Dana’s shares her story about training and competing for the 1988 Olympic Games!
Back when I was first training and competing in Taekwondo, I had discovered although I was stronger and faster than most of my competitors, I didn’t have the endurance. And what good was it that I would win the first and second round in our full-contact fighting sport of Taekwondo, yet then lose in the third. The truth of the matter is that I didn’t even have the mindset to persevere. Once things got tough…my mind would overrule my body, and I would just quit! And I knew that if I wanted to be an Olympic contender, I needed to change this! So I decided to go train in upstate New York, with a famous coach, known for producing competitors with amazing stamina. His athletes had that ‘indomitable spirit’ that I was lacking.
During one of the first training sessions, we were doing a repetitious kicking drill which was designed to increase stamina. Everyone had a partner holding a kicking paddle that we kicked as many times and as fast as we could. At some point, when my endurance was failing, he came over and took the paddle from my partner and held it for me. Each time I started to tire and slow down, he yelled at me to continue. About the third time this happened, I snapped, and yelled back, “I’m TRYING!” Well, he lowered the kicking pad, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Try…not good enough!” “Everyone ‘try,’ not everyone ‘champion.’” “Don’t ‘try!’” “Just DO!” And he raised the kicking paddle for me to continue with the drill.
The thing is…how do you ‘just DO,’ when you don’t know that you can DO? How do you ‘do,’ when you don’t believe that you can do?” Well, I learned the amazingly important answer to the first half of that puzzling question in another training session with that coach!
I learned this lesson during a long distance run. One of the biggest elements to this coach’s training program was running. That was something I had been doing as little of as possible. I had discovered back in high school, that long distant running would make my heart start ‘racing’ 90 thousand miles and hour. And then the racing heart would trigger an asthmatic reaction that would close off my lungs. But since I was there in New York to train and learn, and I was determined to improve, I went with the program as best as I could.
One of the runs he’d have us do was an extremely difficult one up and through a cemetery. It seemed impossible for me to do this run successfully, and on my last two efforts, I had been forced to stop and walk up the steepest hill. On this third attempt, despite my determination, I found myself laboring as usual as we began to climb the dreaded hill. About a quarter of the way up, with my breathing coming hard and fast, my heart started racing. A few beats later, the asthmatic reaction set in, and my desperate lungs began closing off further. Panic stricken, I came wheezing to a stop, bending over, trying desperately to get some air into my starved lungs. My coach, who’d been staying alongside me to encourage me, came up to me – I thought to help reassure me. Not!
To my surprise, he came up behind me, placed his hand on my back and started pushing me unceremoniously up the hill! Oh the indignity of it. He completely ignored the fact that I couldn’t even breathe, and that I was close to passing out or getting violently sick. “How insensitive!” “How unbelievable!” As I stumbled forward from the pressure of his hand, I became angry and started moving forward on my own. As I put one foot in front of the other, muttering angrily to myself, trying to pull away, he kept pace, with his hand resting on my back as a reminder that he was not going to let me stop. Fuming with anger and indignation, it was with surprise that I discovered I had reached the top of the hill, and that I hadn’t passed out. Although my breathing was still labored and wheezing, I discovered that, if I could just keep putting one foot in front of the other…I could keep going!
That revelation sounded off in my head like a trumpet from heaven. As my coach pulled ahead and let me continue on my own down the hill that thought pounded in my brain with each forward footstep. I realized that I had been thinking, “I can’t make it,” “I can’t do this.” “I’m going to pass out!” Yet, once I had taken my mind off of those negative thoughts, and focused on something else…I had discovered that, “Hey,” “I could do it!” “I could keep going.” From that time on… every time I began to think, “I can’t,” and want to come screeching to a halt… I would force myself to keep taking just one more step…and I would replace my negative thoughts with positive ones!
Throughout my Olympic training I used what I had learned with that coach, as much as possible. In theory, it was easy to replace the negative thoughts with positive affirmations. I just substituted “I can’t,” with “I can.” “I won’t,” with “I will!” What made this difficult is that I found it much easier to slip backwards into what I already knew – those negative thoughts – than to convince myself of something that I couldn’t actually ‘picture’ in my mind. It was really hard to stay positive, when one half of my brain was saying, “I can,” while the other half was saying, “What makes you think that!?” And I knew that if I wanted to be an Olympic contender…I needed to get both of those halves working together as a whole! I desperately needed to solve the second half of that question of how do you ‘just do,’ when you don’t truly ‘believe’ that you can do…before I entered that competition ring at the Olympics!
Our United States Taekwondo team arrived in Seoul, Korea two weeks before the Games, to do the final, most important training before our competition was to begin. Unfortunately, I had sustained a back injury at the Olympic Team trials a month and a half beforehand. And although I had tried all kinds of modern medicine, sports medicine, and holistic remedies, the injury had gotten progressively worse. All of the doctors agreed, that the only thing that would help, was rest. But, there was no way I could do that, and have a chance of winning! By the time we arrived in Seoul, the pain was excruciating.
During our third practice in Seoul, we were doing a kicking drill where each of our teammates held a kicking pad at different heights, and one by one we would run the gauntlet of pads, kicking and screaming like banshees. When it was my turn, I started out kicking ferociously. “Hey…this was the Olympics…I was going to do this!” I was doing fine, until I came to the very last high kick. As my foot reached for that pad, a lightening bolt of pain shot through me and dropped me to my knees in tears and agony. As my coach and teammates turned aside, I gingerly picked myself up, and limped off to the side. It was obvious to all of us, that my Olympic dream was over before it even began! I was devastated!
That night, I agonized over this dilemma. This was the Olympics! I couldn’t just give up! I have sacrificed so much to be here! Yet, what could I do? If I didn’t train these two weeks, I knew that, even if I could compete I would feel unprepared…and I knew that ‘mental’ negativity would interfere with my determination. Later that night, after hours of torturous twisting and turning in bed, I came up with a plan of action…or in-action as it turned out. I would practice by visualizing the things that I needed to work on!
So that’s what I did. For the remaining days before our competition, while everyone else practiced physically, I practiced mentally. I would find a quiet place, sit, meditate and visualize my attacks, and my counters. I saw myself executing everything with perfect precision and timing. I saw myself winning match after match!
As the morning of my competition dawned with my back rested enough to compete, I felt it in my spirit that I was ready for competition. I felt good! I felt confident! Then…as I began warming up…that old fear of failure started creeping in again. Who did I think I was? What made me think that I was good enough to do this? As we were called to enter the competition area, I frantically searched my brain for the answer to that question,
Suddenly realized that I had lots of reasons to think that I was good enough! I had practiced physically, and I had practiced mentally! I had the strength, the speed, the training and the endurance. And that’s when it hit me, that I had the answer to the second part of that question of, “How do you just do, when you don’t believe you can do?” You build your confidence and self-esteem through preparation! And I WAS prepared. I had done everything possible to be prepared for this exact moment! I WAS good enough! So I told myself, “Be not afraid,” and I took that final step into the competition ring!
When my first match was halfway over, I knew that although my body was not 100%, my positive mindset made up for it. As I faced my toughest opponent (Chinese Taipei) in the semi-finals, I knew in my heart, that I was good enough to win. When my hand was raised after my final match to let everyone know I’d won the Olympic Gold, I smiled to myself, because I realized that I was, indeed, a winner. I had faced my fears, and overcome the limitations of my mind!