It’s 2007, Canadian Olympic swimmer, Brent Hayden, wins gold in Melbourne, Australia at the World Championships.
There is just over 1 year until the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China. This medal is a big deal.
From my home in Toronto, as a sixteen-year-old, I watch Brent receive his World Championship gold medal on the live stream. I watch it again, and again until I finally stand up from my chair and pace through my parents’ house tossing ideas around in my head about how I’m going to get myself on that Olympic team one year from now. Flashes of doubt crash into my spinning brain and I repeatedly ask myself
“Are you nuts? Do you really think that this is something you are capable of? You think that you are in the same category as THE Brent Hayden? HA! You’d be lucky to be on the same planet as that legend. He’s a Canadian hero, you’re just a regular club swimmer!”
Although at the time I can see Brent Hayden is a human being… I don’t really know how human he is. I’ve only ever seen him on the big screen, and maybe once or twice at a National Swim Meet, walking out for a final or standing on a podium. Watching him race is insane. I picture myself holding onto a rope and water skiing behind him as he swims the 100 metre Freestyle. He’s FAST! And seeing the race live doesn’t help me to understand that Brent is more similar to me than I imagine. My mind wonders, “Does he eat the same food as me on race day? Does he hang out with his friends when he’s not training? How much does he sleep? I bet he doesn’t get nervous, not that guy… He’s big, strong and never looks anything short of a superhero when I see him… The guy even has a Superman ‘S’ on his chest. I mean, if that doesn’t say superhero, I don’t know what does.” I can’t imagine Brent has ever lost a race, or false started, or missed a qualifying standard… and if he did “I bet his super human powers” … Ok, maybe I didn’t refer to it as that, but his “‘superhuman athletic talent’, picked him up and took him to the next level, shortly after any small letdowns.”
The first time I was at a swim meet with Brent, and many other Olympians I ran around the pool deck collecting autographs on a kickboard. I still have the memento and actually, many of the athletes whose autographs I got became good friends of mine later in life. I’ve never been one to go nuts for famous people or major idols, but without having a real connection to these Olympians, and without knowing them beyond an autograph and a photo, it was tough to know if they were really similar to me, or if… just maybe, all of them were a bit super human, like how they appear on TV every 4 years.
I mean, I could commit, and loved winning… but was it realistic to think that hard work, focus and determination could really get me to the top? I don’t know, but the first thing I definitely needed was the confidence to believe that I belonged with the best.
I needed to be empowered by connecting with somebody that I viewed as successful. My mom encouraging me, or my coach telling me I could be the best… that didn’t cut it in my high school years. Fresh exposure to one of the best in the world? That would work. Exposure to somebody who had achieved the highest ranks in sport or in business, exposure to people who, most importantly, I saw as successful. I needed to see first-hand, that my idols were real people and just like me. I needed to get to know them, and I needed them to treat me like I was one of them.
Lucky for me I came in contact and was befriended by a couple of Olympians. Once I belonged to the same group as my role models, my vision for my future would forever change. Confidence in myself, my goals and my daily commitments would sky rocket, and suddenly I would feel enabled to do anything I set my heart on.
For me, it was swimming…but it could have been anything.
I’m not saying that being friends with an Olympian magically makes you an Olympian. Trust me, I know the process, and unfortunately that’s not how it works.
It’s stressful, awkward, and often the last thing teens want to do is listen to what their parents, teachers and coaches have to say. That’s not to say they won’t…but I think we can all agree, that if there is ever a period in life when confusion and rebelliousness is evident, it’s during adolescence.
In the teenage years, being a leader can be terrifying. We often become sheep, travel in a pack and consult each other before making any decision. Although I’m big on encouraging leadership, most kids in high school lean toward following somebody: well, fingers crossed that your child chooses the right leader.
For many young adults, Olympians are role models and their success is well understood. Youth see Olympians as national heroes. They would love the chance to emulate them, relate to them, and turn to them for advice and acceptance. I know this, I drove across Canada last year; coast to coast visiting various youth groups, and every time I walked into a room, the realizations came quickly, “You’re smaller than you look on TV” “Hey! My sister has those shoes too!”. Even just walking in their presence allowed them to see that I was more like them, than they ever imagined
It can be hard to explain to youth that, Jimmy’s Dad is a very successful business man or that Sally’s Mom is an accomplished academic, both of whom could be relied upon for solid advice. Olympians are clear cut success stories to teenagers across the world. They’re put on a pedestal and getting to know an Olympian could forever change the way they see themselves in our world. An Olympian, as a mentor would provide them with a personal role model, somebody they see as successful.
Martha McCabe did not create Head to Head to set out in search of Canada’s next Olympian but if every Head to Head Olympian can spark that flame of passion or that confidence to go after something…anything, or share experiences that resonate with one quietly struggling teenager, it’s doing its job of empowering our next generation.
As parents, teachers and coaches; just toying around with the idea, is something my ‘get it done’ mind set will never understand. If you are genuine and serious about wanting to provide your kids with the best possible exposures growing up you need to act on what your gut tells you, and you need to act fast, because the longer you sit back and wait, the sooner it will be far, far too late.