persistence

the following is a chapter from ‘more than medals’

persistence

Christine Nordhagen wrestler

She never celebrated in wrestling practice. There were no victory dances or laps around the gym when she scored a point. It’s not something that would have occurred often anyway, since Christine trained mostly with guys. She says there were times when she was going against some of the really good guys and she might score one point every two months—or maybe just one point in the whole year. Once when she was able to score on what she calls “this really good male wrestler,” she says she was on a high for an entire year after that. But she couldn’t celebrate outwardly, ever. There was only internal celebration. She was being given a privilege, being allowed to train with the guys. She couldn’t show her highs or her lows. It was her persistence in continually training with guys that makes her story stand out.

Christine Nordhagen’s slim five-foot-seven frame houses this amazing kinetic awareness for her sport. It’s an inherent understanding of leverage and the things that aren’t teachable about balance and how to make a person topple. She’s straightforward and confident; she wears her shoulder-length blonde hair in short pigtails to either side of her head, which seem to frame the biggest smile. She speaks in an easy, fast manner, not like she’s in a rush but like the story just happened and she’s remembering it fresh. And as it spills from her, you get to feel some of the excitement with her.

She tells me that at the men’s practice you warm up, you get a partner to drill with, and then you scrimmage. Christine said that getting a partner to scrimmage with was horrible, as she always ended up as the last person picked, waiting around like it was a bad gym class. Everyone would do the drills and then get on the wait line for scrimmage, and they would be moved up into groups. But before they began any partner wrestling, the coach would ask individual members of her group whether anyone had a problem wrestling a female. He would go down the line getting the verbal okay from each guy in her group as she was standing right there.

During one practice, one guy found the confidence to stand up to the coach, and when he was asked whether anyone had a problem wrestling a girl, he said yes. Then the other guys in the group followed his lead. So the coach said he was sorry, but she couldn’t wrestle in the scrimmage that day. So Christine ended up throwing the stuffed dummy around, then doing push-ups and sit-ups in the corner. It was really frustrating but she couldn’t do or say anything. She knew her place and she got beat down physically, but she knew she was lucky to be in that room and that’s how it was. This wasn’t a place for “women’s rights,” as she was trying to be included. So the next day she came back to practice and she wasn’t in the same group. When the coach asked this group whether they would have a problem wrestling her, they all answered no.

There were practices where the guys would yell out, “Anyone who supes Christine gets a pop after practice!” A supe is a very dynamic and not-so-fun move; it’s a scary five-point action, a high-amplitude over-your-head throw, and it hurts a lot on the landing. Says Christine, “One of the guys was really tough on me, so I got really good at defending that move.” Another guy was a lot stronger than she was—one of the toughest guys she ever had to wrestle. Sometimes she could wrestle guys that were smaller and she could defend herself. This guy was the biggest she could wrestle, and one time he snapped her down, doing these popovers, and then he would crunch her all the way down. He didn’t have to hurt her as she was obviously weaker. It was a “two-minute go” and two-minute round. Christine just kept getting up and he kept using the same technique over and over and over again on her.

“He would grab my head in his arm and pop me over and crunch me down, and I thought my ribs were going to break,” she says. But then the “two-minute go” ended and she had survived. She couldn’t say anything. She just got up and got some water. After practice her boyfriend, Leigh, who was also a wrestler but was bigger than this guy, asked him if he wanted to do a little extra practice. The guy said sure and so they did a “two-minute go,” and Leigh did the same exact move on him, role reversal, over and over again.

It was tough for Christine not only in the room but also because of the media. She was going to tournaments and coming back with gold medals, but there weren’t a lot of girls wrestling in the beginning and she was aware of that—she was careful not to rub it in. She was really good compared to her female colleagues, but there were a large number of guys, and they’d been training longer and getting a fourth or a fifth at tournaments, and then the media showed up and all they wanted was to talk about women’s wrestling. Christine was in the newspapers and reporters came to interview her, but never the guys. So there was a lot of jealousy—not with all of them, but there was a large group that didn’t like the attention she was getting. But training with the men was her only option.

More and more as time went by, things slowly changed. On the road trips she got to know people, they got to know her, and she became part of the group. She says there were always certain guys who didn’t change their attitude towards her, but a lot of them did change their attitude.

Christine became a legend in her sport and was the first Canadian and the first female to be inducted into the International Wrestling Hall of Fame. When Christine first started wrestling, she had to wrestle guys because that was who gave her the challenge, and near the end of her career, she was training and wrestling against mostly women. She feels like she pushed herself way further than she ever could have imagined. This is a woman who trained with guys, got beaten up more than she beat, and blazed a trail for her sport. Her wins are not all based on medals, ribbons and world records. Those moments are too fleeting and too far between. Christine’s behind-the-scenes stories perfectly illustrate how winning big or losing big matters far less than what you walk away with at the end of every practice.

Kristina Groves speed skater

Kristina was sitting in her hotel room in Hamar, Norway, staring at herself on the small-screen TV. She was watching the race she had just finished competing in play out on the screen. She listened as the announcers candidly discussed her. “And you gotta wonder if Kristina ever, well, you gotta wonder if she’s ever going to get there.” The announcers were commenting on her career as being quite lacklustre and devoid of any podium finishes. They alluded to her more well-known teammates and their large collection of medals.

When the announcers wondered whether Kristina was ever going to “get there,” for them, “there” meant a podium finish. Some athletes are World Champions when they are twenty years old, but Kristina’s journey was different. Persistence has played a prevalent role in her story. She’s had the classic “tortoise and hare” career. In her world of going around and around, she’s seen her teammates’ careers eclipse her own, but she’s kept her head down and her pace steady.

At that moment, watching herself onscreen, knowing the outcome of that race, she too began to think about the careers of those around her. Most noticeable was that of Clara Hughes, who has the distinction of being the only athlete to have multiple medals at both a Summer and Winter Olympics. She burst onto the speed skating scene after switching from cycling. Kristina’s other teammate, Cindy Klassen, is known for the sheer number of medals she’s won. She has the highest medal count of any winter Olympian. Cindy came along and then Clara. Kristina had been around before them for so long, and suddenly these two were skating for two years and winning. But Kristina felt that if it weren’t for them, she wasn’t sure she would have had the confidence to win. But she also thought that although she had been working very hard, she still was not “there,” she didn’t have a podium win.

There is a lot of time to think on the road, and watching yourself onscreen makes you think about how you got to where you are now. When Kristina was a kid, she starting filling out the question sheets in the Terry Orlick sport psychology books. Every year she’d create a goal sheet with a dream goal, a long-term goal, a short-term goal, and each distance she would race would have a personal best time.

She would do this every season. All the goals were results-oriented goals. That system worked for her for a long time, but when she started racing more on the World Cup circuit, even though she didn’t keep writing down the list, she was still doing it in her head.

Kristina started to realize that every time she would do a race and see her time, she would wait until everyone else was done and, depending on what the number was beside her name, she’d decide whether she was happy or not. So if a race was over and she was in the top 10, then she would be happy, but if she was thirteenth, then she’d be disappointed. She began to see that her goals were completely externally dependent and results based. But she also felt that she should be able to cross the finish line and know instantly whether hers was a good race or not based on how she felt skating, not on how she placed. So she decided to just let go of her whole way of thinking. She no longer wanted goals that were based entirely on results.

This new way of thinking coincided with the race she was watching in her hotel room in Norway. She says it had taken her a while to get into that new process, that new way of thinking, and at the same time she had switched boots. In the past she had worn little wedges in her skates, to prevent her from being too knock-kneed. Her new coach tried for two years to get her to take them out, as her new coach felt they came between her and her power, but Kristina couldn’t do it. Then in conjunction with the new process of letting go, she got new boots and took the wedges out at the next World Cup, in Hamar, Norway.

She sat there in her hotel room in Norway looking at the screen, already knowing the result. She kept listening to the announcers questioning why she was still competing after twelve years on tour without a podium finish. That was the funniest part to her: as she watched her time flash across the screen, it was fast enough to ensure the first podium finish of her career, but she realized that she didn’t care about standing on the podium any more. After all these years of not getting there, she was just very excited about how she had skated, regardless of the outcome. That was her new process: finding out what worked best for her and focusing on what she really craved, skating well regardless of her time and the times of those competing against her. She was really and truly letting go.

She had good, consistent finishes throughout that season. She was at the World Cup in Torino before the Olympics and came fourth in the 15k. Afterwards a reporter asked if she was disappointed, and she said that she wasn’t because she felt she had skated really well and was happy with that. The reporter just stared at her, and she realized that some people might not understand that it’s not always about just winning and losing. Sometimes even she forgets and gets stuck thinking about results again. But she knows how it feels to let go, and that’s what she’s become addicted to, that feeling.

She can sit down and feel exactly what she wants to when she’s skating. It’s not something she can always make happen, as she’s not always in that headspace, but for her that’s okay too. She’s a self-proclaimed late bloomer and slow learner who had her breakout season twelve years after her first World Cup appearance. In the fabled tortoise and hare story, I too always likened myself a bit to the turtle, with my house on my back and my slow and steady pace in the sports world. So I really like Kristina’s career, as it echoes what I always hoped would transpire for mine. She plodded away for years, her two teammates burst onto the scene and lit it up, and she didn’t so much wait for her turn as create it. Kristina bided her time, worked hard and finally had her breakout season, a dozen years later. She won a World Cup title and did that while gathering such consistent yearly finishes that she grabbed the overall title. She’s since followed that up with Olympic medals.

Persistence leads to victories even when you aren’t anywhere near the podium. When you aren’t sure what the outcome will be and what the big picture really is. Persistence doesn’t really have an ending, which is something the next athlete’s career demonstrates more vividly than most.

David Ford whitewater kayaker

As David’s career has progressed, over decades, he has had to learn more about the place of rest and recovery in sport. He struggled with this, as do most athletes, because at first he was trying to maintain the same work pace he’d always had, and although he could maintain it, the price he paid was steep. “Once I’ve hit the wall, it’s much harder to recover,” he says. But what has kept him on pace through the years is his way of thinking. When he dropped in the standings, he asked himself, “What do I have to change? What am I willing to change?” He was always willing to lose more in order to gain more.

That’s part of the psychology of sport, the process of knowing yourself better, of being persistent not just with your physical training but mentally. You have to learn about yourself, how you work, what you are lacking and what you can change. For David, “It’s kind of a technical issue as well. If I just stuck with what I knew when I first got good, I’d be failing now, same with equipment, same with mental state.” It’s a key theme of this book: You have to be persistent about learning and growth, not just in your sport but in yourself.

David’s sport is very technical and element based, with a ton of variances. In the past, he says, “On natural courses rivers used to change a little bit but there was always a commonality to the flow. Whereas now with artificial courses, when you go from one artificial stadium course to another, it requires a huge amount of learning.” And that’s where experience really pays off, because, as he says, “If you don’t have the time to learn it, you can feel your way down the river but your reaction to things is much faster because you’ve probably experienced something like that somewhere else.” That’s where David’s persistence along with the many years he’s amassed on the river have come in handy.

But even then, he says, results are not a sure thing. “People are used to linear sports where the 100-metre guy that runs a 9.8 is probably going to run around a 9.8 when he competes, which will probably put him in the final.” Whitewater kayaking is completely different; consistent results are less assured. In the two years leading up to the Olympics, David won pretty much every event, and he finished fourth at the Olympics. People asked him, “Why did you finish fourth?” and he thinks that he’s amazed he finished fourth. He says, “There’s so much that can go wrong and so much that happens that has nothing to do with how much you are physically prepared and how well you’ve raced in the moment.”

Every sport has a governing federation that controls the funding for that sport. And most athletes, like David, will face their federation at some point. The federation usually believes they can predetermine who will or can win, and that’s who they will support. In David’s case, as for so many other athletes, his federation decided that they would no longer support him, despite his top finishes. They believed he wouldn’t keep winning. But sport is not a science nor is it math, as much as both of those are often liberally applied to it.

No one watches sports because the outcome is predetermined. Everyone watches them for the struggle, for the uncertainty, for the as-yet-undetermined result. And athletes take part for those same reasons. Despite the opinions of his federation, David has been quite successful at this sport, his career. Through his persistence he has generated significant revenues for twenty-five years at his chosen endeavour. He’s been quite successful, by any terms, at what he’s done, and along the way he’s been defined as one of the best in the world, repeatedly.

But that doesn’t mean people other than his federation don’t question his choices and ask why he isn’t in school or why he isn’t building a career—questions most athletes will also face. His family is very accomplished scholastically as well as professionally. His decision to leave school and the family business was met with “What are you thinking?” David believes that only when his family came to the Olympics, saw him compete there and watched him win the World Championships did they see what his sport and his life was all about.

After that he stopped having to justify his choices to his family. They understood that what he did was worthy, although even now when he talks to his mom she asks, “Do you need anything?”

He’s been to the Olympic Games five times. His story won’t end anytime soon, as his is a “lifestyle sport” that he’ll compete in even when kayaking down the river doesn’t come with gates, horns and officials. His story isn’t conventional or formulaic, but it’s persistence personified. He has competed at the top of his sport by being like the element he competes in. He changes, flows, and erodes anything that stands in his way. That’s persistence, which in itself has no end.

All of the athletes featured in the book have won more than can be shown by statistics or records, something more vivid than any accolades. They each persisted, in their own way, winning something for themselves that won’t be displayed in a trophy case but can be carried with them wherever they go.

>> learn about all the athletes interviewed