From an expectation standpoint, the most sublime place of all to be when standing on the starting line at the Olympics is that sneakiest of places — not quite the acclaimed favourite, yet fully capable of winning; not quite under the radar, yet lurking quietly, dangerously, in the shadows.
It’s a rare feat to come out of nowhere and win an Olympic medal. It usually takes a previous trip or two to the podium, or at least a top five, to have the potential to achieve a repeat performance at the Olympics. But the more often you do that, the more likely it is you’ll become a favourite for the big show, a position that, while rightly earned, brings with it increased scrutiny and piles of pressure to succeed. It’s a double-edged sword — and finding balance between the two is the sweet spot.
At the Olympic test event for long track speed skating in Richmond, the 2009 World Single Distances Championships, I won the 1500m by nearly a second; it was one of the best races of my life. Brief moments of jubilation were abruptly deflated after learning that I’d been disqualified for hitting a lane marker with the tip of my blade on the second lap.
The puck had barely slid a few feet, did not impede another skater nor make my race any shorter, but it was a new rule that was being strictly enforced that year.
The ensuing swell of protest and support from my fellow skaters was touching. Even the eventual winner, Anni Friesinger of Germany, publicly stated her disappointment at having won the title in such a bizarre way. Everyone agreed it was far too strict a rule to lose a world title over, but I accepted my error as gracefully as I could.
Expectations weigh heavily
In some ways, winning, and then losing, that race helped put me in the sweet spot: fully capable of winning but not going into the Olympics as the defending world champion. I remember talking to my mentor, Norwegian Olympic legend Johann Koss, about how I didn’t know if I could handle the pressure of being the favourite and almost wanting to not win at the world’s that year. A ridiculous sentiment to me now, but at the time, with the Vancouver Olympics on the rapidly approaching horizon, I questioned my ability to withstand the expectation to deliver at a home Games.
It’s true that at the test event I got what I thought I wanted – that race gave me confidence that I was capable of winning and the result left me merely among a list of potential winners as opposed to being the de facto favourite. Of course, none of that really meant anything at all once the gun went off in 2010.
In the end, in Vancouver, I got beat by a better skater on the day and won the silver medal in the 1500m. It stung for a moment, because I wanted to win, but I also deeply appreciate that everybody else did too. Therein lies the heart of competition.
Over or under the radar?
At the Olympic test event for long track speed skating in Sochi this weekend, unpredictable results with some unexpected winners have poured in that will no doubt add a few layers to the already complex posturing at play to determine the favourites for next year. Over or under the radar, holding steady or on the upswing? Such intriguing facts will tempt both media and athletes with the possibility and likelihood of Olympic Glory. The practice is almost as historic as the Games themselves. Who will win?
As an athlete, it’s difficult to ignore the noise. It’s everywhere. Learning to manage that pressure is a skill in itself and it is fascinating to observe the effect it has on performance.
But, if I’ve learned anything at all in my three Olympic cycles, it is that pressure, expectation and predictions melt away with the pulled trigger of the starter’s pistol and, at that moment, all bets are off.
You never know, someone might kick a puck.