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Limitless potential – lessons from Silken Laumann

When Silken Laumann was eight years old, author W.O. Mitchell came to her school to read from Who Has Seen the Wind. She decided right then that she wanted to become a writer. This, despite the fact that she couldn’t actually read at the time because of what was then called a “learning issue.”
Laumann has since written a book, Child’s Play, about the importance of unstructured outdoor play, and she’s currently writing her autobiography, called Unsinkable. It’s a fitting title for an athlete renowned the world over for her bronze medal rowing triumph in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona just 10 weeks after a catastrophic rowing accident that severed all the muscles and tendons in one leg from mid-knee to ankle. The doctor who first treated her tried to reassure her that she might row recreationally sometime in the future. Laumann would have none of it.

Dreaming through doubt

“I just couldn’t grasp the doctor’s words that I wasn’t going to the Olympics,” Laumann told delegates to the Canadian Public Relations Society national conference, Currents 2012, today.

After 10 days – and five operations – at a hospital in Germany, Laumann was transferred to Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital where friends set up a stationary bike on an adjacent hospital bed with hand grips in place of pedals.

“It wasn’t ideal Olympic training,” she admitted. “We’re always looking for the perfect plan. What lies between where we are now and where we dream we’re going is belief that somehow, some way, we’re going to get there.

“Beyond anything else it was belief that got me to the starting line [for the Barcelona Olympics]. I just kept dreaming and pushed through fear and doubt on a daily basis.”

The surprising element to Laumann’s story is not that she experienced fear and doubt after such a devastating accident, but that she experiences these emotions regularly.

“There’s a little wizened man on my shoulder – the voice of fear and doubt. He never goes away – no matter how successful I am.”

Success means get used to getting dumped!

Laumann’s first epiphany about silencing that voice came when she took up rowing.

“The first time I rowed I set a world record – of tipping 21 times!” she said.  “I learned a valuable lesson: if I was going to be good at anything in life I was going to have to get used to being dumped in the river.”

She has been figuratively “dumped” in spectacular ways since then. There was a divorce and then a very public child custody battle with her ex-husband. There was her disqualification from the 1994 Olympics – where she was favoured to win gold – after changes to the starting rules resulted in 116 false starts among rowers. And then there was the 1995 Pan Am Games in Argentina, where her singles gold medal and that of the Canadian women’s quad team were revoked after Laumann tested positive for drugs after using the wrong type of medication to relieve a cold.

“The media frenzy that ensued was unbelievable. I was in the top half of the newspapers for a week with headlines like ‘Sleepy or Dopey?’ I lost my confidence for the next seven months. I was afraid of making a mistake, of falling into the spotlight the same way. And the best way to fail is to focus on what you don’t want.”

Pull, pull, pull!

Near the end of what she describes as the most painful season of her life – and her most under-performing – Laumann found herself sobbing in the shower just before that year’s World games.

“I was sobbing, and then I was angry. I realized I was sick of being afraid and sorry for myself.  I went out there with no race plan, just pull, pull, pull!”

She pulled herself to a second place finish – a feat she repeated at that year’s Olympics in Atlanta – but most importantly, she pulled herself out of her funk. “I’ve never been so happy in my life because I’d usurped that demon of doubt. I will visit fear again but I will never live there again.” It’s a message she extols in speaking engagements around the world. “I’ve learned that dreams are powerful. They move us beyond beliefs that limit us. Dreams allow us to be audacious. They are for each and every one of us no matter where we are in our lives.”

While very few of us will win an Olympic medal, Laumann insists that everyone has an accomplishment in his or her lives that is the equivalent of that seminal Barcelona bronze.

“We all have one of these,” she said, holding up the medal, “something that represents us at our very best, when we were very focused on achieving something. Because when we put ourselves forward boldly and honestly, magic happens.”

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