So it’s finally time to stop sitting on this and publish.
I wrote this post several months ago while I was still in Rio after the conclusion of competition. I haven’t been ready to post it for a lot of reasons, but have been working up to it over the past week. The things I discuss here are still pretty raw though some time and distance has helped a lot. Some of them are probably things I will never completely get over or forget.
I think about a lot of this stuff every day, punctuated by many awkward “Oh, you weren’t in the 8+…?” moments over the past few months — nothing new, as I’ve been the foremost authority on etiquette for admitting you are not a World or Olympic Champion for the past ten years. But it’s never been so painful to do as it has been since August. Elite sport exposes us to a lot of things that aren’t easy, but balancing your own disappointment with genuine happiness for your teammates is right up there near the top of the list. Especially when you’ve been doing it as long as I have.
Still lots more to come. Peace. –MK
Written August 24, 2016 but posted today, December 12, 2016.
I placed fifth at the Olympics. Please stop saying congratulations.
I have spent the past week floating around Rio–distracted, sad. I’m supposed to be having the time of my life and appreciating the magic of the Olympic experience, but I am instead consumed by the overwhelming realization that ten years of training have culminated in the biggest disappointment I have ever faced as an athlete. It is so big; the miss so massive, that it’s almost impossible for me to really and fully comprehend how devastating it is to have come to this point and failed. And not just fail, but fail epically. The 2016 season from start to finish has been my worst-ever competitive season as a US National Team athlete. Coming off of the momentum I felt I was building in 2014 and 2015, this is particularly difficult to face, and the sense of loss I feel having invested so much time and effort in to this process with no tangible reward seems impossible to escape. There isn’t a next time or a way to ever make up for not medaling at my third Olympics. It is something that will always be one of the most complex disappointments of my life–and one I may never be able resolve.
Making the Team for Rio was an exciting achievement. I was happy to have made a third Olympic team in Rowing; it’s not something that many other American women have done. It is always an honor and privilege to represent the United States in competition, and to have done it multiple times is very special. I recognize that. But that has never been enough. As a returning Olympic medalist and defending World Champion, it is not even close to enough. “Making it” or “just being here” is not why I returned from London and not why I did really a lot of things I did not want to do or even agree with since 2013. I didn’t train the way I did and push myself to these places in order just to participate. I did it to win. I did it to achieve the goals set by and for our team. I did it to continue the work I have been doing since I got here, ten years ago, and to create new standards of excellence and medal opportunities for the female athletes who will come after me. The goal was never just to get to Rio. The goal was to make myself and my team better than we have ever been. And I failed.
I have already been reassured by many people that they aren’t disappointed in our result, because just participating is enough–just having gotten to Rio is an honor no matter how we did. But I can say with total certainty that as an American athlete, I do not know a single person in my life who would not have been just a little more proud had I brought home a medal in 2016. Since I didn’t, there is an inherent disappointment built in to the reactions of friends, family, fans, supporters–and I don’t blame you. After supporting me for this long with places to stay, cars to drive, odd jobs, regular jobs, meals, tolerance, patience, and friendship, you have a right to be disappointed. But it does kill me to know that I have disappointed so many people in my life, no matter how much they deny it or gloss it over by saying that they are proud. We had every resource that we needed to be able to deliver in Rio, and we let you all down. I am embarrassed that we wasted the generosity of the many communities who helped to get us there.
As a senior member of the team, it was my responsibility to check and double check that we were doing everything right to give ourselves the best opportunity to win in Rio. No one has rowed in more American Women’s Quads than I have, so if there was every any doubt as to whether our preparations were going to get us on the podium, it was my job to advocate for myself and my teammates in order to make the adjustments we needed to succeed. There were times that I questioned our preparations, but I ignored my instincts and said nothing. I have been coached to understand that being a good player means keeping my mouth shut and trusting the process—something I have never been good at, but which has been largely successful for our team in the past. I could have said something; I could have asked questions; I could have expressed more clearly how much we were struggling as a boat at times. And I didn’t because I have only ever been told that not speaking up was going to make me a better athlete, and also be the best thing for the team. Disruptive leadership does not have a place at the training center. I had a responsibility to my teammates that should have outweighed my wimpy anxiety or doubts about whether or not advocacy made me a bad athlete and teammate. I am old enough to know better. I let down my teammates by not trusting myself, and I will always regret it.
I don’t expect everyone to understand. Not many people do what I do, and even fewer do it for as long as I have. Few people will know the strength of the bonds I have built with my teammates, and how much it has destroyed me to know that our fifth place finish hurts our entire team, and the future of our sport. This result will reach further than just my own personal struggles and disappointment, and will impact every female athlete with dreams of rowing for the US in 2020 and beyond. Funding and USOC resources will be re-evaluated and re-allocated for 2020 based on team performance, and by falling short of our medal goals, we have jeopardized our ability to negotiate for the support American rowing athletes rely on to live, train, and compete. I wanted to use our performance in Rio to continue to build up our team and to create more opportunities for American athletes. Instead, I have done the opposite. That is unforgivable.
One of the biggest changes I have had to adapt to as an elite athlete when I stepped in to this lifestyle from collegiate rowing, is reconciling the relationship between my athletic performance and my feelings of self-worth. The culture at our training center is such that you are never not working out ways to disentangle your athletic successes and failures from your personal ones. Numbers, metrics and finish positions become our whole world and define so much of what we are able to accomplish at the training center, and which opportunities we will have, that it is very difficult not to feel that we ourselves are only worthy of what we can produce on an erg, or sometimes, in a boat. So now, this, on the biggest stage when so much was on the line and I should have been having my best-ever performance, I didn’t. Those complex ties between who I am and what I do are more difficult to un-knot than ever.
I’m hurting, badly. I have let down my team, my coaches, the people who love and support me, and myself. I’m not going to say that I’m happy having given my best. I’m not going to say that I feel satisfied because the day of my Olympic Final just wasn’t my day. We trained to give ourselves an opportunity to win in Rio by being stronger and fitter than any other team there, and it didn’t work. I have seen the potential and the capabilities of the women on this team over and over again, and our performance in Rio did not reflect that potential at all. There is no satisfaction in that. This result was the collective effort of our team–athletes, coaches, and administrators—and together we showed the world what we were capable of last year in Aiguebelette. When we were given the opportunity to back it up this year, we did a bad job. Our team failed to do its job.
So please stop saying congratulations. Please stop saying that you’re proud. I’m not. I know very well what I have and have not accomplished in my career–you don’t have to tell me or remind me as a consolation. Some of it was great, and no one can take those things away from me. But this was the one that mattered. I could achieve every success and mark every milestone but if I can’t use my collective experience to get myself and my team to where we need to be, it doesn’t matter, because it means I’m not doing what I am supposed to be doing as an athlete, which is learning and getting better all the time. It may be difficult to understand but it is particularly harsh when I tell people I placed fifth at the Olympics, and their response is to attempt to correct me for being visibly disappointed. Suggesting that my reaction to my own experience is the wrong one just because it does not conform to someone else’s personal ideal of a perfect and unwaveringly optimistic Olympic athlete makes me feel even worse. Most Olympians do come back from the Games without medals, and for many of them that means disappointment. Feeling loss and sadness after the Olympics is not unique. But every Olympian has their own story that could be bigger than just a trip to Rio, or some bad racing on a lake. Some of you know me better than others. Some of you only know what I’ve chosen to write here. There probably isn’t anyone who knows the whole story start to finish, except me. So I wish people would stop telling me how to feel.
Having said all that, I do want to say that I appreciate everyone’s kindness and support. I know that it is coming from a good place, and those of you who have reached out to me are doing so because you know me well enough to know how much this meant to me, and that I will need the help of all the best people in my life to get through this next part. I know I need your help, but congratulations hurt much more than they help right now. This is my demented way of saying thank you, and I love you for trying to make me feel better. I think what it is going to take, is time.
I’m not sure what comes next. I have thought about little else during my time in Rio, and there is much more introspection yet to come. Many of you will be in those thoughts as I come up with the next step, and I appreciate your patience and your understanding while I continue to figure it all out.