I remember clearly the first real speed skating race I ever won. It was at the North American age class championships in Lake Placid, New York circa 1991. It was a long track 800m mass-start race and I won it, surprisingly, beating a group of girls who, until that point, beat me handily nearly every time we stepped onto the ice to race.
I can still feel the raw disbelief, excitement and thrill of that feat as if it were yesterday. My whole body: heart, gut and mind, simultaneously merged at that glorious, fleeting instant and my insides just smiled all over. Although a globally insignificant event, it was, at the time, extraordinarily huge in my young mind. Until then I didn’t even know that I wanted to win or that I could win or that the best way to pursue winning was to not pursue it at all.
I treasure that memory now, where I first realized that maybe I had some real, albeit distant, potential to match my oversized Olympic dreams. Still, I didn’t think much about winning when I was a young skater, probably because I didn’t do it very often. I won enough times to feel that perfect rush but seldom enough to learn how hard I had to work to do it again. Looking back it’s clear to me that I stayed true to those first lessons on winning.
When I think about my career I think about the incredible amount of hard work I did to realize that distant potential. I think about the uncanny patience I maintained while slowly, methodically, and consciously working towards my goals. And I think about those brief, outstanding moments when my desire to win united with that perfect balance between intention, execution and focus, where the end result was actually winning.
Sport at the highest level is often regarded as being about winning, but over the years I found myself gravitating towards a philosophy where, to me, it didn’t always mean a gold medal. I learned I could achieve that elusive ‘perfect race’ feeling without being at the top of the podium. In fact, extricating myself from the pressure to win and seeking instead that awesome feeling is what fuelled my motivation for so long and led to so many great races.
Because of that it never occurred to me that there would come a time I might not want to do this anymore. It truly never did, not once in twenty-three years. I always thought I would want to do this until the End of Time. So it came as a shock, and a hard truth, as, over the last few months, it slowly dawned on me that I really didn’t want to do this anymore.
Which begs the question, when is the right time to retire? For me, it turns out, the right time is when that urge to win/be my best has gently dissolved into something softer; into a less explicit and more fluid aim, where the goal is no longer to skate fast, or to be the fastest, or to be my fastest, but rather to simply enjoy skating for skating’s sake.
So there it is. I’m retiring from competitive speed skating. I’m not retiring because I don’t love speed skating or can’t fathom doing the work or can’t skate fast anymore, it’s simply because I feel fulfilled by what I’ve accomplished and am no longer inspired to strive for the same thing; my heart is full. I should not be surprised that I have changed, even though I am. Isn’t that just life, as they say? It would be more surprising, really, if I didn’t change and was driven to continually achieve more of the same.
It was difficult to make this decision for one main reason: I know I could go back. There is no doubt in my mind that I could regain the level I once achieved, maybe even surpass it (or not!). True, it would take a while and a further inordinate amount of hard work to get there but I think I could do it. The crux of it is this: seeking the same reward has lost its luster. Knowing that I could go back but choose not to makes it that much harder to walk away, but it is also likely to be one of the most powerful decisions I’ll ever make.
At first it really bothered me that the little spark was gone. I had trouble admitting it to myself, believing that I was done. I felt like I was letting myself down. The truth is I love training, I love training hard, I love racing, I love travelling, I love the people; I love everything about being an athlete. So the fact that the little spark was fading away seemed impossible to me. But when I think about the reason I started this in the first place and that little eleven year-old girl who’s dreams were sparked by others’ Olympic stories, it would be unrealistic of me to think it could last, unchanging, forever.
So letting go became the challenge and eventually I came to realize that hanging on because I like the lifestyle and can make a decent living would be a slight to the sport and the ideals of the Olympic movement I worked so hard to uphold. Sport at the highest level commands commitment, focus, discipline, intensity, integrity and most importantly, my good friend, Little Spark. In my mind these requirements are inextricably linked, and while I suspect I will be an athlete of sorts for the rest of my life, missing one or two of them is not an option when seeking to perform at the highest level.
It wouldn’t be fair to those who support me or to my coaches and teammates or, most importantly, to myself. It took some time away, a healthy dose of brutal honesty and a heap of self-awareness for me to admit that and although I’ve second-guessed myself a number of times, no matter how I slice it I always come back to the same thing: it is quite simply, sadly, happily, the end.
A few months ago I was scouring the Internet, as we are wont to do these days, looking for a magazine subscription. Quite by accident I came across a random quote in cyberspace. Unexpectedly, these words crystallized precisely, in written form, how I feel about retiring. These words reflected back to me the clear and honest truth. The quote read, “From the strain of the doing into the peace of the done.” Isn’t that just lovely? It was as if a huge sigh washed over my body and I could finally let go of the strain and take hold of the peace.
Here, in the peace of the done, I now cherish every single damn thing I’ve ever experienced in this sport. To say that I’m grateful for the opportunity is the understatement of the century.
From where I started to where I finished: from losing to winning and learning to living, what a gift.
P.s. the concussion has nothing to do with my retirement.