing that first slot on the Olympic team. Happy with her performance, she knew she still had work to do. But while training for the second race, she pulled her hamstring and became plagued not only by that injury, but also a cold leading up to the event. Though she started the race, she eventually had to pull out. Now with only one race to go and an injury to deal with, Susan had every reason to have her doubts. But she kept moving forward to the third and final qualification event. This time, she knew it was a do or die situation, but she kept her cool. She looked at her strengths rather than her weaknesses. She realized that the course was not the usual “runners course,” but a course that would play to her strengths on the bike. With the confidence in her preparation, Susan kept the thought at the top of her head, “This is my course.” And it was. Not for the win, it would turn out, but she finished third and received the required points to make the Olympic team.
Her Olympic race would prove equally as dramatic as her journey to get there. She went in, not as a favorite, and also had a crash during the bike leg of the race. She escaped the incident unscathed, got back on her bike and eventually crossed the finish line to earn the bronze medal.
Although I can’t give justice to Susan’s journey in one short blog, I felt fortunate to hear her story at a special event last night. Not only did it give me something to think about on my personal Road to Rio, I think it’s something we all experience at one time or another.
When you are trying to reach a goal—big or small—what do you do when doubt creeps in?
My goal is to make the 2016 Paralympic shooting team, but right now, I’m sitting in Susan’s shoes—a contender, but not a favorite. But the motivation and desire is there, so for me, her talk was full of good reminders to add to what I have already learned through years of competition. And doubts.
Here are a few tips I have learned along the way:
1) Build a “Strengths List”: This is something I have done many times before and believe it’s an invaluable way to take stock of every advantage you have going into a goal, or as an athlete, a competition. What is it that you do better than anyone else? Or maybe, like one of Susan’s strengths—not being in the spotlight. Susan had the opportunity of being the “dark horse” in her competition. She was the athlete not expected to qualify, and therefore the pressure was directed elsewhere, namely on the women who were ranked 1-3, definitely an advantage for her. Additionally, she knew the hilly trials course suited her and she kept her mind focused on her ability to outperform most other athletes in that particular area. She didn’t focus on how her running wasn’t her best leg of the race, instead she paid attention to her advantages. How many times have you focused on our weaknesses and shortfalls rather than your strengths? By focusing on your strengths and on what you know, instead of what you don’t, you will find that success will be much easier to attain. Have a current goal in mind? Write down five strengths you have that can help you achieve that goal and keep them where you can consistently look to them for confidence.
2) Keep a Journal: Susan didn’t talk about journaling specifically, but she did say, “If you look back and know you’ve done the best you’ve been able to do each day,” you’re more likely to succeed. This is something I have learned both from sports and recovering from my accident. By keeping a journal, I am able to look back and actually see my progress. Writing down your experiences helps you look back and see the ground you have covered. And if you’ve given your best, been disciplined, showed up, and, in Susan’s words, “left no stone unturned,” the proof will be there right before your eyes. Then you don’t have to be anxious or nervous, because you know it’s literally, “in the books.” Prior to my recent World Cup, when I was preparing for my first international shooting match, my coach simply said to me, “just do what you know.” I looked back on my journal and reviewed the lessons I had learned and observations I had made and stuck to that simple plan. I didn’t try to do anything new or different, and in the end, it was the correct strategy. I ended the match with a personal best score.
3) Give Yourself Permission to Succeed: Although Susan wasn’t a shoo-in for the team, she also didn’t let herself get bogged down by those around her. She said she realized that, “a lot of times in life you’re going to have people who tell you what you can and can’t do and I think it’s important to remember we can do anything we put our minds to. And to not let what other people think deter you.” After all, how do they know what you can do?
So, when the doubt creeps in and you’re not sure what to do, give yourself a break and take the pressure off. I think Susan summed it up well when she said:
“My definition of success isn’t winning. It’s doing your best every moment you have the opportunity to be the best you can be.”