The (Sometimes) Unbearable Weight of Winning

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By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor

During the final week of September in Yorkshire, a fresh crop of road world champions pulled on new rainbow jerseys, including three young Americans (Congrats Chloe, Quinn, and Megan!). As someone who started winning significant races at a young age, I can say from experience that big wins can bring on unanticipated stress. Some athletes flourish, others struggle. In the past, world and Olympic champions like Pauline Ferrand-Prevot and Jenny Rissveds have spoken openly about the paralyzing weight of a gold medal.

When I won my second road race national championship title in 2010, my coach, Dean Golich, congratulated me. “Winning your first national championship is (comparatively) easy,” he said. “The second, when you find yourself balancing expectations, pressure, and often self-doubt along with your regular training plan? That one is much more difficult.”

Whether your win is public or private, on a small stage or large: How can you continue to succeed athletically – and thrive personally – in the wake of a defining victory?

Avoid comparison

“When you compare yourself to others, their training or their performance, it steals your peace,” Jennings said. “It steals your joy.”

In 2013, Christine Jennings won her first open-water swimming 10k national championship. It was a stunning comeback two years after a potentially career-ending leg fracture, and the victory surprised many in the swimming community.

Still, life as a national champion wasn’t always easy for Jennings.

“A lot of my career, I was the underdog,” Jennings said. “When all eyes were on me, it suddenly felt like a lot of pressure.”

After her victory, Jennings said she struggled with a new impulse to compare herself to the others at the top of their game.

“I wasn’t one to puff myself up,” Jennings said. “It was just, if something came up, I started doubting what I was capable of. I started comparing myself like, ‘Wait, was I even capable?’ ‘Was that a fluke?’ ‘Can I really compete against the best in the world?’ I started questioning when I started comparing myself.”

Jennings found she needed to be confident in the things that brought her joy and strength, rather than analyzing the choices and accomplishments of her competitors.

“Comparison is the thief of joy. I think Theodore Roosevelt said that,” Jennings said. “When I’m a happy swimmer, I swim well. I have to be happy, and then I swim amazingly well.”

Keep doing your work

As a pro, I was incredibly stubborn about my desire to not let cycling define me. I was adamant that my friends, my family, my yoga teacher trainings, my Colorado native status and my dreams of maybe-graduate school represented who I was more than my time racing a bicycle.

My defiant stance was probably obnoxious to some and arguably a bit arrogant to boot. When I retired and pulled the hub straight out of my network of varied-life-interest spokes, I discovered my relationship with cycling was far deeper than I had acknowledged. Still, my boundaries provided a level of safety when Bike World sought to push or pull me onto a path that wasn’t mine.

I also learned – from Dean, and from my youth as a mediocre swimmer – that success is built upon mundanity. Meaning, the habits that get you to your first win are often exactly what you need to get to your second. The people who inspire, uphold, and support you prior to victory remain just as critical after.

A big win can make you feel like you need to step up a level. Instead – pause. Your improvement means that you were already on the right track. Allow any immediate changes to be very small. You are the reason for your success. Honor that.

Maintain your personal connection

In 2004, Rebecca Much won a silver medal in the world championship junior time trial and was catapulted, as an 18-year-old, into racing professionally with T-Mobile, then the top female cycling team in the world.

“I was, I would say, wholly unprepared for what success brought in terms of attention,” Much said. “For me, sport had always been personal. I loved trying to push myself to be as good as I could be. It was weird to all of a sudden have attention.”

Much, who retired from racing in 2010, struggled as the cycling world’s expectations piled on top of her own drive for excellence.

“It only accentuated that personal pushing, to the point where it was really hard to feel like I could ever succeed in that way again.”

“Before, just pushing myself was my motivator, not any particular objective,” Much said. “That was the really fun part of it. When success ended up being a bigger stage, I had never thought about external pressures before, and I wish I had handled them better.”

She says that if she could offer advice to others struggling with external pressures, it would be to remember that sport is not the only important thing in life. Even within athletics, your own dreams and motivations carry far more value than the ones others might try to impose upon you.

“My regret is that I became so myopic,” Much said. “It just turned into making it so that I hated bicycles. I love commuting – bicycles are amazing machines. I still love sport – I love that avenue to push yourself.”

Give your fears voice

Jennings believes strongly in the power of words.

“If you make an agreement in your life,” Jennings said, “Like maybe you decide ‘I’m not good enough’ or you walk into the race, and you say ‘you’re gonna lose’, then you’re gonna lose the race. It’s the same thing with any fears.”

She found she could take away the power of her fears by voicing them to a trusted authority.

“When you’re doubting yourself it’s actually good to go to your coach and say, ‘Hey, I’m having this issue,’ instead of keeping it in the dark,” Jennings said.  “By bringing it into the light, you make it a logical decision.

“Are you going to tell yourself, ‘I formally chose to doubt myself?’ What helped me was to say ‘this is who I believe I am. I believe in what I’m capable of.’ It helps you make a conscious decision to change what you believe about yourself –  with someone present to witness, it makes a huge difference.”

If you allow yourself to remain isolated when overwhelmed, Jennings believes you create your own barriers.

“Those are just ideas we have agreed to be bound by, an agreement within our lives that we have allowed to limit us. If you allow yourself to have a fear of failure, it will limit you.”


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Comments 4

  1. Mara, thanks for another timely article. I will share your column with friends and family, especially since those thoughts and comments reach so many other areas in our lives.

  2. As always, I adore Mara’s columns. So thoughtful, thought-provoking, and authentic. Great information and encouragement for all of us, regardless of our abilities and level we are riding or racing at. Thank you!

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