Olympian Goes for Gold at Work Using Lessons from Rink

By Kathy Gurchiek Feb 7, 2014
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Olympic gold medalist Cathy Turner

When gold medalist Cathy Turner curls up in front of the TV with her daughters to watch speed skaters fly around the rink during the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, she’ll be reminded of the intensity of purpose and the fear of failure that propel these athletes to “go for the gold.”

She lived it.

Today the certified PC/network technician applies the lessons she learned while pursuing athletic excellence to her work at Rochester, N.Y.-based Paychex, where she is an Oracle database administrator (DBA) III. Before joining Paychex, she spent more than five years as a software engineer and DBA at Windstream Communications.

As part of an in-house Paychex activity in February, Turner will give a three-part webinar based on the chapter “See It, Believe It, Be It” that she contributed to the book Awaken the Olympian Within: Stories from America’s Greatest Olympic Motivators, compiled by John Naber(Griffin Publishing Co., 1999).

Turner talked with HR News about how to apply lessons from competitive sports to the workplace.

Life On, Off the Rink

In 1979, at 17, Turner was a U.S. national champion in short-track speed skating, but failing to make the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, she left skating in 1981 to pursue a music career when she auditioned for, and landed, the lead vocalist spot in a Vegas-type show performing at the Marriott and similar venues.

Turner went on to perform under the name “Nikki Newland,” writing music, recording songs as a backup singer and performing live. Meanwhile, she read about fellow skaters whose career path could have been her own. It was a confusing time, and she grappled with depression and a self-described identity crisis in her 20s.

Nearly nine years later, at age 26, Turner returned to her sport in 1988. She headed to Albertville, France, as a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic team; it was the last time both summer and winter Olympic Games were held in the same year. Turner won a gold medal in the 500-meter race by 0.04 seconds and anchored the 3,000-meter short-track relay team that snared the U.S. a silver medal. She also graduated that year, with honors, from Northern Michigan University, with a degree in computer systems.

Turner retired from skating in 1993 and was one of the few speed skaters to join the Ice Capades. Later that year, she went back to speed skating as a member of the U.S. Olympic team at the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

She won a gold medal in the 500-meter race, with a record time of 45.98 seconds, and anchored the 3,000-meter short-track relay, helping her team win a bronze medal. The fierce competitor was disqualified in the semifinal heat of the 1,000-meter event when officials determined she had interfered with her Chinese rival.

Turner retired again in 1994, to be with her husband and open a fitness center, then returned once more to compete in the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, where she failed to medal.

HR News: Olympians are gearing up for their one shot at the gold. How do you mentally prepare for something you’ve been training for, for so many years? What lessons can we learn from that experience and apply to the workplace?

Turner: Remind yourself that you love what you’re doing. I couldn’t wait to skate in races after I got over my fear of losing, but as race time neared, some of my competitors were shaking; nobody was smiling; nobody was laughing. Sure, they were getting focused but they were nervous, too. That’s natural, but you have to overcome it.

You also have to visualize success.

Ever since I was a little kid, if somebody passed me I would panic and think the race was over.

A few months before the 1992 Olympic Winter Games, I started working with a sports psychologist, who taught me that I first had to see myself winning my 500-meter race before I could accomplish it. I had to envision my race before I went to sleep at night. Many times at night, in my dreams, I’d be winning when somebody would pass me just before the finish line. I kept seeing myself crashing and ending up with a bronze medal.

I had to train myself to change my thinking, so in my dreams I extended the finish line, passed the other skaters and won. It took me three months. By the time I made it to the Olympics, I had the imagery down, and the closer it got to race time, the happier and more excited I became.

It’s the same off the rink, whether it’s singing the national anthem in front of thousands of people at Yankee stadium or giving a commencement speech at a big university. I use imagery whenever I’m feeling nervous about a situation or an event. And if I’m about to give a speech, I have to see the podium. I visit the site—the room I’m going to be speaking in—so I can get a feel for it. You want as much of the experience beforehand as possible.

You first left competitive skating in 1981. It was a rocky road back after a nearly nine-year absence. What did you learn that can apply to the workplace?

In the early part of my skating career I approached it the wrong way. Growing up, everyone told me I’d go to the Olympics someday. I’d go home and push a big chair in front of the bedroom mirror and stand on it, imagining winning a gold medal, imagining the American flag super-imposed over my face. I’d actually cry.

But I sat back and waited for it to happen. In 1980 I just missed making the U.S. Olympic team. I kind of got stuck; I was just going through the motions. I didn’t realize that natural talent isn’t enough. It’ll get you pretty far, but I had to step it up.

When I came back to skating in 1988 I couldn’t make it around the rink two times. I was in really bad shape but determined.

It’s very easy to get comfortable in doing what you do in the workplace every single day. At work I learned to challenge myself, to ask to learn something new that contributes to the company. The workplace today is about empowerment. Open that door for yourself and tackle things you find scary. A lot of people are afraid of change or are afraid to go to their boss or manager to ask for a challenging assignment.

Skaters fall down a lot. Is there a lesson we can learn from that?

You can’t go to the starting line fearful of your competitors. You have to overcome them in your head or you won’t succeed; you might win a medal, but it won’t be gold.

When I was young I was always afraid of losing. I’m from the East Coast, and most of the good skaters are from the Midwest. At competitions, girls from there would pass me, and I would just freak out. My dad was pretty rough on me, too. I was a nobody if I lost; he loved me if I won. I had to overcome this fear of failure.

Shortly after I’d returned to the sport in 1988, I was at a race in Calgary, Canada. The fear of losing still gripped me, and I told teammates to tell the coach I couldn’t race. When that didn’t work, I told him not to expect anything from me and just decided to go out, relax and enjoy my race. When I heard my splits [her time at the midpoint of the race] I couldn’t believe it. It was my fastest split time I’d ever had, and I started pushing myself the rest of the race.

I learned to look forward to the things that you fear. It’s all about how you train yourself to attack something. At work, I decided to learn Java. Not many in my workgroup understand it; I decided to tackle it and got permission to take an online course. I started diving in and learning other programs and skills, too.

Today, I love coming to work just as I loved going to practice and skating. How do you get excited about coming to work? You create new challenges for yourself.

Some people may think that overcoming fear of failure would hamper a person’s competitive drive.

Losing your competitive edge, to me, means not caring whether you win or lose. I suppose that could happen if you don’t have your goals in place.

You returned from retirement in 1993 to begin training for the 1994 Olympic Winter Games. There were some naysayers who didn’t want you on the team because you had been away from the sport and they didn’t think you deserved a spot. How did you overcome the doubt of others?

Those people were parents of some of my competitors vying for a spot on the team. I concentrated on gelling with my teammates. Teamwork takes a lot of work. We came up with a chant; we tried to make it fun, break down barriers. Some barriers remained and we talked about it and voiced our opinions. We got together to bring the focus on the team, not on individuals.

The easiest way to build a team is to have fun. If you can laugh with your teammates, you have a better chance of coming together as a team.

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor for HR News.

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