I grew up in a household where we all played sport. In fact, every season was a different sport. My brother was a hockey player, there wasn’t girls hockey in those days, so at first, I gave figure skating a shot. Not my thing. I did not have a real graceful nature on the ice. So, my parents signed me up for speedskating. My uncle had been a skater, and his kids competed. We were all really close, so it made sense that I should be a skater too. Starting out, you had to compete on the local team and hope to get invited to skate for the club team, as that was where the good talent trained. I was a pretty fierce competitor, so my sights were set on making it to the club team.
In what felt like years, but was probably months, I was invited to join the club team. This team trained all year. Dryland training and indoor ice in the spring, summer and fall, and then outdoor ice in the winters. When we weren’t training as a team, we were working out at home. In fact, all of our parents built “slide boards” where we could simulate speedskating in our garages. A slide board was essentially a large piece of plywood with a carpet covered board on either end. The plywood was covered with vinyl, which became my at home “ice.” I would spray the vinyl surface down with silicon spray, put on a pair of wool socks and “skate” all day at home.
While speedskating is really an individual sport, being part of the club team was so much fun. We went to camps together, traveled to meets together and trained every day. When we showed up at the rink, we all wore team issued skin suits and warm-ups. I was so proud to be a part of that team, it really felt like an honor that I needed to live up to. You can imagine that after training so hard all year, we lived for the winters when the real competition happened. Every weekend, we were consumed with racing. Every race had heats, and if you did well, you qualified for the final. During each meet and race, you were working to qualify for bigger meets, including the U.S. National Championship held in Minnesota and the North American Championships held in Winnipeg each year.
On this particular weekend, I had done well in the heats and had a big final on Sunday. I was so psyched, confident that the win was mine to be had. I never lacked confidence.
My race was up, and I was called to the ice.
For each event, the skaters would walk down to the ice together where we would take off our sweatpants and jackets, and remove our skate guards. Our minds were entirely focused on the race, each of us visualizing the result.
There was a pang of anxiety as I approached the line and waited for the gunshot to start. It was dead silent in that second, then BANG, the shot came.
I bolted off the starting line and was well positioned to take the lead, skating hard and close to the leader as I rounded the second to the last turn.
It was my time to pass her, and I was taking my opportunity.
I can vividly remember what happened next, almost like slow motion. My skate got wedged in a groove, and I lost my balance. I fell and slid hard into the padding that lined the rink. I could see the rest of the group racing hard to the finish, but I was done, there is no recovery from a fall.
I had lost the race.
At that moment, I was angry. My back was against the pads, and I was sitting on the ice watching the winning skaters off in the distance. I got up and skated off the track. I got to the edge of the track where I began to put on my skate guards, when I felt the unmistakable presence of my dad. I didn’t need to see him, I just felt him. He was standing there, and every cell in his body was conveying that he was ticked off. Not because I fell, he was quite upset that I had skated off of the track without finishing the race. I told him that the race was done, I lost. In my dad’s vernacular, this was called “talking back,” something of a core competency of mine. In the calmest, yet sternest voice, with every fan and skater observing this exchange, my dad told me that I would get back on that ice, finish the race or I would never skate again. The entire crowd was silent. He wasn’t yelling. Perhaps everyone could simply sense that a valuable life lesson was playing out. I guess my desire to skate exceeded the utter humiliation that I felt in that moment, because I got back on the ice and finished the race, much to the delight of the crowd that erupted in applause.
What I learned as an Athlete
In that moment, I learned that it was a privilege to compete in this sport and participate on this team. I learned that this privilege also came with responsibility on my part. If I didn’t heed that responsibility, I would lose that opportunity. I had to give 100 percent, even when faced with adversity. I had a decision to make: Was I going to quit, or get back up and try it again?
How I try to apply what I learned to business and coaching
Today, I am the CEO of a technology company, my third time in the CEO role. The lesson my dad taught me on the ice that day has been true in every day of my professional life. It is a privilege to lead a company or a team, but it comes with significant responsibilities and expectations. When faced with adversity you have a choice, you can get back up and try again, or you can roll over and quit.