When I did a personal best time and finished 6th in the final of the 200m Breaststroke at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, I felt like a failure. Without a medal, I was coming home empty-handed and as far as I was concerned, that was not good enough.
When I retired from competitive swimming in 2000 after five years on the Australian team, I felt like a failure. I had missed out on the Sydney Olympic Games team because of a flu and as far as I was concerned, that was not good enough.
When, years later, I looked back on my 20-odd international finals, my incredible memories, my privileged swimming career as a whole, I felt like a failure and I was sure I was doomed to a life of constant disappointment because I had never managed to capture the glittery prize at the end of the race. As far as I was concerned, that was not good enough.
Of course, I never told anybody about what was really going through my mind. As a sports-person you know that the sportsmanlike thing to do is talk about how grateful you are for the times you’ve had, how you are proud of your efforts, how it is the journey that is the important thing, that the other competitor should be commended for being better on the day, blah, blah, blah. And a lot of the time I managed to convince myself that was what I really believed.
But for years after my retirement I suffered a depression that sent me on a self-destructive cycle that I could not get myself out of. On the surface I was an all-together, dynamic, high-achieving young woman with the world at her feet, but inside I was a frightened, empty fraud.
Why? The definition of success.
When we are young, we want to emulate what we see around us and later we still find ourselves, even if unwittingly, aiming to reproduce what we are shown of the world. On the TV, in magazines, on the internet, even on our breakfast cereal boxes we are surrounded by the shining images of the successful – world record holders, gold medallists, the most talented of the sporting world. Just as beauty is defined by the most clear-skinned, bouncy-haired, digitally enhanced, nipped and tucked models, success is defined by outstanding achievers in every field. The motivation to be like them was what drove my competitive spirit in the early days.
And why? Because that was where the fame and fortune lay. To be the best meant sponsorships, financial relief for my family who had mortgaged everything on my dream; it meant media attention and recognition; it meant a stamp of approval from the whole world. But I failed to see how quickly the world can crucify and forget the cricketer who fails to take the wickets, the runner who doesn’t make the semis, the team that loses a few matches on the run.
What I have learned in the past few years is that Pierre De Coubertin chose “Higher, Stronger, Faster” as his Olympic motto because he understood that success is not about winning. He never intended for The Games to be about the highest, strongest or fastest athletes. Like beauty that is defined by the quality of one’s life rather than the clarity of one’s skin, De Coubertin’s notion of success was defined by the quality of the effort.
To always strive to be better than you were yesterday; to be stronger, kinder, more honest than you were. To give life a good shake and to move on when your time is up, this is what success is about. Some may have fantastic bodies and beautiful cheekbones, some may have gold medals and world records – good on them. But, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.”
So here’s to the anonymous, the unrecognised, the ‘also ran’. It is your face I see on my cereal box in the mornings.