Sirius Musings: The Art of Letting Go
The year was 2000. I spent 10 months on a mission – to make the USA Olympic team for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. I decided that to find my greatest strength, I needed to do this on my own. Inspired by great athletes like Mark Allen and Brad Bevan. Those lone soldiers that had a laser focus and an internal drive fueling their everyday quest to be the very best.
So, I left the USA and flew out to Cronulla, Australia, getting a 9-month lease on a little 3rd floor apartment near the beach. I had a small sofa, a small round one-person dining table, and an altitude tent for my bed, and a whole army of cockroaches.
I laid out a plan with then-coach, Kiwi Jack Ralston, to diligently go about checking off all the necessary boxes of training tasks, and mental exercises so that I could arrive on the Sydney Olympic qualifying race day, 1 million percent prepared.
Every single day, I trained meticulously, following each hard training session, with proper fueling, and recovery, and reflection. I was eating dinner by 5pm every night, doing my abdominal routine by 7:15 and in bed by 8 every single day like clockwork. Before I went to sleep, I went though my “perfect race” from start to finish, every single night for the entire time I was there.
Visualising every single aspect of the course from my arrival on site, to my set up of transition, to my warm up, to the first dive into the Sydney harbour. My visualisation saw me executing to perfection the necessary plan to secure my spot on the US Olympic team.
As I stood on the pontoon on April 16th 2000, I had never felt so well prepared. I knew that I was in the form of my career thus far, and after a 4th place finish on this same course a year earlier, I felt confident I was capable of getting the job done, on this day.
The gun went off, we dove in the harbour, a clean dive and exactly the start I had visualised for 365 nights in a row. But then, about 15 strokes in, I got an elbow to the head, as I ducked in reaction, the arm came up and around my shoulder, pushing me under the water, and subsequently swum over by the two people directly behind me. I gasped for breath, and tried to regain my composure, at which point the front pack had put about 10 metres into me. I was now in the second pack.
I learned how to swim when I was 23. Somehow, through relentless hard work, and never-ending focus, I had improved my swim to the point of being able to hang on for dear life, to the front pack as long as I got off to a smooth start. This, of course, is what I had been visualising every single night leading into this day’s race.
So what happened in that moment came as a total surprise to me, and because I had never prepared for ANYTHING BUT the perfect race, I was lost with how to manage this unforeseen circumstance?
I swam as hard as I could, more breathless than I should have been after the countless hard swims I had been doing in training. I hung on for dear life as the 2nd pack swam passed me and the third pack came and dragged me along to the finish of the swim.
Once on the bike, again I was so unfamiliar with what was happening around me. None of the players I had imagined to be with me at this point of the race were with me. They were all minutes ahead. I got on my bike, and pedaled my heart out, not going anywhere…the pack I was with, dropped me, and more and more people kept flying by me like I was standing still.
I was racing as if I had never trained before in my life. I was frozen. I was detached
I was distraught. I was choking…
That day was a complete disaster. Heart wrenching. Devastating, and debilitating.
But, it provided me with some of the most powerful lessons I could have ever received. Lessons that provided me with the future insight that gave me the power and understanding to ultimately start winning races, winning a World Championship, and earning the #1 world ranking for two years in a row (2001 and 2002).
#1: In visualisation practice, you must visualise everything going right, and feeling great and executing to perfection. But, you must also visualise everything that could possible go wrong. How will you respond? How will you adjust, how will you persevere and finish the race strong? Overcoming any obstacles and finishing in the best way possible. This is a key to visualisation and is what makes it such a powerful tool if you cover all the proverbial bases.
#2. I had made the Olympic trials the BE ALL, END ALL. It was all that mattered to me. I left my family, my home. all my supporters. I put my life on hold, I didn’t socialise, I never treated myself to a naughty dinner, or a delectable desert. I was a soldier confined to the stringent rules I thought necessary to achieve such a huge goal. Nothing else mattered but making that Olympic team. I was setting myself up for failure. The stakes were too high. There was no balance to steady me should the winds change and ruffle my feathers.
Cut forward to 2001. Many changes occurred between April 2000 and July 22, 2001. I had been given the opportunity to train with the great Brett Sutton. That was thanks to my biggest female idol of the time, Loretta Harrop. She felt sorry for me when I shared my story about wanting it so bad, and failing so miserably. She convinced the Doc to give me a chance.
His first lesson to me was to let go of the “have to-s” and focus on the “want to-s”
I wanted to be the very best that I could be in this sport that I was so passionate about. I wanted to see how fast I could go. I wanted to achieve things that I never thought possible. So, the key, let go of outcome related thoughts, and focuses instead on just enjoying the process, giving it my all and doing the best that I could.
I trained harder than I ever had in my life. Achieving tasks that seemed downright crazy. There was an odd pleasure in taking my body to these extremes. Being faced with the potential for failure every single day, but being okay with that. Giving everything I had to see if maybe, just maybe I might be able to accomplish what I set out to do.
July 22, 2001. Place: ITU World Championships, Edmonton Canada. I exited the water in the 3rd pack. A horrible swim. I came into this race ranked #2 in the world. I wasn’t sure I was going to be allowed to race because my federation was against having me race when I had missed the USA qualifier due to injury earlier in the year.
The ITU however took mercy on me, and due to my high ranking told me I could race the night before. So I was just happy to have the opportunity to be on the start line at this great world championship!
Out with the 3rd pack. It didn’t faze me. I didn’t question it. I didn’t mourn it, I accepted it, got on my bike, put my head down and decide that regardless what those around me were willing to do or not, I was going to ride as hard as I possibly could to get as close to the front as possible.
Staying in the moment, check. Keeping the emotions and judgment out, check.
Laser focused on laying it all out there, check.
Within a lap, I caught the 2nd pack. I went straight to the front and just kept hammering. By the end of the last lap I had somehow caught the front pack, with the whole 2nd pack with me. I could see the smirks on some of my competitor’s faces, thinking “Geez she really f****d herself riding that hard, she’s going to die on the run.” Well my head surprisingly was not thinking about that, and instead was thinking “Keep pushing, flirt with your limits, press hard and see how fast you can go, and how quick you can get to the finish.”
Focus in the moment, check. Fully engaged in the process, check. Thoughts on what ifs or where am I, or who is around me? Non-existent. For the first time in my racing career, I was fully engaged in the moment. Fully present with every single movement of every tiny muscle in my body. I could hear my breath, I was in the zone. I was simply running hard, running within myself with no consideration about placing pace or what was going on around me.
I crossed the line as “WORLD CHAMPION SIRI LINDLEY” and it was then, that I basically woke up to the deafening crowds, the pumping music and the extreme emotion pouring out of me. I had achieved my impossible dream. I had achieved something that had been my ultimate goal. What seemed impossible was now my reality. It was the greatest moment of my life. Had I not failed so miserably in 2000, I would probably never have become a World Champion on that day.
As an athlete I made every mistake in the world. Time consuming mistakes, heart-breaking mistakes, and mistakes that humiliated me, or hurt me. But though these mistakes, I found the way. I found my way. I found me.
As a coach, I embrace every aspect of this incredible journey. Every athlete I coach has a different experience. The good, the bad, the wins and the losses, they all combine to bring out the very best in each athlete and to provide them with an experience that truly molds them into the amazing athletes and human beings they become.
Let go of the heavy burden of outcome related goals that you obsess over, and that have the ability to destroy you if during the race, the chances of you achieving it get lesser and lesser due to circumstances on the day. Let go of that heavy load, and instead focus on just being the very best that you can be in every moment.
Handle misfortune with grace. Steady yourself under pressure, and find your strength regardless of how hard things can get. Be the best that you can be. No judgment, I guarantee you will not only see better results but your experience will truly be so very rich.