When Rudi Swiegers and I medalled at our first National Championship in 2009, reporters, judges, and our peers all immediately asked the same question: “Where are you going to relocate now in order to train at a higher level?”
I repeat: we had just medalled, and already everyone was asking us where we were relocating our training, because in the collective wisdom of our sport, training in Wawota, Saskatchewan (AKA, the middle of nowhere) did not any make sense.
Our reply to everyone was, “We will continue to train where we are. It gives us everything that we need."
In figure skating, it’s normal for kids to move hours, provinces, and even countries away from their homes to train at more prestigious clubs. I understand the reasons. Better training facilities mean a more competitive environment alongside equally skilled athletes, and results-proven coaches. Bigger training centres exert a magnetic pull on those skaters who want to take their skills to the next level; athletes see opportunities they don’t think their small town or small city can match.
But that is not my story.
I grew up on a ranch outside of Kennedy, Saskatchewan, a town where the number of livestock is twice (okay, maybe three times) the number of humans. Like a lot of other small-town kids, I learned to skate at a young age because there was not much else to do during our long winters. The love I developed for figure skating eventually led me to the neighbouring town of Wawota, where I ended up meeting the coach (Patty) and the skating partner (Rudi) who would many years later, help me make my Olympic dream a reality.
In 2005, Patty, Rudi and I decided we wanted to try pairs figure skating. None of us had much — or any — pairs experience, but that didn’t stop us. We had no idea what we were doing but we knew this was something we wanted to do. Rather than dwelling on all the reasons why the pairs plan wouldn’t fly, we focused on how we could make it work.
Asking for help was key to our success.
We did not have easy access to teams of trained professionals, but by asking around we managed to locate retired skaters and coaches who used to dabble in pairs or ice dance … and they agreed to help us when we were starting out. We outsourced these collaborators and had them drive to us, or meet at a rink in the middle, or at times, we flew to them. The majority of the time, while Rudi and I were learning from these people, our coach Patty was standing right beside us learning as well. We were eager, ready to learn, and the world was our playground. Location, distance, and ignorance were not obstacles for us. Instead, they were variables we learned to embrace.
The second key to our small-town success story? Learning to think differently. This was critical, because we dealt with unique problems at the beginning of our partnership. To begin with, our coach had limited experience with pairs. While this would be unorthodox in a major centre, it was never an issue for us. For some reason we trusted her wholeheartedly. It was not uncommon for Patty to walk into the rink at the start of a training day and say something like, “I watched pairs compete on TV last night and now I know how to coach [insert certain element]!” As funny as this sounds, we found this was actually such a helpful tool for us that we ended up bringing a small TV/VCR out onto the side of the boards. We’d teach ourselves different elements, skating exercises, hand holds, and anything else that we could learn by pausing and using slow-mo videos.
Another problem we had to work around was our freezing-cold rink.
I’m talking your-water-bottle-freezes-solid cold. Dead of winter, prairies cold. There were days we had to skate with turtlenecks pulled up over our noses, and headbands pulled down over our eyebrows so we didn’t get frost bite on our faces. In order to train for many pairs elements, Rudi and I needed to have direct hand-to-hand contact. No gloves. To make this possible without losing digits, we brought an electric space heater onto the side of the boards, so we could toast our bare hands between elements. It wasn’t a perfect system. We still had to pause our long program at least twice to warm our hands enough so we could feel them. Our situation was not without problems, but I don’t think any situation ever is. We did the best with what we had, and that was always enough.
As we continued to develop in the later years, we maintained this mentality. We kept asking for help, kept thinking outside the box. But most importantly, we believed in ourselves. Wholeheartedly. And because of that belief, we always found a way to make whatever needed to happen, happen. I believed I was training where I was supposed to be training. And rather than find fault with my surroundings for what they lacked, I thrived on what they gave me.
As a small-town kid, I think it’s all too easy to dismiss our dreams, our goals, our desires. It’s easy to say things are not possible. We unknowingly limit ourselves because we don’t have every advantage immediately available. I worry those unique and beautiful seeds of greatness that are planted within every one of us are too often missed because of circumstance. We may not have state-of-the-art sport complexes. The school band may not include a violinist or harpist. It could be a five-hour drive to the nearest competitive sports team. We have Paul Brandt on every local radio station, singing “Small Town, Big Dreams,” and that’s what we grow up believing — our dreams are just that. Dreams.
But I am writing one small town kid to another, telling you it is possible to create your success story wherever you are. Success is not achieved because of the resources around you, but because of the resourcefulness within you. So if you’re reading this, I am telling you that I know you can do it. You just have to find your own way.
(Top large photo, The Canadian Press; middle large photo, Getty Images)
The Paige Lawrence edition
Q: The best book you've ever read?
A: Too many good ones to possibly pick just one.
Q: Must-listen Podcast?
A: Player's Own Voice. Witty, insightful and real conversations.
Q: Best advice you ever received?
A: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “The best things in life happen outside your comfort zone."
Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called?
A: Safety Third — The Story of Paige Lawrence
Q: What word or phrase do you over use?
A: Depends on who I’m with.
Q: What is a skill you wish you had?
A: I wish I had a singing voice like Adele or Lady Gaga.
Q: What's something no one would guess about you?
A: I love a classic dad joke.
Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the six people you'd invite?
A: Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Mother Teresa and a videographer so that I could rewatch this dinner party over and over!
Q: What makes you cry, every time?
A: Golden buzzer moments on America’s Got Talent.
Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish?
A: Launch my new business as a performance coach for business professionals.