Recently I turned 40 and while I tried to tell myself it was just another day, a birthday like any other, I found myself reflecting on where I have been, where I am now and where I want to be.
The thing about my birthday is that for many years it has not just been my birthday. It has also been the anniversary of the day I raced at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. I effectively missed my 22nd birthday due to other exciting events at the time. There was way too much going on to worry about a birthday and I’m completely ok with that.
However, now I think about it, if I kind of missed that birthday does that mean I’m really only 39? One can dream.
Anyway… I began thinking about lessons I’ve learned since being an elite athlete and I often look at hindsight and cringe. I call it all the names under the sun as I sometimes think I would love to go back and change so much. I now know more than I used to. But then I look at my two beautiful children and the life I have now and realise that had I changed anything, I might not have what I am very grateful for now.
Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. My Mum always used to say to me ‘everything happens for a reason’ and to be honest I hated it every time she said it. Because every time she had reason to say it, I was injured, or something had just gone wrong. Now I find myself repeating those words to my own children.
While I wouldn’t go back and change anything for myself, I find myself passing on these lessons to the next generation (now I feel old). As a sports and remedial massage therapist in clinic and as therapist to the Australian Track and Field Team I see many young athletes and while helping their physical side be the best it can be, we often chat about my time as an athlete, the things I did and the things I would change.
I have learned many lessons since being an athlete but there are some that I believe transcend the track.
Don’t neglect the little things
It’s so easy to focus on the main task, the goal you’re trying to achieve that the little things blur or find themselves behind blinkers so that you no longer see them as important. For me it was things like diet and recovery that I should have focused much more attention and time than I did.
With the hindsight that comes with 18 years also comes advances in medicine and sport and there are things I know now that I didn’t know or couldn’t have known back then. And I’m ok with that.
But many other things are what we refer to as 1%ers. The things that on their own are beneficial but aren’t the main goal. When you add up all the little 1%ers it is a considerable step towards your goal.
Nutrition is important to fuel your body for the work to be done as well as a recovery tool. It’s not just about what you like and don’t like to eat or that you look skinny in your jeans. Just writing that makes me realise how naïve my younger self was as I ate what I wanted. My reward for qualifying for the Olympic team was an entire packet of Kingstons! Not really the actions of an ‘elite’ athlete.
Recovery has become such a major part of training now that it is factored into training programs and is just as important as the physical training. Sleep is also a major part of recovery and without enough sleep our bodies don’t recover as well as they should, let alone having enough energy to get through the day.
Being a massage therapist, I now cringe that I didn’t utilise it more, considering how injured I was as an athlete. Back then I only ever had massage if my coach told me to get one. I know now and try to tell many of my clients that massage should be used as a proactive tool to keep the body in great shape and prevent injury, not a reactive treatment to something negative.
Enjoy every moment
When I arrived at my first Olympic Games I thought that I’d made it. It was only the start of my career. I was still relatively young for my sport and didn’t have high expectations at those games. Yes, I was there but my best times were well off the top hurdlers at the time. And while I ran 0.04s of a second off my personal best, I was still run out in the first round. I was devastated. I vowed that next time I would get out of the first round. Athens and Beijing were where I was going to make my mark.
Except next time never came. My one race at the Sydney Olympics, my 13 seconds on the track, was the last time I ever donned the green and gold as an athlete for my country. One year later I was having knee surgery for a ruptured ACL and my athletic career never recovered, finally retiring for good early 2004 at 25 years old.
For the next 12 years or so I wouldn’t even tell people I was an Olympian because I felt embarrassed by not being better, not having made it out of the first round. Now I see how silly that is.
So, whenever I speak to younger athletes who are on their way up, I always tell them to enjoy the ride. Do everything you can to be the best you can be, but don’t look so far ahead that you can’t enjoy what’s happening right now.
Lessons from a 22-year old
The more I thought about what I would tell my 22-year old self the more I realised there were lessons that I had forgotten as the years moved away from my sport.
I need to remind myself that as a 22-year old, I had amazing goals that weren’t clouded by ‘what if’ or ‘I can’t do that’. I would shrug my shoulders and say, ‘why not’.
I find I have stopped making goals due to the fear of not achieving them, through increased responsibility and lack of time or money. But had my 22-year old self looked at the Olympics and said ‘I’m not good enough so I won’t even try’ then look at what I would have missed out on.
So, while my reflections of the past and the visions of the future sometimes seem a waste of time, I think we can all sometimes learn something from our past selves that we may have forgotten while trying to be the adults we ‘should’ be. And by the way I now proudly wear the Olympic rings tattooed on my arm.