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Author: Larisa Yurkiw

A lesson in persistence, overcoming obstacles, and achieving goals from a Canadian Olympian

I was born and raised in Owen Sound, Ontario.  From a small ski hill in Southern Ontario, I went on to race - and win - at the Olympic level and at World Cup races throughout Europe.  The challenges were the most consistent factor throughout my career: being cut from the Canadian Ski Team; establishing my own source of funding; and, managing five knee surgeries.

My family was involved in both sports and music, creating a great balance for us to pursue most anything!  At just two years of age, I had disrupted the day care centre long enough, and joined my brothers on the ski slopes.  Each winter weekend, my passion for alpine skiing grew stronger.  I loved the power of creating forces on snow, the wind in my hair, and eventually the globetrotting lifestyle.

At the start, I had a textbook career for an athlete.  A good work ethic helped me become one of the fastest female ski racers in Canada.  Small-town grit and an against-the-grain approach helped me fight for world class success.  

Everything was going great in my lead up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.  I was excited to be racing against the best in the world, representing my country in my country.  But in an instant, my life changed.

I crashed in Val d’Isère, France just weeks before the Opening Ceremonies.  The injury was deemed “career-ending” by many professionals and specialists.  But I wasn’t ready to give up.  I immediately began to learn about the human body and how to manage a post-operation knee.  It would take me two years to return to my athletic self, and another two years to dare to race again.

Just as I was honing my skills and preparing for my next Olympic opportunity in Sochi 2014, another setback!  The National Ski Team decided to reallocate my program’s funding to others.  A simple email was sent to notify me of the ‘change’ and to wish me ‘all the best’. 

I was still not ready to give up.  This would be the fuel I’d need to set up an independent platform, raise $150,000 through sponsors and crowdfunding in under four months, hire staff, merge with small teams from other countries, and successfully qualify for the Sochi Olympics on my own terms.  Fans throughout Canada cheered on my progress as I made it to the Olympics against incredibly long odds.

The experience shed new light on my athletic experience and what was possible.  I continued to manage my own program and progressed to a world ranking of 3rd.  After a ten-year career, I retired among the best at Alpine Ski Racing.  This was an achievement I will be forever proud of and one that is difficult to put into perspective for many Canadians.  Similar to a hockey game here, an alpine ski race in Europe attracts 70,000 fans and 50 million TV viewers worldwide per race.

I’m determined, tenacious, and motivated, and want to share the lessons I have learned along the way. Maybe they will help you manage and navigate the increasingly complex and fast-paced world of association management.

Make achieving easy (easier) on yourself  

It’s often said that you are a product of the people you associate with.  Jim Rohn, author and motivational speaker says, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” 

In high school, subconsciously, I made a decision to surround myself with like-minded women, those who were full of energy and ambition.  We had worldly dreams and we were willing to do most anything to achieve them.  The skill set I acquired through osmosis from these powerhouses taught me to remain confident through the adversity that came later in my career.  But more than that, it set a standard.  In order to simply ‘fit in’, I had to rise to the norm of my environment.  It feels special and enjoyable to be the best in the room at something, but the odds of becoming complacent greatly increases. I was fortunate in seeking out groups of athletes, staff and terrain that was challenging so as to make improving the norm. But then I made it deliberate to seek out such groups.

Lesson Number One:  Surrounding yourself with optimists and those who are determined to succeed will make achieving easier on yourself.

Stay adaptable - and take comfort with discomfort

When the funding for my Olympic plight was distributed elsewhere, I had just four months to create a platform independently.  But I had just days to make the decision that I would go forward with my Olympic dreams.  You too need to act fast. You will find that there is an increasing number of decisions that you need to make in a hurry, often without the benefit of deep information. 

At that time, I was only familiar with the 40-year-old Canadian sports structure that acted as my umbrella for all decisions and actions.  When I began the independent path, every detail was foreign to me.  And it was amazing.  I no longer had expectations or trends.  I was acting on daily pros and cons.  What is my goal? What am I willing to do to achieve it?  It was rewarding and rejuvenating to rethink every detail and completely eliminate the strategic inertia that became ‘home’ for so many years.  Everything was new and warranted its own line of questioning, but it meant that everything I did with my time was intentional and powerful.  Ironically, the more uncomfortable I became, the more comfortable it became. 

Lesson Number Two:  Stay adaptable and take comfort with discomfort – it will make it easier to move ahead faster.

Stay focused and relentless on your goals.

For obvious reasons, aerodynamics are key in my sport.  Imagine driving 140km/h in the winter with a high-five out the window.  Racing at 140km/h requires a calm and focused mindset.

But beyond the physicality, staying focused on the task at hand was key.  Our venues were full of distractions - athlete idols, epic mountain ranges, Italian coffee.  It became increasingly more important to find a balance between soaking in the experience, being a polite Canadian and holding myself accountable to the goals I had set.  Similar to horses with blinders on, I learned to select the good and shed the fluff. 

If an athlete was warming up in a way I had never seen before, I would observe and bank the exercise.  But when it was time to perform, it was important to trust in my preparation and have confidence in the process that worked for me.

Lesson Number Three:  Keep your head down and stay relentlessly focused on your goals.

Respect the power of vulnerability

I completed my career ranked 3rd in the world.  This is a place I held for many others for the majority of my career.  I believed in other athletes, and put them on pedestals.  I wasted years creating my own gap between my potential and their performance. 

It wasn’t until I was stripped of support and self-belief that I started to create a new reality.  People on pedestals are there for a reason.  They are worth emulating and respecting because they are clearly doing many things right.  I learned through dedication, perseverance and resilience that I, too, can arrive on the pedestal. 

The key was to embrace the vulnerability and moments of embarrassment, failure or insecurity and trust that it was simply a ‘tool in the making’.  Whenever I attempted anything and failed, I knew I had discreetly succeeded as long as I took the tool with me for the next attempt.

Lesson Number Four: Vulnerability is a very powerful tool. It deserves to be recognized and respected.

Embrace you!

I pushed myself for the first decade of my career to be invincible and secure, both physically and emotionally. 

But, as a result of being publicly discounted of my potential when Olympic funding was cut, I could no longer fake it.  To the core, I am a hard worker that wastes little time wondering if I’m confident or not.  The moment I embraced this quality and self-awareness, my life’s direction changed. 

I no longer squeeze confidence out of myself but rather prepare as best as I can and ask around when I am unfamiliar.  It was liberating to arrive at such an authentic place.  I could be honest and raw and, in turn, learn so much more from my environment. 

Lesson Number Five: It is amazing what one can achieve when you believe in yourself!

I am beginning a new chapter of my life with motivational speaking and mentoring while working through an MBA.  I hope some of the life lessons that I have learned so far will help to inspire you as you move forward in your life!