Hundred days, that is how close we are to the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, Korea.
It is an arbitrary number, but if I really want to attribute importance to “100 days to go,” here’s what this time of year means for me: the beginning of November marks the end of my fly-fishing season. Throughout my career, I was more interested in fishing than skating during the summer months.
I would do all of the training sessions, but as soon as I was done, I would be thinking about how quickly I could get out to the river, what stretch of river would be best, what flies to use. For most of my career, 100 days out from the Olympics also used to be the time when we would start doing our first races of the season, so the shift in focus from fishing happened pretty naturally.
But most importantly (except for the loss of fishing), 100 days out from the Olympics marks my birthday, and the skaters training in Calgary used to organize a Halloween party, the last time that we would “change gears” until after the Olympics. I can remember doing my first race of the season on my birthday, then going to the Halloween party that night, and then going fishing the next morning. Hundred days out never occurred to me at all while I was skating — I am not saying that this is a bad thing. Marking 100 days from the Olympics serves to remind the public that the winter sport competitive season is beginning.
It focusses interest on the great athletes who will be competing for Canada on the world stage. It also reminds administrators about their preparations for the Olympics, and whether they are on course to have things ready for the athletes so they can focus solely on their day-to-day preparations.
Problem at Torino Olympics
So the 100-day mark is a useful milestone, just not for the athletes. To be at their best, athletes need to focus on doing high-quality work every day at training. They need to dial in to what they are doing right now. The final goal is motivation, it is wild self-belief, it is emotional energy that convinces us to get up and train every day. This is a big challenge, because the Olympic goal dwarfs the sometimes imperceptible day-to-day improvements that are necessary to get there.
This was my problem in the lead-up to Torino in 2006. I was the least content with my training and my skating, and I was the most conscious of the countdown to the Olympics. Day in and day out there was always something that wasn’t good enough for me. I ignored the day-to-day gains, and when things did go well, I didn’t know why, so I racked my brain trying to repeat it.
My energy was waning. The countdown was like the tick of a clock, not knowing how I would handle the moment when the ticking stopped. “Hundred days to go” brought panic, adrenaline, and a feeling like I was about to give a speech without any preparation. During my racing years, the 500-race was my best event. Ever since Lillehammer in 1994, each Olympic 500 skater did two races, one starting in the inner lane, the other in the outer lane.
The competitor with the lowest combined times won (the Olympics in Pyeongchang, by the way, will be the first time since 1994 that speed skaters will compete in just one 500 race). In Salt Lake City in 2002, I fell in the first steps of the first 500.
I came back the next day and won the second race, but I still finished last, because I didn’t complete the first 500. I was unranked, but I was first of the unranked (and that is a joke that nobody but me finds funny). I may not have an Olympic medal from Salt Lake City, but I still came back after a fall, knowing my chance was gone, and prepared myself to step up to the line with the intention to skate my best again.
Reflecting on my career now, Torino is my biggest regret. In the 2006 Olympic 500 race, I just had an “okay” first race — not terrible, but not great. I still had another race to do, and if I could have just skated another “okay” race, I had a chance for the podium. The problem was the podium wasn’t good enough for me. I had to win the Olympics, to redeem myself and prove myself to the critics after 2002. This was the only acceptable outcome for me, and this lack of perspective crippled me.
After my first 500, I don’t remember any of the usual things that people do after races; getting off the ice, going to the change room, debriefing myself, and planning for the next one. I remember leaving my skates in the change room and walking outside of the building. I walked to an area where a lot of fences and building materials were stored, around a corner where no one would be able to see me.
I paced back and forth, so angry that it felt like the frontal lobe of my brain was going to burn through my forehead. I was crushed by the realization that winning wasn’t possible anymore. I was furious because I was unable to settle. Winning was more than the goal, it had become a necessity.
A podium finish was a compromise that I hadn’t prepared myself for. When I went back in and started getting ready for the second race, my deep competitive drive felt disconnected from what I was doing. I didn’t warm up enough or properly. I went through the motions.
When I put my skates on and got back on the ice, I felt stunned, uncomfortable. I skated around in the warm-up lane and I got a cramp in my foot, which had literally never happened to me in my life.
I had to quickly take my skate off and stretch my foot, and when I got back on the ice it was time to race. I felt like I wasn’t me, that I did not “fit” properly in my skates, in this place. I couldn’t see past having been beat — everything other than winning felt like failure.
I did not reflect on this or even identify it as my biggest regret until I became a coach, and saw competition from another perspective. Now I can look back and see my own tunnel vision. When Olympic gold was the ONLY acceptable outcome, it led, in the end, to a much worse final result.
I want to help athletes keep things in perspective. To prepare them to deal with situations as they come and to not get stuck like I did, weighed down by internal pressure and artificial constraints. I would never tell one of my athletes that it is 100 days out from the Olympics. Is this the correct approach? As an athlete, I don’t have the best Olympic record, but I am always learning and my ideas and opinions are not static.
Other athletes may respond to 100 days out differently. Some may see a milestone reminder to stay on task and be at their best. But my reasoning for not focusing on deadlines is based on my coaching philosophy. Deadlines take away from today, and the daily steps that lead to good performances at the Olympics. Preparing for the Olympics is the same as the preparation for every season. We do our best work every day to improve our skating skills, to get more specifically fit, and to stay as healthy as possible in the process. Take very small steps, with small expectations, and be satisfied with any step in the right direction. If you are doing your best work every day, why would you need a wake-up call?
I don’t think I would be a very good coach if I said: “suddenly this is important!” I can’t plan someone’s rate of improvement, so I don’t impose deadlines on anyone. I have ideas and outlines of where I want an athlete to get, but these are not direct expectations. We follow the course, and every day is an opportunity to get a little better, and we hold onto the little golden steps when they happen.
I don’t want athletes to focus on what they have to do in 100 days, I want them to focus on what they are doing right now.