“The task ahead of you is never greater than the power behind you.” Olympic Gold Medalist Laura Wilkinson, shares her “#DREAMCHASER” journey to compete in her fourth Olympic Games in 2021. Laura joins host Fran Racioppi to provide her lessons on facing fear, the unknown, the pressure of the moment, and the drive to not only win but also to become better versions of ourselves. Laura is the first woman in history to win Olympic Gold, World Cup Gold, and the World Championships in 10-meter platform diving. Motivated to reach for her dreams after being cut from her high school team, she won the gold medal on a broken foot. Get ready to be inspired by Laura’s story of courage, determination, and longevity at the top.
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About Laura Wilkinson
Laura Wilkinson is a three-time Olympian and Olympic Gold Medalist in Woman’s Diving. Laura has also won the 2004 World Cup and the 2005 World Championships, becoming the first woman in history to win all three coveted world titles in platform diving. In addition to the gold medal in the 1998 Goodwill Games, she has won 19 US National Titles, been voted by the American public the 2000 US Olympic Spirit Award winner, and was nominated for an ESPY award. Laura has also been inducted into the University of Texas Women’s Athletics Hall of Honor, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, the Texas Swimming and Diving Hall of Fame, the World Acrobatics Society Gallery of Legends, and the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Laura is currently training for her fourth Olympics this summer in Tokyo.
Laura is the host of The Pursuit of Gold Podcast, where she speaks with elite and professional athletes each week about purpose beyond performance. Laura is also a wife to Erik and mommy to four amazing children by birth and adoption (China & Ethiopia).
Faith and determination separate the good from the great. Laura Wilkinson won the Olympic gold on a broken foot and is training for her fourth Olympic Games. Laura joined me on the Jedburgh podcast to define fear and the inaction that can come from allowing our emotions to control our decisions. She showed me that longevity and sustained success is an attitude and a mentality that must be earned every day. She made me realize that Olympic athletes are like the rest of us. They do the basics and fundamentals without compromise and without excuse. Laura is the winner of the 2004 World Cup in the 2005 World Championships. She is the first woman in history to win all three world titles and platform diving. Laura is the host of the Pursuit of Gold Podcast where she speaks with elite and professional athletes about purpose beyond performance.
Laura, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me on. I’m super excited.
It’s truly an honor to speak with you. I’m humbled that you would take the time out of your busy training schedule, your kids, career and join us here to talk about your lessons on leadership, elite talent management and your never-ending drive to win.
This stuff is right up my alley. I’m stoked to talk about it.
I’m captivated by Olympic athletes. Many of us watch for entertainment and we appreciate the competition. There’s a camaraderie behind the games. There’s this need for the competitors to perform at their maximum capacity to reach that metal platform. As spectators, we often forget the amount of work, blood, sweat and tears that was put in by these athletes to reach that moment. We tend to think of athletes as superhuman because they’re given this gift of physical and mental power that allows them to compete at this high level. When in reality, they’re normal people like the rest of us. We spoke on the phone and I was like, “She’s going through the same struggles I am. She has her kids. She’s trying to work, train and recording podcasts from her closet.”
These are the same things that I’m dealing with every day. Don’t get me wrong, I have listened to other athletes who talk about things like, “I have 1.5 to 2 times the lung capacity of the normal person, I’m 6 inches taller or I’m literally three times the size of everyone else.” They have those competitive advantages. They still have to put out the hard work and leverage into those jeans to be competitive. I think about Olympic athletes and, “No way can I or would I ever compare us who came out of special operations to what you and your peers have achieved.” There’s this tendency with special operations where people will come in and they’ll say, “You’re special. You have something that no one else has.”
The reality is that there is no gift. There’s an opportunity. Opportunity is presented to a lot of folks. We’re like everybody else mentally and physically. The difference is that there’s a focus on the fundamentals, the basics of our craft and those core tasks have to be perfected in order to be successful. That’s been done every day, over time, without any compromise until you’re mentally and physically exhausted. There’s the blood, sweat, the tears covering the ground or the pool or the diving platform in your case.
As I’ve learned about your story in the research for this conversation, I came across a quote from you. It’s that fate and determination separate the good from the great. It gave me goosebumps because it is that simple. That fate and determination are what give you that advantage and help you to reach that elite level. Can you show up every day, focus on the basics, perfect them and execute when the moment calls for it? You’ve done that for many years. I’m excited to talk to you and I know it was a long opening. I wanted to frame it in that sentence.
Thanks, I’m going to hit the nail on the head right there. Some people are physically more gifted. Some people aren’t. I don’t feel I am in any way I have the wrong body type. I’m not the best at any of the particular things. It’s that day in day out consistency, being willing to put in all the time and the boring stuff that maybe is not glamorous or not exciting but you’re willing to do that every single day. It eventually pays off in the end. A Lot of people want instant gratification. It’s hard to have such long-term goals and be consistent for long to see them through.
There’s patience behind it that you have to respect that patience. We’re going to talk about your success, some of the failures, which I know you’ve learned a tremendous amount from and your drive and the resiliency to endure for long at this elite level. I want to start and it’s important to begin with your high school team. The fact that you were cut from your high school team and told that you were “a waste of space.” I need to understand what happened here.
I didn’t grow up a diver. I grew up a gymnast. I wanted to be barely written with that perfect ten vault and realize that I wasn’t going to be. I still had this dream of going to the Olympics. I had tried a bunch of other sports and finally found my way into diving at the end of my freshman year of high school. In my sophomore year, I jumped onto the high school diving team. Our high school coach doesn’t like divers because we weren’t swimmers. We were annoying to him. The reason he didn’t like me is that I showed up every day. I wouldn’t leave and I wanted a place to train while I was there in the class. We butted heads a lot. My persistence was not seen well in his eyes. He eventually kicked me out. I got threatened that he would lower my grade if I didn’t leave.
I was a good student. I went to the counselor and was like, “What can I do?” He basically said, “You should get in a study hall.” I lost half of my credit from school. My mom was furious. Not the best High school memories but it was cool at the same time that he’s telling me, “I’m no good and I’m worthless. I don’t want to hear all these things.” I had a club coach who was like, “What are your dreams? Do you want to be an Olympian? Let’s figure out a way to get you there.” I’ve never had anybody believe in me like that. I don’t even think I’ve ever told anybody my biggest, deepest, darkest dreams to know that even though this person over here was telling me I was worthless.
This coach over here was saying, “You can do anything that you want to. Let’s figure out a way to do it.” It was the core opposite of what I was getting. That coach who kicked me off wasn’t the first person who told me I was no good or I wouldn’t be anything. That was a series of things that I’d had over the years. I’m glad I was a stubborn enough teenager to not listen to anybody and to have my own dreams and follow them. That’s one of the greatest things is because somebody tells you can’t, it doesn’t mean it’s true.
People tell you horrible stuff all the time. It’s usually their insecurity. You’ve got to remember that somebody else’s opinions are not facts. That’s hard for us because you can get thousands of wonderful comments. You get one negative and stick with you. We have to remember that other people’s opinions are not facts. It doesn’t define us. It has nothing to do with us. I’m glad I had that mindset at a young age, it could have broken me instead.
That becomes your call to action. The next year, you go off and you win your first US national title. You make the US national team. You earn a bronze medal at the World Cup. Before we get into those, it’s fundamental to this experience here and it sets this tone. It’s something that the show shares the Talent War Group shares, which is that failure is part of success. The concrete actions that you take from the moment you accept that you failed are what defines you as a leader and as an elite performer. You’ve spoken a lot about failure, how it defines you and then those actions that you have to take after. Can you talk more about what you learn and how failure is a required path to success?
I’m good at failing. I fail a whole lot. Sometimes, it’s hard to see when you see other people who look like they get it right off the bat. They’re perfect all the time. It drives you nuts because I’m over here going, “How come I don’t get it?” In gymnastics. I was the last one to get the kip, get the cast hands and be able to figure everything out. I was always slow on the uptake. For some reason, in diving, even if I wasn’t the first one to get it, even if I was the last one to get it, there was this determination there maybe because I was always the last one.
It made me more determined because I had to work harder at it. I wanted to be where those other people were. It gave me a little bit of a drive. When I stopped, I started diving when I was fifteen. I was almost sixteen and the determination was already set in there. I have got to be able to work this hard to keep up or to pass people or to get to a certain point and I failed. In diving, everybody is like, “It’s just water. It doesn’t hurt.” If you go over 10 meters, you’re hitting over 30 miles an hour. You feel you’re hitting concrete. You knock the wind out of yourself and you get covered in bruises. I’ve seen some bad accidents.
When you want something, you’re willing to risk the pain. At the end of my gymnastics career, I remember being very fearful of a lot of things. I wouldn’t go but by the time I got to diving, there was still fear. I was okay with getting hurt and the failure because I felt like I could be someone here. I felt like if I’m willing to go through that I can get to this level. I knew it was the stepping stone at this point maybe because I hadn’t seen what it had done for me before where I should have been this terrible gymnast. I was always the last one catching on. I became pretty good. Here, I was starting quickly into diving and progressing fast. I saw potential in that. I had a coach saying, “I think you can do these things that you dream of.”
It was, “Whatever it takes.” Every time I fail, I feel it gives you the opportunity to learn. I’ve seen people who come in and they’re amazing. They win everything. They stay at this static place. They’re good for a long time. They could probably be a lot better. There’s no desire to put in any extra effort or work because they’re already winning. They’re already good. When you’re not that great and you have to work hard, you go through those things where you may do something amazing and you feel you’re at this peak then you crash and burn because you’re still trying to figure it out. That makes you even better than the last time.
I take the hits, I mess up a lot because I’m making changes and I’m pushing myself forward. I’m not afraid to look like a fool. Sometimes it’s eating a bite of humble pie. I had a crash. I was at this pool. I hadn’t been in a long time. I was in front of this young group of kids. I felt stupid because I did a terrible takeoff and I ended up landing flat on my face. I was embarrassed and this little girl goes, “Are you okay?” I’m like, “I bruised my ego a little bit. This is eating my humble pie.” It’s part of the process and the next time was great. That’s something that people aren’t always willing to go through. If you might feel humiliated, you’re going to have to go through that process. If you want to get better and become more than you currently are, you have to go through that. It doesn’t feel good. People don’t like to do that but it’s necessary to continue to improve.
It’s necessary because you have to learn those limits. The only way that you’re going to identify what those limits are is when you push past them and you fail. If you don’t fall flat on your face, get hurt and your ego doesn’t get bruised then you don’t know when you’ve truly reached it. The nice part about reaching that limit is you get to come back and say, “Here’s what I need to do to push that limit out to the next level or how do I need to adjust how I’m doing things to hit that level again? How do I surpass it, push that benchmark further out, get better and now you have that stair-step?”
The humbleness, I’m glad you brought it up because it’s one of our core characteristics of elite performance that we use here on the show and in the Talent War Group when we talk about the development of elite talent as a requirement to be humble and show humility. This is an individual sport. You have a team around you, your partner, paired with your coach and that’s truly impactful. It’s you who has to execute. There’s no one else to blame.
Can you speak about how do you accept that? When you have a bad dive? What do you have to get out of the pool and face the little girl who’s looking at you? How do you then say, “It was all me?” The tendency a lot of times is to say, “The platform was wrong, the water wasn’t right, somebody looked at me wrong and there was a noise.” You pass blame. You shed blame. There’s nowhere to go. It’s just you.
I see a lot of divers who make excuses every single time. Watching that in the pool, it’s draining. I feel that it could be cancer. People see somebody else do it that maybe is pretty good. They think that it’s okay. Everybody starts doing that. There’s a level of integrity that you have to have. It’s ownership. If you’re not willing to humble yourself enough to receive corrections and you’re making excuses and placing blame on whether it’s the equipment, something happened or whatever. You’re never going to accept what you need to do to make a change to become better. It’s interesting that I feel a lot of the people I see are good from the get-go, if something doesn’t go quite right, those are the people I see go to the excuse game really quickly.
You have to be humble for many reasons. You have to be able to accept criticism and to listen to your coach to make the changes because you have to be willing to trust them. If you’re going to make excuses and blame something else, you’re not going to hear that at all. There’s a level of integrity. At the end of the day, I may fail or I may do great but it’s all on me. I can either live in that, be frustrated, angry and hold on to the bitterness. It isn’t going to take me anywhere good.
I can say, “That stinks. I’m going to grieve that loss or that mistake,” or whatever it was. I’m going to look at it without emotion and say, “What did I do wrong? What can I fix? How can I become better?” What I’ve learned over time is you can have that moment and be upset about it. At some point, you have to look back at what happened and say, “How can I become better? How can I fix that? How can I move forward?” It’s constantly asking that question too. You can’t do that unless you have the humility to go back and look at what you did wrong in the first place.
I like your points on integrity and ownership. It’s inward. The 2000 Sydney Olympics come along. You make history by becoming the first US woman to win gold in the events since 1964. Truly a feat. No one has done it since. What some may not know is that not only do you climb from eighth to take gold during the event but you did it with a broken foot. Can you talk about what happened in the six months prior to the games that led to this broken foot?
I had left a college scholarship to come home and train. We didn’t have fancy Olympic waivers and all those options back in my day. I felt I had one year left of eligibility. I wanted to focus on if this is my only shot at the Olympics. I felt I needed to be all-in and I needed to take advantage of the opportunity. I had a long talk with my college coach who was understanding and freely released me to go home and train. I could train full time without the distraction of school. In college competitions, there’s a lot. They’re doing it every single weekend in the whole year. It’s very draining.
I came home. Things were going well. We had a meet in March out in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I was doing a typical meet warmup where we do flips or somersaults onto a mat. I was jumping off of a block of wood. I came out of this one inward somersault a little early and I hit both the balls of my feet on the block of wood that I was jumping off of. I’m in a hurt. We were icing it. I had to wait until the end of practice so that my coach could take me to the emergency room. When we got there, the doctor told me it would hurt more and be more swollen if it was broken. He did an X-ray. He gave me a pair of crutches and sent me on my way.
We’re three months out of the trial. We’re thinking, “Maybe it’s not bad.” I was stuck there for six more days and I was in excruciating pain. I was sleeping on the floor with my foot up on the bed. I couldn’t sleep. It was excruciating. We finally came home. Almost a week later, I came home and had my doctor X-ray it. She came into the room crying and said, “If I’d seen this when it happened, I may have been able to reset it but it’s been a week. The bones in your hands and your feet are similar.” The metatarsal on my feet, I broke the middle three. The knuckles you have in your hands, you have that on your feet and I broke basically the heads of the knuckles off. One of them had slid underneath and in between two bones within that week had calcified underneath to the two bones. It was stuck there.
It’s standing and I felt all this pressure when I stood on it. It’s standing on a rock. It was my bone. She said, “To fix it, we’d have to re-break it and put it all back together.” There’s no way you can go back in time for trials. It won’t heal that fast. Our only option was to cast it the way it was and hope that maybe I could jump off of it when it was fully healed. That’s what we did. If I’m going to have to have surgery anyway, might as well try to cast it and see if that works. We did that. I remember that first week, you go through all the emotions because I gave up my scholarship, I gave up everything to my friends. I was living by myself here trying to do this thing.
It was almost watching my dreams slip like sand through my fingers. All those emotions that you go through. I almost felt there was some relief because if I don’t make it, nobody can blame me that it wasn’t good enough. I had this accident. All the weird things that go through your head in those moments. I remember thinking how many opportunities do we get? I may not get another chance to try to go to the Olympics. This must be it. I wanted to try something like, “I don’t care, I’ve dragged myself up there with one foot. I have to try.” I remember my coach came to my apartment to give me some big old talk and realize that I had already made up my mind. He was like, “If we’re going to do this, I have one rule. We only look forward and we don’t look back. You can’t go back and say what if. You can only go forward with a new plan.” He is good at thinking outside the box where I’m getting better.
I’m not good at that. I can execute a plan but I’m not good at making a plan. I would watch other people doing the dives. I was doing really well or the one’s that I had competed well in. I’ve watched him, I put on my headphones and listen to my favorite songs. Watching that at any time, I would have my music playing. It was almost like the dive would come on instant replay in my brain when I’m supposed to be in the water. My coach can even hold my crutches and I would hop up on my one good foot all the way up to the 10 meters and shimmy my way out to the end. I would go through all the actions of my dives. If there were people in the workout with me, he made me wait my turn in line. He would coach me from the side of the pool as I pretended to do my dives. It has been ten weeks of that. It gets a little old.
I started to think at some point, “How is pretending to dive to get me to the Olympics?” There was a real point in there where I wanted to give up and I thought it was stupid. I got frustrated. We had been doing it for so long that all the kids on the team were invested in what we were doing. They were in it with us. I remember having this moment where I was ready to walk away and all these kids were like, “You got this, I believe in you.” I would do this pretend entry into the water. All the kids on the other side of the pool would start clapping and like, “I didn’t see a drop of water. I’d give it a ten.” I’m sure it looked nuts to anybody watching us.
It made so much of a difference for me. I felt like I was part of a workout, I wasn’t alone anymore and I’m not crazy. Maybe this could work. It’s amazing to me. The thing that I took away from that time was, “It doesn’t matter how old you are and what station you have in life.” You can make a difference for somebody by being there for them. You don’t have to have magic words. You don’t have to do magic things. Supporting people when they feel alone or when they need a little bit of a boost can make all the difference in the world. I feel those kids turned it around for me.
It was ten weeks and three different casts later, I finally got to get back in the water. It was only 2.5 weeks before the trials. That’s not a lot of time at all. Usually, it takes you a month to get your dives back off. I had 2.5 weeks to be informed to try to make the Olympic team. I have never been to trials before. Trials are sometimes, in some ways, more terrifying than the Olympics because all your dreams are on the line to make it to the Olympics. You got to make it there first. I was excited after what we had been through to be there and ready to compete. I felt like that eliminated by all the doubt and fear at that point. I ended up winning the trials by 40 points. In a lot of ways, that experience and making the team was somewhat bigger than winning the Olympics. It was a crazy hard time but so many lessons were learned on that road.
There’s this boost of confidence that you take out of that. You almost think, “If I could get through this.” You go into trials and you win by 40 points, “I’ve got a real chance here,” then almost like the injury, it becomes table stakes. There’s no more. You can’t look back because you don’t get to go to trials, go to the Olympics and then say, “I had this injury.” We’ve proven now that we’ve overcome the injury. The injury’s in the past. The only thing that matters are the results that are forward ahead of me. You’re in the Olympics. You’re in fifth after the first five dives in the preliminary round. You’re in eighth after the semi-finals.
You’re walking up the ladder on each of these dives in a tennis shoe to protect your foot. You’d go in through the first two dives. The finals are fairly decent. An 8 and an 8.5. Others are scoring nines and you’re seeing it at this point. You give yourself a pep talk. There’s a story about how the batteries died in your CD player because we had CD players back then. We didn’t get to listen to music on our phones. We had a physical CD.
You do realize something similar to what you said and you have a nice quote here that I want to read. You realized, “It dawned on me that this wasn’t just my dream. This was about many more people who have this dream who never had this opportunity. I had all these teammates who helped me when my foot was broken. They were supportive of me. I knew it wasn’t about me anymore. It became much bigger.” You channel in these last two days where this pressure that you felt became a power. Can you talk about the pep talk that you gave when now it’s silent, there’s no more music and the only thing you can focus on is how I’m going to execute these next two dives?
In the third round, that’s when my headphones died. I still kick myself. I’m a total Girl Scout. I’m always overly prepared. I packed way too much stuff. On that day, I had no extra batteries. It was this ugh moment. It gave me this opportunity to remind myself the day that I was ahead of me was when I had hit for ten the trials and the nationals. I knew I didn’t have my headphones on when I’m on the 10-meter dive. It totally forced me into this place to give myself this pep talk where I became more confident than I would have to calm down and listen to my music. I hit that third-round dive really big and since I was seated fifth, the top four girls would go after me.
Since I didn’t have my headphones on, I was hearing the scores. I kept hearing low scores. I got confused because I thought the round had started over because the girls after me were always getting nine. I assumed, “Was I in the hot tub too long? Maybe the twelve-place person went.” I was listening to the next person then I realized it was still in those top four girls. They all ended up missing a dive big-time like missing for fives. I couldn’t see the scoreboard. I knew because I had been about 30 points behind. I knew I must have caught up. I was probably at least within the strike. I had to be within striking distance. I had these two dives left. The 4th round dive was the one I had struggled with because it was the same action that I broke my foot on.
It was scary because you have to throw it at the platform. Since my legs are straight for that dive, you come really close. I was always afraid I was going to hit the platform again. It was painful because you have to stand on the ball of your foot and push with all your body weight in that area. I still had that bone. I had the cast on and it was “healed” but I still had the bone protruding underneath my foot. It still hurts a lot. I had struggled with this dive since coming back. I remember I didn’t have my headphones on to calm me down.
I remember going to my coach thinking, “He always knows what to say. He’ll calm me down. It’ll be fine like, ‘Go talk to Kenny.’” I got to talk to him. He looks me in the eyes. He says, “Do this for Hillary.” He walked off. I’m sitting there going, “We’re in the most important moment of my life.” He’s trying to make me cry. Hillary was a teammate of ours. She had passed away in a car accident three years before and it devastated our team. I’m walking up the ladder and he walked off. I’m doing well. I’m in the middle of the Olympics. I’m on the hardest dive I’m struggling with and he tells me to do it for Hillary. I didn’t know what to do for a minute. I aimlessly wandered to the platform but I trusted my coach. He’s pushing my buttons for some reason. I have to go there.
I let myself think about Hillary in those moments which would not have been part of my plan because I knew I was going to cry. I started thinking about her and some of the talks we had. As I’m wandering up to the platform, I remember this one particular time we went to dinner. I remember asking her because she had been a good gymnast before she started diving. She was the first alternate on the 1992 Olympic Gymnastics team. We think she was largely an alternate because she had broken a growth plate in her shoulder and they kept her off the team because she was injured.
I remember asking her if she started diving the next year at the same time I did. “Do you think you would go to trial? Do you think you would try to make the Olympics and diving?” I’ve never met anybody else who had been close to going to the Olympics. She goes, “I don’t know if I could come close and not make it again. I’m not sure if I want to go that route. If anybody on our team is going to do it, it’s going to be you.” For some reason, that totally stuck with me as I was walking up that platform. I started thinking about those little divers who were cheering me on when I was pretending to dive on the ten meters. I realized that there were many people that probably would never have the opportunity that I was in at that moment. I realized that it was their opportunity that they were in this with me that’s why they were supportive. That’s why they were there with me the whole time.
I was all our shots. That can be a lot of pressure on some people. For me, it felt like a great power. There was a quote that I love. It says, “The task ahead of you is never greater than the power behind you.” That’s what I felt walking into that dive. I remember walking to the end and putting my arms over my head getting ready to go. I felt like I was 6 feet tall. I was not scared of the pain and hitting a platform. In fact, I was like, “You got to be all in. You got to be willing to do this because it’s not about you. This is much bigger than you.” I threw it on the platform with everything I had. It was the best one I had done since before breaking my foot. That’s ultimately what kept me in the lead. It ended up helping me win the gold medal. I absolutely loved it because it wasn’t about me at that moment. It was because it was about something much bigger.
You do realize now that you are the best in the world.
I still have one more dive.
One more after that and you nailed that one too.
That meant more to me than anything else. Going into that last dive. I didn’t know I was in the lead but I knew I was within striking distance. I knew my last dive would be good. It was a matter of how good but I remember standing up on the platform thinking, “You are living out your dream. You are in the middle of the Olympics. You are in the hunt for a gold medal. This is it. Whether you get 1st or 5th after this dive, it doesn’t matter. You are living out that dream. The thing that you’ve been wanting to do since you were eight years old, you’re in the middle of it.” I have this panoramic picture in my mind of what the arena looked like, where my coach was sitting, where my teammates were and where my family was. That is one of my favorite moments because it didn’t even matter if I ended up on top of the podium at that point. I realized that I was in my dream and I was doing everything that I had worked hard for. We hit overcome at that point, it was all worth it.
There’s a freedom to that. What’s it like? I’ve got to ask, when you’re on the metal platform, the flag goes up and the anthem plays, what’s that moment?
It’s surreal. It happened so fast. I always wondered, “Would I be one of those people who seeing or do I stand there? What should I do?” I was busy all the time coming over to the other side of the pool where the awards were. I was busy trying to find my parents. I didn’t even realize they had started the anthem. I didn’t know what song we were. I stood there with my hand over my heart and tried to soak it all in. As quickly as it started, it was over. It’s this weird thing that you worked your whole life for this one moment and It’s over like that. You realize that as great as that moment was, it wasn’t about the moment on the podium. It was about everything that got you there and who you became along the way.
That’s the journey. It’s the culmination of the journey where you look back and you get to say, “I’m here because of every single day that I put the work in to get here.” You re-dedicate yourself after this to go to two more games in 2004 and in 2008. Each incredible feat in their own rights especially after winning in 2000. In 2008, you decided to retire. You went into some broadcasting in 2016. In 2016, you were a broadcast analyst for the Rio Games.
There’s something that you notice from the perspective of the booth. Something about the athletes and the level of competition that makes you believe you can still compete. We have to caveat this discussion because you’ve been out for eight years. You’re now at this point the first female diver to win all three of diving’s major titles, Olympic gold in 2000, World Cup 2004, World Championship in 2005. It’s not that there was not this tremendous success after the gold medal. You’ve overcome a devastating injury that would have crippled most other people for the rest of their life let alone going on to what you did.
Broadcasting is a very good gig. We spoke in an episode with Jerry Remy who played for the second baseman for the Boston Red Sox for a long time. He’s been in the booth for 34 years. He loves it. If you still get to participate, it’s a much easier lifestyle. In March of 2017, on the day you’re inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, you announced you’re coming back and you phrase it with the term, “Dream Chaser.” What is the dream that you’re chasing?
That was funny. I did not plan that out. We decided to announce that. The International Swimming Hall of Fame happened to announce the same day. It was totally unplanned and funny to me. To remind people that it’s about the pursuit, it’s not always about achieving the dream. I went to the Olympics three times. I won one gold medal. It didn’t make the other two failures. That doesn’t mean I regret doing that and I learned so much. I became a better athlete along the way. It’s about the pursuit. It’s about the hunt. It’s about who you become. That’s what I mean by Dream Chaser.
If you have these dreams, chase them because you’re going to become a better person on the way whether you even achieve them or not. You’re going to become much further than if you don’t even try. It’s funny because, in 2012 I went to the London Olympics with NBC too. I was interviewing the moms of the athletes, which was a fun angle because I was a new mom at the time. It was watching the Olympic Games that I got to sit in the stands for the women’s platform final. That’s what put the bun back in my head. The level from 2008 to 2012 tanked. Not to insult the girls who are diving. They still are in their place, they are in their metal, what it was and the level and depth of competition were not the same. It stuck in the back of my head that I had a little girl. We were adopting a little girl. We were in this phase of having all of our kids and we sat back there. Maybe one day I’ll get back in and try.
In 2016, I was back on deck in Rio watching again. It was better quality than in 2012 but it’s still not where it had been when I was training. I still thought about it. I had started playing in the pool a little bit. That year my coach had invited me when all my kids were in preschool one day a week for an hour to go to the pool and do some basic stuff. As soon as I hit the water, it felt home. I played an hour a week for a few months and things started to come back.
I remember asking him at one point, “Would I be crazy to try this again?” He said, “Springboard or platform?” I said, “Platforms.” He immediately said no. I wouldn’t be insane. That’s good to know. I didn’t say anything else because he still had to go through the Olympics and everything. It was still in the back of my head. My husband and I decided that fall was like, “If you think you want to try this, take the fall, go full-time and see if you can still do it.” At least find out and after a couple of months, if you realize, “I don’t want to take it, I don’t want to be doing this anymore then you’re done. At least you’ll know.”
By that January, I had my full list of 10 meters again and was wanting to compete. It happened. That’s what made it fun. It’s not been an easy journey. It’s definitely been a difficult journey. I never thought I would get to do it again. When you love what you do, getting to do it again is fulfilling. Most divers retire after college. They’re in their early twenties. A few of us may go through, I was an old diving tower at 30 years old. In 2008, I was double the age of a lot of my competitors. You don’t see a lot of people that will be on the platform. To get to do it again has been such a gift to me. I know my time will be limited doing it. I’m trying to soak up every last bit of it because loving what you do is important.
The comeback road hasn’t been easy. That’s the reality and you’re been out for a bit. You come back in 2017 here to start training. In 2018, you begin to have trouble with your arm. You said that you are strong, you are fit but your arm was collapsing with your entries. What was going on here?
There was a lot going on. I came back. I competed in 2017. I got second at Nationals. I was doing well. I was invited to some synchro camps and things. We had some trouble with our adoption in Ethiopia with our fourth child and declined to go to some international meets I had been invited to because we were having to go to Ethiopia to try to bring our daughter home and tend to fight some corruption issues going on there. I didn’t get to train much that spring. We finally brought her home and it took a few months to adjust.
It was the summer of 2018 that I was getting back into it. By that fall, my arm was collapsing on every entry. I don’t understand. I’m in great shape. This shouldn’t be happening. I’ve always had triceps problems. That’s a pretty typical platform driver issue. It’s toward the end of a workout or you’re getting fatigued. This is happening on entry one and it was having everything. I was smashing my hand on my head. It was like there’s something not right here. My chiropractor said, “We need to MRI your neck.” We get that done then I get sent to two surgeons. They’re both you have to have this done. I was nervous that I was going to have a choice of having the surgery in order to keep diving or don’t have the surgery and retire.
I didn’t want to make that decision because I didn’t think I could. Fortunately or unfortunately, the surgeon said, “You have to have this done to be a mom because if you trip down the stairs or you have a small car accident, that could lead to a quadriplegic.” That’s how bad my vertebrae were. My disc could disintegrate. It was a dangerous situation. I had to have surgery quickly. It was a gift in some ways knowing that I’m going to be healthy. I will be able to be a great functional mom. This might also give me the opportunity to dive again.
I don’t know anybody who’s ever come back to the platform after having surgery like this. I’ve met two girls on our team who had one on her back, one on her neck that did springboard after never wanting to platform. It’s very unknown territory which is a little scary. I had a great surgeon who had lots of long conversations with us and had done the same surgery on full-contact football players, bull riders and skydivers. We were like, “These are some full-contact sports that these people have been safe going back into. Maybe I could do this.”
I can’t afford to do the surgery again, not monetarily but physically and being a mom. I needed to make sure I was smart in my recovery. I took an entire year to basically get back up to the 10 meters. It was stiff. It was sore for a long time. It was those diligent we talked about from the beginning, those that were consistent step-by-step, day-after-day, not backing down and continuing to slowly push that envelope that got me back up there. Going into 2020, I was starting to compete again. I got my dives off. I have done two meets in 2020 before the whole pandemic lockdown. The last couple of years have been crazy.
Let’s talk about this re-entry after the surgery. The surgery is anterior cervical discectomy and fusion. This is major surgery. There’s a metal plate that is inserted into your neck. Nobody has done this. You have to be the pioneer on this and figure out can it be done. I think about trust. Trust in elite performance is important to developing and maintaining that confidence. That’s trust in yourself and your physical conditioning in your mental and emotional state. Trust in your equipment that’s all going to work because I believe that trust in those things defeats fear. Fear you call an emotion.
You have a phenomenal podcast. There’s an episode where you talk about fear. I want to share some of those lessons here because I think about a lot of athletes who have experiences. I think about Lindsey Vonn when she talks about having trust in her skis and her equipment. When there’s a loss of confidence in her equipment and even the loss of confidence that she had in her knee after a devastating fall in competition. I think About NASCAR drivers who lose confidence in the car as the tires wear and the track heats up. All those mental naysayers start coming in. They’re creeping into your mind these little pinpricks of, “Maybe it’s not going to work. Maybe it’s not going to happen.” The fear and the emotions around the fear can easily take over. If you would define fear, how you perceive fear then explain the difference between what you call a healthy fear and an unhealthy fear.
The hard thing about fear especially when it’s a big fear is it can be all-consuming and overwhelming. It feels real. In reality, it’s our perception of something. It’s not necessarily an actual thing. If you’ve got a wolf staring you down, that’s a different thing. You might be scared of the wolf. There’s an actual thing there. A lot of times, we’re scared of the unknown or what might happen. I talked a lot about the first time I jumped off the ten meters. It is a lot about how we face life. It’s scary to jump because you don’t know if you’re going to land, you’re going to get hurt or where you’re going to end up at the end.
It’s scary sometimes to take that first leap or that leap of faith in your life to trust those things. It can be scary because it’s this unknown thing. We were talking about the opinions of others. Fear, a lot of times, is a liar. A lot of times, it’s a safety mechanism. When it’s this all-consuming fear, it tends to be us trying to give ourselves an excuse not to move forward. There’s a healthy fear of like, “I need to be a little bit scared of the platform to make sure I do the right action so that I don’t hit it on the way down.” That’s a healthy fear.
Otherwise, you have complacency. If you don’t have a little bit of fear then you’ll become complacent.
It’s almost a respect kind of fear. I have a better respect for the platform and the water. I know it’s going to hurt if I hit it wrong. It’s a healthy respect and fear that forces me to do the right actions. If I’ve got a fear where I’m standing on the 10 meters for 10 minutes and I can’t go, that has nothing to do with the platform or the water, how I could hit or what’s going to happen. It’s what I’m afraid is going to happen. It’s the fear itself that is becoming the big issue. We have to remember that those fears are an emotion. It’s the way we’re thinking about it. Replacing that, instead of thinking about those awful things, we need to change the way we’re processing things like how can I get past this. What are the 1 or 2 things I can focus on to get better?
I’m scared when I hit the platform. You better believe that the 1 or 2 things I’m going to focus on is not. I’m going to hit the platform. I’m going to tell myself, “Throw your arms a certain way. Push with your feet a certain way so that you don’t hit the platform.” I’m going to reframe it into a more positive statement in my mind of how to fix this. How to get through this instead of wholly focusing on this thing that I’m afraid of because that’s what paralyzes you. You get stuck in, “This might happen,” instead of, “What am I going to do to make that not happen?” It’s an easy thing to say and understand but it’s a hard thing to do. Fear is huge in my sport because if you’re standing on a three-storey building and you’re throwing yourself at the platform. A lot of things can go wrong. Fear is big in my sport. I’ve dealt with that a lot. Understanding the difference between the healthy, respectful fear and the fear that paralyzes you that doesn’t need to. That has gotten out of control.
People try to push that away. “I’m not going to think about it.” When you’re doing that, you’re interacting with it because you’re trying not to think about it. It’s in the back of your mind. Whereas if you think about it, face it and you realize, “This is what I’m scared of. This is what could happen. How do I deal with this and move forward?” You’ve got to face your fear. It’s like popping a balloon. If you’re touching the balloon, it stays there. If you look at it and you stick a pin in it, it’s going to pop. We have to face these fears. It’s not comfortable, it’s not easy, it may take time and people don’t want to do that. That’s how you move past fear, at least in my opinion.
Moving past that fear then helps you to gain that confidence. There’s a quote by your coach. This is important because it says a lot about you. He cites confidence as one of the biggest differentiators from your competition. He says, “The thing that I can’t teach that no one can teach is that she knows she can do it. If her body is right then the rest of the field is in big trouble.” That’s impactful because there are these it factors. Can you define it? How do you know when you’ve moved past that fear at the moment and you think to yourself, “I’ve got this.”
It’s not that simple. You can move past fear and it can come back. Sometimes, there’s that constant drumbeat of you have to continually be recognizing, dealing with it and facing it. Once you do it the first time, the first time is the hardest time and you realize that you can in fact move past the fear. It gets easier the next time. It’s anything. It continually takes practice. The more you practice and the more you do it, the easier it gets, the more natural it becomes to do it and the less it affects you in a negative way. As far as staying in the moment is the biggest thing because if you’re going to meet, diving is a lot like golf. My coach loves to compare the two. It’s a brilliant comparison because you have this second action. You have all this time to wait in between and think about what happened and what’s coming.
To wholly stay in the moment is the biggest key. I have one huge meets after missing a dive poorly but I didn’t let that affect me. I wasn’t like, “It’s me, I can’t do this. Why should I give up now or I can’t win?” I’m like, “I can’t change it. It happened. That’s not the way I want it to go but I can’t do anything about it. I have another dive I have to focus on.” Not try to make up for that dive on the next one but just full-on letting it go. I’ll worry about this after the meet. I’ve got another dive in front of me that I have to focus on the right actions. What do I need to do? Being able to not worry about the outcome. It’s hard to stay in the moment. You have to practice that in practice. You can’t show up at a meet and expect to do it. I get people all the time, “I’ve got to meet tomorrow. What do I do?” I’m like, “Three months ago, you should start practicing.”
It takes practice to learn how to get into that mindset and understand how to let something go, how to stay in the moment, how to not worry about what’s coming because it’s way easier said than done. Even when you know how to do it, it can still be hard to do it. It takes a lot of mental strength to be able to do it. Going back to what happened in 2000. Breaking my foot back then was such a gift because it gave me that opportunity to focus on visualization to go through many competition scenarios in my mind with many different athletes. I was prepared by the time I got into the Olympics that if I hadn’t broken my foot, I probably would have made that Olympic team.
I was one of our better divers but I can guarantee you, I would not have stood on the top of the podium without breaking my foot. What we talked about what I had to go through to get there was necessary. It prepared me for those moments. It made me stronger mentally, spiritually and emotionally to be able to deal with those things at the moment, stay in the moment and be confident. Whereas if I had all that accidental practice where I was doing mental workouts basically for eight hours a day, every day for ten weeks. I don’t think I would have had that same ability going into the Olympics.
It’s the thought process that adversity makes you stronger. Going through something comes with being on Earth longer. I had a boss that used to say that. You have these sets of experiences where you have to find solutions and you build knowledge, confidence then it builds your entire persona and allows you to understand then channel it for what comes next. That’s something that 2020 has done to everybody in the world. It postponed the Olympics. When February and March 2020 came around, the world started shutting down. Training at this level, a lot of this is science. There’s definitely an art to it. There’s a science aspect behind it.
A lot of it is based on these timelines for when these performances are in the training plans. There are benchmarks. They are all backward planned from this point of competitions. There’s tapering the qualifications that you talked about. Your mental, physical and emotional conditioning is all geared towards this specific moment in time. The games were canceled which is somewhat unexpected at that point in 2020. I remember that decision was dragged on for a while, “Are we going to cancel it? Are we not going to cancel it? Is it on and off?” As you’re sitting there trying to prepare, there’s this sense of the unknown. I can imagine that delay was crushing for many athletes who have waited there not only for years their entire lives. People like yourself who ‘ve jumped back into this. This is the moment. You call this the gift of another year. Why was this a gift?
I never thought being a mom of four, I’d be, “Sweet. I’ve got another year.” That was my initial reaction because I had gotten back on the platform a couple of months before and I didn’t feel ready. I felt I needed more time to get confident and have more training under my belt. I got a big sigh of relief thinking, “I’ve got this whole year. I can be on 10 meters. I can prepare myself.” We haven’t had access to a 10-meter platform because of all of the lockdown stuff. We haven’t been able to go into the facilities. I grew up training in a pool that had a 10-meter platform which was turned down after the 2008 Olympic Games. We had to travel to different college pools or rec pools around the state to get platform time and everything was shut down. We didn’t have that access.
Come October 2020, we were allowed into a local pool that had ten meters. I beat off the ten meters. The five meters at least that’s where I can do what we call lead up. If you do a 3.5 somersault off the 10 meters, you do a 2.5 off the 5 meters. That turned out to be beneficial for me because a lot of times the 5 meters lead-ups can be more challenging than the 10 meters. You have a little bit more time on the 10-meter to do it. I don’t feel I’ve had that opportunity since I’ve come back in 2016, 2017. Every time I went to a platform, we were racing through the 5 meters to try to get up to the 10-meter. I was forced into this extended time to do all of these buildups and to get good at the actions and to get comfortable with them.
It’s been a gift because as of March 2021, we got back on the ten meters and my dives came back very quickly. They felt easier. I feel I’m getting confident faster. The challenge in front of you sometimes becomes the blessing that you needed. I feel every time you are talking about how adversity helps us, these challenges that we face are what equip us for what’s coming ahead. I’m grateful that I had much time to be on that 5-meter to prepare me for the 10 meters in the small amount of time I have before we have our Olympic Trials. I’ve only had a couple of months up there before our trials. Even as of now, I feel pretty good about where we are. I feel better than what I did in 2020 when the lockdown happened. It’s been crazy. It’s never what you expect. You always think, “Now that this happens, I have this plan.” Those plans never quite work out.
I’m a planner to become an Olympic athlete. I plan everything out in every detail. What I have learned in 2020 is that I can tear my plans up, throw them out the window because I got to roll with them. I’m not good at that. This has definitely been outside my comfort zone. Our schedule changes every single week based on what pool we can get into at what time things change events happen. It’s been a little maddening at times. It’s been good because I’ve gotten flexible. I have to get comfortable in a bunch of different pools all the time. I’m never in the same environment. It’s helping me in a lot of ways. They’re stuff you don’t want to do that builds you into a better person or a better athlete in the long run.
We talk about that a lot. We call it controlling the uncontrollable. In the Army we say, “You can’t control the weather. You’re not going to control the food, the conditions and the partner force in business.” We talked about you have no control over the market, the competition, the outside stressors on your teams and individuals in your organization. COVID has created that sense of you have to accept that there are certain things that you can’t control. As an athlete, how do you think about the fact that you are impacted tremendously by this but not let it get into your head and almost not use it as an excuse?
We spoke about, “Can you fill your head with all these reasons why you couldn’t do something?” This would easily be one of those things where you could say, “I didn’t get to that.” I like how you talked about the five meters platform because it brings us back to those fundamentals. It created the opportunity where you weren’t focused on the ten meters, which is the advanced part of your craft. You had to come back and say, “I have to focus on the fundamentals. If I can get the fundamentals right and I can execute those to perfection, it’s going to make me better at the advanced level.” How do you keep that thought process away like, “COVID didn’t let me do this.”
There are many points here. The Olympics is something and you don’t kit until you get there. It is always full of these uncontrollables. Crazy things happen at the Olympics. You have to go in knowing that something crazy is going to happen. You’re going to have to be able to roll with it. I’ve definitely had to deal with that over the years and I know that is something to expect. a lot of people especially their first time don’t realize that something crazy is going to happen. You have to be ready for it. I love going back to the basics that you’re pointing out because of the lived experience I’ve had a number of years in the sport which is crazy to me. I’ve had a lot of experiences and the second part of my career here in the last few years. It’s been very reassuring for me to look back at the things I’ve been through and be like, “This is much like when this happened and you were fine.”
There was a time in the 2007 World Championship was a weird time of the year. They were back in March. We didn’t have Nationals until August. I had this weird point of time where we didn’t have a lot of competitions. My coach brought me back down. We did the basics for a few months. I wasn’t allowed to go up to 10 meters. It was nice. It was like, “This is easy. Fine, whatever. Don’t worry about it yet.” We only got back up to 10 meters a week before the Nationals. It was the first time I’d had this goal of breaking 400 with five dives for as long as I could remember. It’s always been a goal of mine. I’d come close but I’d never quite done it.
I’d only been on ten meters for a week before the nationals. I was diving amazing because all those basics were in my brain. I hadn’t been up there long enough to get back to the stuff that I was doing that was wrong. I remember in the prelims, I went 397. I was three points from this goal score. I was like, “Wait, this could really happen.” Maybe there’s something good here. I stayed calm. I let it roll. I enjoyed that meet. I ended up going 422 or something in the finals at that meet. I look back on that now. I’m like, “It was because I did the basics for so long.” It’s not a bad thing to do basics for long and to not be up top as long as you’re confident with those actions and you take them with you to the 10-meter. It’ll be fine. That’s been encouraging the last couple of years as I’ve been up and down a lot especially this fall as I was.
I don’t know when we’ll get back on the 10 meters knowing that this has been very beneficial for me before.” I’ve seen that all of these challenges have been equipping me for something. I know that what we’re doing is going to help me. It’s drawing on that experience to help you roll with these weird punches. It might not be the exact same situation. I’ve been through some similar things. When I had my neck surgery, I knew I was going to be out of commission for three months as a neck brace for 6 or 7 weeks and I couldn’t run or jump for twelve weeks.
I knew I was going to be down for a while. That was like, “What do I do?” I said, “I’m going to think about all of the things that I have learned over my career. I’m going to put it all together and I’m going to work on that.” I had a lot of time to go through video study, visualization to think about fear and walk through all these things again. Since then, I’ve been drawing on these a lot again. These things I’m having to roll with are going to equip me in the long run if I let them. If I don’t let them rule me with fear and I accept them, I roll with it.
I’m going to immediately have my daughter listen to this last few minutes. She’s playing lacrosse. She’s in sixth grade now. This is her first year of organizing lacrosse. She wants to score goals. Her whole day is like, “I want to shoot goals.” I’m explaining to her, “You can’t shoot goals if you can’t catch the ball.” This is the way it works. If you cannot catch the ball, you will not score a goal. We practice every day for 10 to 15 minutes before we do anything else. It’s just catch and throw because those are the basic fundamentals. Thank you because I have to have her read this.
That’s what I’m here for.
I will note that you do have four amazing children that you have documented very well through Instagram and social media. An amazing balance that I see between your ability to cope with COVID, continue your training, preparation and then balancing family life. That’s truly inspirational for all of us to say.
Balance is a bit of a unicorn. You try your best and you try to spend all the plates, sometimes you drop one and you have to pick it up and put it back on there. One of the best things COVID taught me was that I need to have my kids be part of what I’m doing. It was frustrating when I was having to flip at home and do all my workouts via Zoom at home. My kids are all up in my business. I was getting frustrated because I wanted to control my workout space. One thing in my life I felt I had control over and that was my me time. Bringing that home was a little disconcerting to me but I had to take a minute and be like, “The Olympics are not tomorrow. It’s okay if my kids are part of this. Maybe this will be fun.” When I let my guard down and I let them in, it was great.
I have two kids that do Pylos with me every day. They’re always out there running sprints with me or they’re doing the stopwatch for me. It’s been good because it wasn’t like, “Mommy is going to do her thing at work out.” They saw what it took. They saw the sweat, the tears, the frustration and how many times a day I was having to do this stuff, how hard I was working all and hoping to get back in the pool. It provided a lot of good conversations for us because I have one kid who if something is not perfect on the first try, wants to break everything and gets upset quickly.
We have to talk about failure as part of the process. It is not going to be right the first time the best people you see doing this are beginners at some point. You have to start somewhere and that’s okay like, “Look at mommy. Mommy has been doing this for years and I smacked my face in the pool.” I got back up, I tried again and the next one was great. It’s provided good conversations that way. I’m glad for that opportunity to again step out of my comfort zone and invite my kids into the process.
I can imagine that then adds that power that you talked about behind you as you then go to perform and compete. I want to talk about longevity. I know we were laughing when we did the math and said 28 years. That means you have many more years left. Look at Tom Brady. I reference him all the time. He’s timeless. Longevity in athletics is not given. This is earned. It has to be earned every day through dedication, commitment and a drive for more. This is true whether you’re an Olympic athlete or you’re in professional sports.
Going to your fourth Olympic Games puts you in a truly exceptional class of folks. I look at Dara Torres’s 5 games and 12 medals in swimming. Michael Phelps, 6 games, 28 medals. Stephen Redgrave, 5 games, 5 golds, British rower. These are truly inspirational stories not only in their accomplishments but in the longevity to be able to compete at that level for so long. There are a lot of theories that promote longevity, diet, routine, muscle and tendon playability. The physical aspect is only one part because there’s a mental aspect of this. We talk a lot about revving high. As a type-A person and elite performer, you have a natural tendency to where emotionally you rev high. You’re thinking about everything in this hyper-competitive state.
There’s been a lot of advances in physical conditioning that have allowed our bodies to operate for over longer periods of time at a higher state but the mind is still the powerhouse of our body. We talked about it with respect to fear. The mind still captures everything else. It sets the tone for what our performance is going to be. It’s been proven probably over and over that the mind will quit before the body will in a lot of different scenarios. Elite performers are able to separate themselves by how they’re able to control their minds. Over time, these stresses and pressures that you face at the elite competitive level can fatigue the mind. How have you been able to stay mentally focused and separate that mind and body concept to be competitive over a longer period?
It was a great benefit to have taken nine years off. One of the hardest things about an athlete especially an elite athlete who has achieved at a high level for a long period of time is you don’t know who you are out of your sporting arena. That’s a hard thing to deal with. Some people don’t quit because they don’t want to deal with that. That’s a scary thing. I had to deal with that. When I retired in 2008, I wanted to become a mom. I wasn’t able to become a mom. It took us a while. I had to deal with like, “Who am I if I’m not a diver? What value do I have?” I had to walk through some of those hard things.
Being not an athlete, forcing myself to be outside of that, be in a different environment and taking care of little kids all the time. Being an elite athlete, you have to be selfish a lot of the time and do all the things that benefit you because you’re sacrificing a lot. When you’re a mom, it’s a whole different sacrifice because it’s not about you. It’s about everybody else but you. Coming back and being a mom that’s an athlete, trying to marry those things is different too because I have to do what I need to do for training. At the same time, my family is going to come first.
You were talking about balance. I don’t think there is a balance. You’ve got to figure out how to be all in both ways at different times. I’m fortunate I have an amazing husband who helps us a lot with the kids. Without him, this would not be happening at all. This has all given me the ability to come back and have more of a passion. It’s not that in the past years, I’ve had this amazing passion for the sport the whole time. It has been a roller coaster. In the middle of that, I stopped so that we can try to bring our daughter home from Ethiopia. We had to fight and go through Congress and all these different things to try to bring our child home.
Going through the surgery where I was out for a year has not been an easy road than the postponement. My emotions have been up and down and all over the place. My passion had moments of waning. It’s like, “What am I doing? Should I keep going? Why do I want to do this?” I’ve had a lot of times where I’m like, “God, I’d be okay if you close the door and we’re done with this.” He’s made it clear that this is where I need to be. He’s made away. That fire and that fuel are back. I’m excited and loving it again. I don’t think that it’s sustaining and great all the time. We’re normal. We’re people. If we’ve got heightened emotions, we’re going to experience all the emotions. I am very much like that. I don’t know if that is a normal thing but I’m an emotional person in all ways.
I’ve learned not to be scared of my emotions. I’ve learned how to use them and how to direct them and how to roll with them. That’s been a benefit for me. It’s weird knowing that the end is near in my career. I’m trying not to look at that so much but enjoy doing it. I enjoy this process because it’s been fun. No matter what happens, I’ll be able to take that with me when I’m done. I enjoy being back here. Whether I make the team whether I win or I don’t, it’s not about that. It’s about trying to meet my goals, which is not just a medal or the team. I have specific goals that I want to reach. It’s about reaching those and fulfilling that thing inside that you want to do, feeling good about that and being able to walk away. That would be a great success.
Let’s talk about those emotions and the channeling of the emotions. I want to put it in the context of how do elite performers, leaders of organizations whether it’s in athletics or business, channel the pressure at the moment? I’m fascinated by this concept of how elite performers, in whatever they do, can channel the energy, their mind and body when they know that everything rests on them in this one snapshot in time.
We’ve talked about it in previous episodes. We talked about it with Jerry Remy where he talked about closing pitchers on baseball teams. Their confidence is gained from the fact that they look out into the bullpen and there’s no one else there. They know, “This is it. This is me. I’m here to end this thing.” That gives them a sense of power and control. Emily Sandberg Gold who is an international fashion model talked about the moment when the world is watching you and this is a representation of not you but of the fashion designers, the brands. There’s this power and calm that comes because it’s greater than you.
Dr. Claudius Conrad spoke about his work in pancreatic surgery. The fact that when you’re doing these procedures, this is a zero failure game. You have to be perfect because the life of your patient rests in a millimeter of movement. I think about diving and I watched it in the Olympics and I watched a bunch of your dives in preparation for this. I see the walk up the stairs, the step to the edge, the towel goes over and the railing. You’re 33 feet into the sky. You walk to the edge and now you’re inverted in a handstand.
Admittedly, I think about that. I do yoga a few days a week and they’re like, “Do this crow pose.” I’m like, “I can’t hold a crow pose for two seconds and this diver is inverted here for a good while before they then launch themselves off this thing.” There are people, cameras and the results. These are the moments that cause most people to have weak knees, racing hearts and shortness of breath. It’s all mental at that moment. Physically, you wouldn’t be in that moment if you weren’t as good or better than everybody else. That difference comes down to the actual mental side of it. You referenced smiling. That is a way that you’ve channeled this energy. Can you talk about that moment and how you accept that you’re in this moment of extreme pressure? It’s on you but now it’s about performing.
It’s something I started doing right at the beginning. I had people point that out a long time ago. It was this natural reaction because I was happy. I love doing this. When people are cheering for me, I smile in recognition that they’re in this with me a little bit. I’m happy to perform for them. It’s something I enjoy doing. I want to give them the recognition of cheering for me as well. It comes out pretty naturally. I also make up my mind that I’m going to enjoy this whatever the outcome.
I remember a lot of details from meets but I don’t always remember every single dive. I don’t remember what I missed. I don’t remember what the score was. I remember the fun that I had. I remember different meets because of how they made me feel. If I go in knowing that I’m going to enjoy this competition, generally, that puts me in a place where I’m going to do well because I’m happy to be there. I want to do this.
It’s not about the pressure, the expectations or all these other things. Let that go. It’s about me enjoying the moment and staying in that moment and trying not to worry about what happened or what’s going to happen. Living it and learning how to be mindful and fully present. That’s not an easy thing to do all the time. When I can be in that place fully at that moment, that’s when I feel the most complete. That’s when I feel my best. I fully enjoy it, too. The best memories are all around because you enjoy the moment and then you do well. I do all my worrying and my thinking back here on the platform. By the time I get to the end, there are maybe 1 or 2 things I think of and I try to let it all go and let it happen.
We referenced another initiative that you have, which is your podcast called the Pursuit of Gold podcast. I listened to a bunch of episodes. It’s truly amazing and inspirational. The guests that you have are truly inspirational in their own rights. Can you talk more about how you set off on that? How are these conversations with other Olympic athletes who have gone through different sports? There’s a little bit of nuance to that. By and large, there are a lot of the same challenges that you face mentally as you prepare for these games. How’s that experience been? What are you learning from that?
It’s been awesome. I’m glad you’ve listened to a few episodes. That’s cool. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I hosted another program for a while and I enjoyed it. I have my own ideas and I want to do my own things. Since we had some time, I decided to give it a whirl. I call it the Pursuit of Gold because I wanted it to be for athletes. Not that it’s just for athletes but with athletes in mind. As a young athlete, I didn’t have many resources. Even now as a three-time Olympian, I have zero resources because I’m not an official national team person or on a certain program in our sport. I don’t have resources.
This is my way of finding the resources and giving them to other athletes. I bring on all kinds of elite athletes. What you’ll find with athletes from all different sports is that they go through different challenges but there are many similar lessons. Sometimes, the way one person puts it sticks with you. It clicks with you better than maybe how somebody else might say it. Learning all those lessons has been cool. Some people say something a certain way that resonates and it sticks with you. That’s how I’ve always learned, talking to people who’ve done it and who did it well.
I bring on experts and coaches also. I don’t have a nutritionist. I don’t have a sports psychologist. I’m going to bring them to the show and I’m going to ask them all the questions. Not only am I learning all this stuff but hopefully, the athletes, parents, coaches, whoever can also learn these valuable resources as well. It’s been super encouraging to me. As I’m trying to refine the passion with the postponement and not having the access we wanted, I was looking for encouragement, inspiration, reasons to keep going. Talking to many athletes who have had many amazing journeys has helped me with that.
One of the people I talked to, Robert Paylor, was paralyzed from the neck down in a Rugby game at their national championship game. His attitude and his perspective on life, he wouldn’t go back and change it if he could. It has changed him and his purpose greatly. Apolo Ohno talks about the daily consistency and the things that he was willing to risk going into his last Olympics and how he changed everything. He was willing to risk it and gamble that to get that ultimate result that he wanted. Learning those lessons from people and taking that with me makes me not just stronger mentally but emotionally and spiritually.
You talked about confidence. Hearing other people going through these things and coming out the other end, you’re like, “If they can do this, I can do this, too.” That’s something that I get from the podcast. I hope other people are reading also. The whole point is I want to encourage, inspire people and give them the tools to make their dreams come true. Dreams are worth chasing whether you get them or not. Sometimes they do come true and it makes them worth chasing.
Those are great stories to learn. Apolo Ohno has a cool story where he talks about that he didn’t respect the level of work that was required to operate at that level. He has a great quote where he’s like, “I thought the offseason was the offseason. I didn’t have to do anything.” Surprisingly, that went on for a long time. He’d been to multiple competitions and competed at a high level before he realized, “I’m getting destroyed by these other folks but they’re not better than me. They’re putting the work in. Maybe the offseason isn’t the offseason.”
I love that his dad made him go to a cabin and think about that.
He’s like, “Are you coming back?” A couple of months left of training before the games, how do you spend the next couple of months?
We have our trials. Our trials are at the beginning of June 2021. That’s the big thing for us because that’s where if you make the team or not. That’s where all the big decisions are made. That’s what we’re gearing up for at this point. From there, we’ll start working in Tokyo. It was a little disheartening learning that if I make Tokyo, my family won’t be able to come because they’ve not allowed any spectators from abroad. I had one kid cry. That was a tough thing to tell them.
The fact that they can come to trials and they can be part of all of that, we’re trying to play that up and make that special for them. They’re looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to it too. It’s in Indianapolis, which is a pool that I had my 2008 Olympic trial in. The cool thing is if you make the Olympic team in the Indianapolis pool, you get your name up on the wall. My name is up there. It’s always fun to go back there and be like, “There I am.”
You’re going to get it on there again. As we close out, I always ask all my guests on the show about the three things that they do to be successful every day. The reason why I asked that is that we are called The Jedburgh Show. The organization of the Jedburghs back in World War II was an organization of transformative leaders who had to do three things every day to be successful to achieve their mission. Their mission changed every day. It was nebulous what they had to do outside of winning the war. They had to be able to shoot, move and communicate. They were the three foundational aspects. We talked a lot about the foundational aspects and the basics. It didn’t matter what changes came their way. They would find a way to solve them. What are the three things that you do every day to be successful?
Honestly, the first thing is I tell my kids and my family I love them multiple times a day. I have to. I want them to know that it’s for me. I need that connection every day to be able to kiss them and hug them and tell them that I love them. They’re the power behind me and in front of me. They’re my big reason why. I always start with that. I’ve got to make sure I’m moving every day. Even on my off days, I take a walk and be outside.
Being active helps my body stay in touch. I don’t like super off days. I feel bad after that. Even if it’s a little light, I’ve got to move every day, even if I don’t feel like it. I know as soon as I move, I will feel better. The other thing is making sure I’m drinking enough water. I know that may seem pretty silly but I carry around a giant blue water bottle with me all day long every day. I won’t drink it if it’s not there. Staying hydrated makes my body feel good. Especially with the longevity, I need to make sure everything’s working well. Water is vital to our bodies. Those are probably the top three.
I classify everybody as well. There are two parts to every ending here. We spoke a bit about the nine characteristics and elite performances as defined by Special Operations Forces. Those are drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, effective intelligence, team ability, curiosity and emotional strength. I look at those nine and I say, “Laura displays all of these at various times in different capacities depending on the situation that she’s faced now and over the course of her career.” If I had to break it down to one, which I’ve got to hear to end it out, there’s this drive.
There’s this need for achievement, growth mindset, be better now than you were yesterday, continuous self-improvement that you display that has set you apart from all of your competition. You’ve had tremendous success and more to come. I’m excited to learn from you, spend this time with you and watch you as you go on to compete again. There’s a quote that I do want to give that you’ve said before we close out and it is about that dream catcher mentality, “For all the people who maybe think they’re too old to do something they love to do, don’t let society or culture decide that for you. If you love something, do it.” That shows your drive. I thank you for joining me. I look forward to watching you. I wish you the greatest success. I’ll be cheering you on.
Thank you. This was awesome. I love those nine tenets. I’m going to put them up. I’ve got it printed up. I’m going to stick it in my mirror so I look at those and remember that every morning. Thanks for allowing me to be a part of this.