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A Personal Pursuit of Olympic Greatness

It’s Personal
They hate to lose more than they love to win.

Tomorrow the sporting world’s focus will shift to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, but one of the Greatest Olympic athletes of recent years won’t be there. Evan Lysacek was expected to be a top contender for the gold in Men’s Figure Skating, after winning it in the 2010 Vancouver Games. Unfortunately, an injury took him out of this competition; however, he has already set his sights on the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Last year, I had the privilege of spending several days with Lysacek as we discussed the possibility of writing a book together. What I learned about his mindset and motivations was a true testament to Greatness. From my notes, I’ll let him tell a piece of his story in his own words:

I don’t know how many moments of absolute clarity any one person gets in their lifetime, but I certainly had one at the 2006 Torino Olympics, as I stood at the edge of the rink with my face against the glass, watching the medal ceremony. Never in my life had I felt farther away from the ice, even though I was only inches from it—and I knew in my gut exactly what I wanted from my life.

olympic2Those Games were one of the most memorable milestones in my career. I had skated fairly well and was pleased with my performance, even though I wasn’t expecting to medal. After all, I was only 21 and competing in the Olympics for the first time. But then I became ill and rapidly grew worse. I have never felt so physically miserable in all my life as I sat in a clinic, surrounded by doctors speaking Italian, my body aching. I just wanted to go home.

US Olympians at the USA HouseMy coach, Frank Carroll (featured in the picture to the left), sat me down and looked me in the eye. “Okay,” he said. “You don’t have to compete. You can go home. You worked your entire life for this but if you want to throw it away because you don’t feel good, that’s fine. It’s probably too late to call someone else to come over and fill in your spot—someone who would give anything for the opportunity to compete on Olympic ice. But you go ahead and leave now. I’ll get started on the paperwork.” It was a brilliant bit of reverse psychology, and it did its job. I took the medicine I was given to fight the bacterial infection I had and I decided to gut it out and skate my last routine.

I placed fourth overall. It was unbelievable. I was absolutely thrilled with the results and eternally grateful to my coach for showing me how stupid I was being for wanting to leave. As I went with the medalists to the press conferences and photo shoots and drug tests (the fourth place finisher always joins them in case someone tests positive for a banned substance), I felt like a champion.

But then, as we returned to the rink to skate onto the ice for a kind of victory lap and the medal ceremony, someone halted me. “Not this part,” I was told. “This is where you stop.” And suddenly, the dream was over. The reality of fourth place sunk in. As I stood at the edge of the ice, and watched the other three men—guys I had watched compete a few years ahead of me all my life—have their flags lowered from the ceiling, feel the weight of the medals as they were placed around their necks, and had their entire careers justified, I swore to myself that I would never be in this place again.

2009 ISU World Figure Skating Championships - Men's Free SkateAll I could think was, “I want that. Whatever I have to do to get that, I will do it.” I have never wanted anything so badly in all of my life. It wasn’t about the possession—it was about the achievement. I didn’t care about the medal. I just never wanted to be stuck on that side of the glass again.

The next four years, Lysacek’s hatred of losing – of finishing fourth – drove him and he dedicated himself to training like never before as he set his sights on Vancouver. “My mindset at the [2010] Games and my experiences on the world stage with the most talented athletes in my sport was entirely different this time as compared to Torino. The emotions of seeing my scores come up after both the short and long programs, and knowing how far I’d come from the fourth-place kid with his face standing outside the rink was huge.”

Tips from the Great ones

olympic5Though Lysacek is not competing in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, I can’t help but think about his story as we prepare for the Games. His biggest motivator was never the glory of the medal stand, but the chance to show the world how much failure can drive you to improve.

Maybe you’re close to throwing in the towel today, like Lysacek was sitting in that doctor’s office in Torino. Maybe you feel stuck on the other side of that glass, longing for one more shot to give it everything you’ve got and knowing that just a few fractions of a point are what separate you from your goal. What next? Do you make an excuse and justify quitting? Do you content yourself with “almost”? Or do you use the memory of falling short to get yourself moving again?

olympic6Instead of making excuses this week, make reasons: reasons to keep going, reasons to work harder, reasons to make yourself better. It’s not enough to just want to win—everyone wants that. The Great Ones refuse to make excuses when falling short of their dreams.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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