Friday, February 7, 2014

Is It Worth It?

I had a close friend ask me the other day – “Is it worth it?” I knew immediately what she was referring to even though she didn’t define it. She was asking, was it worth training for the Olympics even though you didn’t make it.

With the Winter Olympics here, I too find myself thinking about the solid 12 years I spent trying to make the Olympic Team in the sport of Whitewater Slalom. I think about the countless hours I spent on the river dodging poles and pulling with all my strength. I think about the shoulder pain I endured for years and the ridiculous amount of Advil I took. I think about how, despite my dedication, I didn’t have the perfect athletic genes and was nuts to think I could have ever achieved such a goal. I think about how incredibly hard I was on myself workout after workout. I think about how truly demoralized I could make myself feel when I didn’t race well. I think about all those lost opportunities I could have pursued had I not raced – an MBA, better career, more money. I think about all the times I spent away from friends and family to get just one more workout in, go to one more training camp, or make one more race on some far corner of the world…

And then I think about how for a decade-plus everything I did was to achieve one goal – make the Olympic Team and how I failed.

So – was it worth it? Absolutely – every second. Many of my moments of training were hard and painful, but so many more were great and amazing. I might not be the perfect specimen of an athlete, but I am truly driven and to have had the opportunity to channel that drive into a sport that took place on majestic rivers around the world was an absolute dream come true.

But almost more importantly, now that the dust has settled and my mind has aged, I think about how failing to achieve one of my greatest desires was still truly a beautiful moment in my life.

Despite Whitewater Slalom being a summer Olympic Sport, the 2000 Olympic Team Trials were held on a freezing early spring weekend in Tennessee. I remember low hanging thick clouds threatening to snow. I remember walking up to the start gate, placing my ultra-slick, little-white kayak in the water, and feeling the cold river lap up on my toes and shocking my body. And I remember being scared shitless. I was so nervous. I wanted puke. I wanted to cry. And I wanted to get the hell out of my boat and drive away. I hated start gates, but the Olympic start gate brought on more bile acid and fear than anything I had ever experienced before. And start gates for Whitewater Slalom races were already rattling at best. Often the water of the river was swirling underneath the hull of your boat while you tried to keep yourself steady and focused on the course before you that drop down into huge waves and holes with little tiny poles that hung down from the sky that you had to duck and dive your kayak under and around… Whitewater Slalom was intimidating enough and with my dreaded fear of the start gate, I have no idea why I ever entered any races. But here I was, at Olympic Team Trails absolutely freezing cold and painfully sick to my stomach. But as soon as I heard go, and got to the other side of the start gate, my stomach released and my mind was free. I knew I was where I belonged – in the race. I paddled my little white kayak as fast as I could and although in one split second at the bottom of the course I screwed up, the other 99% of my run was as perfect as I could have dreamed for. 99% of my run was perfection and 1% wasn’t, and although that gut wrenching 1% cost me the Olympics, fourteen years later I truly see the beauty in the fact that I went through the start gate and participated. (See Plans Suck for a more detail account of my actual race run).

I’ve always struggled with start gates in every aspect of my life. I remember lying in a hospital bed in searing labor pain with my first son Wyatt, and the doctor telling me to push – in my opinion, the official start gate to motherhood. I didn’t want to push! I was so scared to become a mother. When the doctor told me a second time to push, I yelled at her! “I’m not doing this! I’m leaving." But thankfully, because of my swollen belly and inability to walk, I had no choice and Wyatt entered this world and gave me the greatest title in the world, Mama. As soon as I held Wyatt in my arms, I was living the dream – I was participating in motherhood.

Publishing my first book was also the same way. Writing the book was fun, but entering the start gate was horrifying – sharing my book with readers and letting them judge my work was an extremely terrifying start gate. I remember it well – I was sitting in my parent’s kitchen, it was mid-night on December 21st. It was just my computer monitor and the Christmas tree lights lighting up the room. It took me many second guessing and sickening minutes to hit the enter button on my keyboard and make my book available online to the world to purchase and download, but as soon as I hit the button, I felt a huge release. I was in the game. I was participating and it felt amazing. And by no means I now find success as an author – far from it – but I am still in the game and able to channel my drive and desires.

My point to this post is, our goals and desires can be incredibly hard to achieve, but the biggest hurdle and most scary part is the start gate. Just get to the start gate, close your eyes, bite down hard, and get through it. Once you get through the start gate you can start living, and even when you fail, you can still find greatness in participation.

Don’t get me wrong, till this day when I see a start gate – regardless of whether it’s the enter button on my keyboard, the long walk from my car to the front door of my new job, the turning of a doorknob to a new house in a new state, or the actual start gate at a race – I get nauseous. I’m still so scared of going through a start gate, but every time I do its 100% worth it.

Over the next two weeks, NBC is only going to show you the victories. They are going to paint dramatic pictures of athletes that achieve greatness and are awarded shinny medals. And these moments are inspiring, but it’s so far from the whole picture. Every single one of these athletes are just like all of us – when they enter the start gate they have no idea what the outcome will be – and just like we have the ability to do in our own lives with our own dreams – they go through the start gate.

As my Dad has always said, “Just get in the game!”

Happy Olympic Days Everyone! Much Love, Sarah 

For those of you who are curious about whitewater slalom click here for a great video on the sport.

To view Sarah's middle grade fiction book click here: Paperback and Kindle