Olympians Lindsey Vonn (Alpine skiing), Wolfgang Linger (luge), Shelley Rudman (skeleton) and Eric Alard (bobsleigh) took part in a “Chat with Champions” panel discussion on the topic of “Achieve Your Olympic Dreams”, organised as part of the Learn and Share programme at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lillehammer 2016.
The first question posed to the panel concerned the importance of having a strong team around you, and the different choices that athletes can make in this area. “It was always easier to not have to deal with things on your own – I had my brother and our parents,” said luger Wolfgang Linger (AUT), who won two Olympic gold medals in the men’s doubles with his sibling Andreas.
“They helped us to pick the right people, and the right coaches. But later, we made decisions like that ourselves. And so if something went wrong, it was our decision and our fault. We looked at the areas that needed most work, like a good physiotherapist or a mental coach, and we tried to find the right people who could help us the most. If someone didn’t fit into our team, we would make changes, but we didn’t do it from one minute to the next. We thought about it and took our time.”
Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn (USA) then explained that her family, especially her father, was always at the heart of her entourage. “My dad and I had a five-year plan for me to reach the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.”
Vonn also touched on the significant period during which she was estranged from her father. “That’s the hard part of having parents around,” she said. “They support you, but you also have to make decisions for yourself. We had some hard times, but now things are really good. I think you get to a certain point where you can put all your problems behind you and just be a family.”
“My mum and dad invested a lot in me initially,” explained Shelley Rudman (GBR), who secured a silver medal in the women’s skeleton at the Olympic Winter Games Turin 2006. “I just stuck with it and had this dream to get to the Olympic Games, and fortunately I did succeed. The financial support came after, which was a really great reward for me and my family.”
Finding a balance
But what if an athlete’s team includes someone with a negative outlook, who destroys any positivity that has been built up? “I think first and foremost you need to speak to that person, to see if the negative impact stems from an initial misunderstanding,” stated Eric Alard (FRA), who competed in the bobsleigh at two Olympic Games and subsequently coached the Swiss two-man bobsleigh team to a silver medal at Sochi 2014. “If it continues, you have to find people around you with a positive attitude.
Over the last few days, athletes here have been meeting people from other countries. You have to be open-minded and curious, and always want to speak to other people. Fellow athletes or team-mates can provide positive energy. Don’t ever forget that in the phrase ‘Youth Olympic Games’, you have the word ‘Games’”
And what about activities that help take athletes’ minds off the pressure of competition? “For me it was reading. When I was a little bit nervous, my mind would concentrate solely on my book. Of course, the book would have to be really good. That really helped me before certain races,” recalled Linger. Rudman, meanwhile, had her studies to focus on at the beginning of her athletic career, and later became a mother to two children, who sometimes accompanied her as she travelled to skeleton competitions across the globe. “It’s been good fun!” she exclaimed with a smile.
This led to a discussion about finding the necessary balance between a sporting career, studies, family and friends. “You can’t live and breathe sport all the time, because after a few months, you’ll be fed up and you won’t want to continue. You need to try to find other interests in your life,” noted Alard.
“You’re all at a really good stage in your careers, when you can keep pursuing things outside and alongside your sport because you’re still quite flexible,” added Rudman. “Later, competition schedules can be more taxing and you won’t have that much free time. You should start thinking about preparing for your education and your life after sport, because even though it probably sounds quite far away right now, it creeps up very quickly.”
Asked about her choice of music when preparing for competition, Vonn, the 2010 Olympic downhill champion, explained that it depended on a number of different factors. “Honestly, it depends on the race. I take it as it goes. Sometimes, I’m overly nervous or excited – if I have a chance to break a record or do something special, for example – and I have to calm myself down. Some days it’s a bit more of a grind, and I tend to listen to a little bit more rap music. You just have to see how you feel and prepare the best you can, both emotionally and physically.”
Questions from the audience followed. “What was the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome and how did that change your outlook?” asked one young competitor. For Linger, it was a broken leg from which he struggled to return, until he decided to adopt a positive attitude and do everything he could to come back stronger than before.
For Rudman, her disappointing performance at Vancouver 2010 was a tough blow. “I went away thinking, I can’t believe that’s happened. To not know what was going to happen in the next Olympic cycle was difficult. I had to spend some time away from the sport.
“I had to ask myself, what do I want to achieve? Was I going to retire? I didn’t feel like I had fully achieved everything that I could, so I set myself some targets like winning an overall World Championship title or overall World Cup title. I really went for it, trained really hard and enjoyed myself. I was fortunate to achieve those goals and qualify for the Sochi Games.”
Alard caused great amusement in the audience when answering a question on the difficulties of being far away from his family while competing. “I’m quite old, and in my day, there was no Internet,” he said with smile. “Yes, it’s true, you can live without the Internet. It may seem strange to you, but you can do it! And so back then you spoke to your family once a week on the phone. Now there’s Skype, but it’s almost more difficult to deal with. Try to explain to your family and friends what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and maybe they’ll understand a bit better. And never forget to spend time with them and share your feelings when you get back.”
A final query relating to pressure prior to a final elicited some interesting responses from the panel. “There’s the pressure you put on yourself, and the pressure from the media, your coaches and everywhere else – it all seems to weigh you down,” said Linger. “But I said to myself, this is sport. I love it – it’s my passion, and it’s great. I’ll do my best, and if it doesn’t work out, it’s not going to ruin my life. Of course I wanted to make it onto the podium and be the best, but it’s just sport. It’s fun, and I’m here because I really like what I do, but when I have a bad run it won’t change my actual life.” Nodding her head, Rudman added: “Life goes on. You just have to move on and focus on the next competition.”
Alard concluded the session with some wise advice for the young audience. “Arthur Ashe said that ‘the key to success is self-confidence, and the key to self-confidence is preparation’. Most of your work has already been done in training. If you prepare well, you’ll be confident and you’ll give 100 per cent until the finish line. You’ll only feel positive pressure.”