Four Olympic champions took to the stage for a ‘Chat with Champions’ session on 14 February in Lillehammer. The theme of the discussion was ‘Overcoming Barriers to Greatness’, part of the Learn & Share programme at the 2016 Youth Olympic Games. In attendance were moguls skier Hannah Kearney (USA), 2010 Olympic champion and 2014 Olympic bronze medallist; her compatriot Ross Powers, snowboard half-pipe Olympic champion at Salt Lake City 2002; Dominique Gisin (SUI), joint winner of the downhill along with Tina Maze at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games; and Tony Estanguet, the French three-time Olympic canoe slalom champion.
First up, the athletes were asked to share their thoughts on the important of mental strength in sport. Talking about why most people take up a sport and how they develop, Dominique Gisin said, “I think most athletes at a young age do it naturally. So many important things happen in a natural way. You have to fall in love with the sport you do, and then you have to kind of get almost obsessed to a point where the first thing you think in a morning is ‘how can I get better?’ and the last thing in the evening before you go to bed is how you can get better, maybe you even dream about it! And then of course of you progress and as soon as you have everything together, like the technical and physical skills, then you can work even harder on your mental skills.”
Hannah Kearney shared how she used to fake feeling confident in front of her opponents. She also said that training hard and working out in the gym gave her an extra confidence boost as she knew she had done everything possible to be ready.
Her view was shared by Tony Estanguet, who said that, “There is a time of thinking about performance, or preparing and analysing everything you have to do, and there is a time for action. A few seconds before the start you have to switch and say, ‘OK, I can go, I am prepared, I trust myself that I will be able to do it.’”
The next discussion revolved around how best to deal with injuries and failures. Gisin suffered a number of injuries during the course of her career, but explained that when it happens, “It’s important to go through it and give yourself a moment to feel disappointed and to feel devastated. If you’re not devastated when you did wrong or got injured maybe you should quit! I think it’s OK to feel bad but then there’s also a moment where you have to stop, stand up and find the power and will to pursue your dream. No matter how hard it is it’s worth fighting for those dreams and those emotions!”
As Ross Powers pointed out, it’s inevitable to feel disappointed when you work hard and don’t achieve your goals. His advice was to “take the good and the bad and build on it. If you really work hard in the off season and in the gym and you know you’re strong, you’re going to be able to perform better.”
The other two athletes agreed, adding that failures and injuries can be key to coming back stronger than ever. They can help an athlete to realise just how much they love their sport and to see training from a difference perspective. Despite that, Gisin, who has had nine knee injuries, said she wouldn’t wish her injuries on anyone and urged the young athletes to visit the injury prevention booths on site in Lillehammer!
When asked about his most special moment as an athlete, Tony straight away named his first ever Olympic experience in Sydney in 2000. In particular he said that, “The moment in the Opening Ceremony in Sydney 2000 gave me something special at that time that helped me a lot to become Olympic champion.”
Powers was asked whether he had always dreamed of becoming an Olympian and replied that, in fact, he hadn’t. “I was into snowboarding and snowboarding wasn’t in the Olympics until I was 18-years-old. I was always into sport, from biking to soccer to skiing, snowboarding, swimming. I grew up with the sport and was lucky enough to become an Olympian and it was an amazing experience.”
Things were different for Dominique, who grew up idolising Swiss skier Vreni Schneider. “When I was 11-years-old I won a race and she was the one who gave me the medal. From that day on I wanted to be like her. I never achieved a thousandth of what she achieved but it was so amazing to follow that dream!”
Sport: more than winning
Finally, a young athlete from Greece asked what message the ambassadors would give to athletes who were unlikely to win a winter sports medal. For Hannah Kearney, sport isn’t just about winning. She also complimented the Learn & Share space the athletes could visit, saying that it “is one of the coolest things I have seen because you can learn about how sport can be used in different way and its possible career opportunities for athletes [beyond competing as an athlete themselves]. So sports science, technology, anti-doping and fair play. There are so many different aspects of sports that people who love sports can be involved in and not have to try and win an Olympic medal.”
Dominique Gisin summed up her feelings to round off the event, to much applause from the audience. “Do you remember the cross-country skier from Kenya in the 1998 Olympics and everyone waited for him at the finish? I had a wonderful talk with him. Sport is about so much more than winning. It’s a school for life. I quit last spring and I have never had a single dream about standing on the podium in Sochi or winning the medal. All I dream about is travelling with my team-mates, being out in -37° and racing at Lake Louise, walking through the craziest hotels in the world, sleeping in one room with eight people and bags stacked in the corner. That’s what I dream about. That’s the experience and the spirit I’ll take with me for the rest of my life. And I think that’s what sport is really about: the experiences and the emotions. No matter how far you go, if you push your own limits and if you have fun it’s worth it.”