Evan Dunfee, Canadian race walker, puts mark on sport ‘nobody seems to care about’

Evan Dunfee, Canadian race walker, puts mark on sport ‘nobody seems to care about’


Pan Am gold medallist in historic 1-2 finish reveals his own struggles with confidence and high expectations

By Evan Dunfee for CBC Sports
August 22, 2015

Much of the stadium had emptied as the last track event of the morning drew to a close.

Those of us who remained sat in the baking sun watching the decathletes carry out their pole vault competition on the infield, and it was here where I was brought to tears for one of the many times during the recent Pan Am Games in Toronto.

While it can be emotional watching these large decathletes try to propel themselves upwards of five metres into the air, it was the young girl sitting next to me who pulled on my heartstrings.

At 13, she has the kind of charisma and confidence I could only dream of having now, let alone half a lifetime ago.

“Are you two athletes?” she asks of Inaki Gomez (my teammate who completed the 1-2 punch in the men’s race walk) and myself. We confirm her suspicions. “Did you win a medal?” Inaki and I reach into our pockets and present her with our gold and silver medals.

Eagerly anticipating her joyful reaction, I am the one left awestruck as she turns the medals over in her hand, examines them with precision and confidently proclaims, “I’ll get mine in four years!”

 

In that moment, I’m taken back to when I was a kid around her age. The runt of the class (I wouldn’t grow past 5’6” until the summer before Grade 10), short shorts, crew cut socks, glasses that more closely resembled binoculars, and to top it all off a head of thick bright red curls. Needless to say confidence did not come in abundance for me.

I grew up around sport, but being born five weeks premature meant my motor skills had a lot of catching up to do, and in those early years of playing soccer, baseball, swimming, etc., I never really got further than being average.

Then, in Grade 4, my school started a lunch time popsicle stick run: run a lap, get a popsicle stick, record how many popsicle sticks you get each day, and earn badges for achieving different milestones. I finally found something I could not only do well, but something I could be the best at. I joined a track club, and a year later started race walking, where I found a whole new level of success.

Fighting negativity

The desire to be the best at something has been with me for as long as I can remember. For many years, this desire stemmed from wanting to prove my worth to others. I thought that if I was the best then I’d be happy, and if I was happy I’d be confident. The problem with that is it is based upon a constantly changing scale: Become the best in the city, and then you have to be the best in the province, then the country, and lastly the world.

That’s a tough ask to hang your happiness on, and admittedly I found myself winning national titles or breaking records, and being disappointed or upset.

For a young kid who wanted to prove himself to others, race walking was admittedly a poor choice of events. It is an event that within Canada receives little to no respect mostly due to the fact that it looks funny.

Very little attention is paid to the enormous physiological and mental requirements of race walking.

Imagine completing a marathon in three hours under constant supervision for technical requirements (in the race walk you have to have one foot in contact with the ground at all times, and your front leg has to be straight; three warnings from the judges and you are disqualified). Then you accelerate your pace over an additional eight kilometres. That is exactly what Frenchman Yohann Diniz did last year when he broke the 50 km world record, walking it in 3 hours, 32 minutes and 33 seconds.

From this lack of respect, combined with an intrinsic link between being the best and being happy, I struggled for a number of years trying to prove myself to others while in an event that nobody seemed to care about. The result was a brash, loud, whiny and unhappy young man who many, including myself, disapproved of.

Education goes a long way

Then I got to university. In my first year of kinesiology at the University of British Columbia, I fell in love with the intricate details of sport, specifically track and field. I learned of the broader impact sport can have on society, and of the day-in and day-out willful suffering that athletes in every sport put themselves through to reach their full potential. I gained a new appreciation of the power of sport and slowly started to realize the flaws in my outcome-focused, ‘wanting to be the best,’ mentality.

 

Over the last six years, I have consciously tried to change my way of thinking. No longer do I focus on being the best in the world.

Rather, my focus is now on being the best me I can be, focusing on the process, and putting forth the best Evan into the world.

Most importantly this new focus has allowed me to become someone who has more confidence and is happy. That is not to say that being the best is no longer the goal, but rather that the process and the desire to work harder than everyone else has become the measuring stick by which I define my success.

Evan Dunfee celebrates with a tearful embrace after winning gold at the Pan Am Games. (photo courtesy Greg Kolz) Evan Dunfee celebrates with a tearful embrace after winning gold at the Pan Am Games. (photo courtesy Greg Kolz)

Victory in Toronto

So what does this have to do with the Pan Am Games? On that hot Sunday morning in Toronto, as I forged ahead of the rest of the pack en route to winning the 20 km race walk, I had a bit of time to revel in the moment. The way the race played out I knew with a little over two kilometres to go that barring catastrophe, I had the win.

This was a feat I had dreamed of for well over a decade: winning a major international race, and as an added bonus, getting to do it on home soil.

However, my mind couldn’t seem to focus on the victory ahead, instead those final 10 minutes of the race were spent in reflection. I thought back to the awkward kid I was when I started this journey, and of all the hours of hard work that have shaped who I am today. It was the summation of my paradigm shift in a nutshell, from outcome focus to process.

After the race, and after I shared tears of joy with family, coaches, and even the doping control volunteer, I started to think about what this medal meant to me and what I wanted to do with it. Sport has allowed me to transform as an individual and the least I can do is encourage others into sport and healthy living. Since the race my medal hasn’t left my pocket. Every chance I get I hang it around the neck of someone when they ask to take a photo in the hopes of inspiring them.

I didn’t realize the impact they would have on me though. Growing up, I always assumed I was the only one who lacked confidence; everyone else from the outside looked like that young girl who I am sure is going to win her own medal in four years.

I learned through my interactions these last two weeks that there are many kids out there who don’t have that level of confidence and that has inspired me to tell my story; a story of the transformative power of sport.

A few years ago, the medal itself would have been the accomplishment, but now nothing would make me happier than hearing stories in the coming years about how the Toronto 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games were an inspiration for someone to go on and achieve great things, whether in sport or outside of sport. To me that is the real legacy of these Games and this medal.

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