As I announce my retirement from competitive long track speed skating today, I've had a chance to look back on my 12 years in the sport. One thing I've realized is that I haven't always appreciated my success.
For instance, it took me a long time to really savour my gold-medal win in the 1,000-metre event at the Vancouver Olympics. When I crossed the finish line, I didn't feel like I had a good race. So even after I realized I'd won gold, I still didn't feel like a winner.
Maybe that sounds strange, but I spent years training to skate the perfect race at those Olympics because that's what everyone told me I needed to do. So when I won gold with an imperfect race, it just didn’t seem right.
But I wanted to see that race as a good thing, I wanted to be proud of it, and I found a way to do that when I thought of a moment from my youth where I learned a powerful lesson that stayed with me throughout my career.
I've always believed hard work can get you far, along with perseverance and the determination to never give up. But I had to learn that lesson, the hard way, when I was kid competing in cross-county running in my hometown of London, Ont.
I was always active in lots of sports, and in Grade 4 I started running cross-country. I had no idea if I'd be any good, but I just loved being outside and running as fast as I could. The feeling got even better when I won my first-ever race, and I went undefeated in my age group through that first season in London's public school system.
Then, in the city finals, I met someone I couldn't beat.
I still remember her name. Laura. From Jack Chambers Public School. She won, but I still finished second in the city. Pretty good for my first year! But I've always had a competitive streak, and I wanted to beat her the next time.
That year, Grade 5, started just like the one before. I went undefeated until the city finals, where once again I faced Laura. I finished second again. That's when I said, "OK, this is getting old. Next year I'm going to get her."
I worked hard the following fall, and once again I made it through the season unbeaten until the city finals. I was excited. I knew that, just like the last two years, it would come down to the last few hundred metres, with me and Laura battling it out in front of the crowd, right down to the finish line.
The gun went off, and we shot to the front of the pack right away. The race was going just like I expected, Laura and I pulling away from the rest of the group as we ran further and further into the course. As we got close to the end, I remember seeing the finish line, the poles and ribbons tied together, forming tight passages designed to force the runners into a single-file line so the results were clear. This was it. The final sprint.
I went for it, as hard as I could. I moved up right next to Laura, side by side. Family members lined the finish area, watching us go head-to-head. We were almost there.
But I was exhausted. And the doubts crept in.
"How can I get in front of her?"
"I've never beaten her."
"She's better than me."
"I can't do it. Not this time."
That's what I was thinking as we raced to the finish, and she got me by an inch. Maybe a foot. Or a metre. It doesn't matter. She beat me. She won. Another year of being second to Laura.
After I congratulated her, I felt sad. But at least I gave it my all. Or I thought I did.
Then my mom came up to me and said something I'll never forget.
"You were ahead of her. Why did you give up?"
Really? Give up? I had no idea that maybe I was a little bit ahead down the stretch. And then I let her win?
Hearing my mom say that made a huge impact on me. I knew in my heart I had given up, if only just a little bit. I let Laura beat me mentally. Physically, maybe I was better. Maybe not. I guess I'll never know. But what I know for sure is she beat me to the line because she never quit. She had everything to lose, I had nothing to lose, and still she got me. I still remember it so vividly.
After that day, I vowed to never have that feeling again. Even if I was getting beat in training, or racing, or whatever, I never gave up. It was just not an option because I know that the feeling of quitting is far worse than the feeling of losing simply because the other person is better.
I've won a lot of races when I didn't feel my best, or the conditions weren't perfect, including my gold medal in Vancouver. I’m so proud now of that race. Physically, I didn't feel like I could skate fast, but every time that feeling came up during the race, I attacked it with the thought of never giving up and doing my best. I wanted to leave it all out on the ice, and let someone else try and beat me.
That's a skill I can take with me beyond skating, to the next chapter in my life.
It won't always be easy, but I know this: I'm a fighter.