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Canadian Olympic Gold medallist Carol Huynh on motivation

By Chris Atchison | February 8, 2012
Canadian Olympic Gold medallist Carol Huynh on motivation
Carol Huynh

When Canadian wrestler Carol Huynh stood atop the podium at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, an entire country beamed with pride. Her win earned the country its first ever gold medal in women’s wrestling. For Huynh, tears streaming down her face as she sang O Canada, the moment was a joyous culmination of years of hard work and dedication.

“It’s so hard to describe the feeling up there,” the 30-year-old native of Hazelton, B.C., explains. “One thought I had was, ‘thank God it was all worth it.’ It was a very proud moment to be Canadian … but I was so relieved that it was all over.”

But that win was just the beginning of two of her most challenging years as an athlete, as self-doubt and lingering injuries stifled the wrestling star, putting her career in jeopardy.

As Huynh gears up for the 2012 London Olympic Games after qualifying at the Canadian Olympic Qualification Trials in Winnipeg last month, Up front discusses the wall of heightened expectations the wrestler confronted after the Beijing Games, the personal motivation tools she used to overcome adversity -- and will use again to defend her title -- not to mention a few lessons on work-life balance from one of Canada’s busiest athletes: 

The outsider role you embraced leading up to the Beijing Games disappeared after your gold-medal win over Japan’s Chiharu Icho, and you found yourself anchored by the enormous pressure of being champion. Why did you bottom out mentally when you should have been riding such an incredible high?

Coming back from the Olympic Games and competing afterwards, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself and wasn’t meeting what I thought was everyone else’s expectations. I was really disappointed in myself. It took me a while to figure out how to talk to myself again and figure out where my place was in wrestling competitions. It’s always hard to have a bad competition, but the worst part of it is trying to look back, analyze it and learn for future competitions.

To what degree did injuries play a part in your post-Olympic difficulties?

Around February 2009, I ran into some health problems. I had a bulging disk in my neck, which made me miserable training and competing, and I also had a really bad tear in the MCL in my knee. Those setbacks made me feel really tentative when I was wrestling because I was trying not to get hurt. I’m usually offensive and they made me hang back and become more defensive. It didn’t feel right any more. I’d say it was bothering me for at least eight months and I was thinking of quitting because I didn’t want to live the rest of my life without being able to use my neck.

Once your injuries healed, what helped you overcome those psychological hurdles and when did you know you were back to form?

I think there was a moment when I discovered I had to get back to basics and actually enjoy competing again. Last year when I placed third at the World Championships, I was on the podium and I wasn’t happy with it. I wanted to be better, I wanted more. That was a trigger for me. If I still have that drive to be the best, then that’s great for somebody whose goal it was to just enjoy the sport again. That was a big step. I want to be the best that I can be.

Can you explain which of your gold medal-winning tactics would be most useful in the boardroom?

I find that focusing on process versus outcome helps a lot. Thinking about the end result all the time can increase the pressure and take you out of being in the moment. To get myself to the place where I have more control over all the fears, I need to train my body to react a certain way or do certain things (instinctively) because sometimes thinking takes too long. It’s the same way that in business, people are trained to do certain things or react in certain ways (and are more successful) than other people who don’t have that training. When you think too much, your mind can freeze up.

You’re currently pursuing a master’s degree in counselling psychology at Athabasca University. How helpful is that background during a match?

I think (my education) is an asset, but I think the focus on not overanalyzing came before I knew anything about psychology. You want to critique your performance, but you also don’t want to break yourself down to the point where it’s debilitating.

How do you balance training for competitions, while also saving time to spend with your husband Dan?

It can be tough. When I’m at home I’m training twice a day, working on my homework, cleaning up around the house or calling friends and family. Then in the evening I can spend time with my husband. I’m really lucky that he loves to cook and he’s good at it. I think we work pretty well together.

What’s the key to maintaining work-life balance?

I think routine is important for success, but you need a break because if you’re immersed in it all the time, it can drive you crazy. That balance helps me be successful in sports, my academic and personal life. I don’t think life would be as fun and happy if I didn’t have that balance.

You also need to take advantage of the support in your life. It’s not just your support staff, coach and teammates, but it’s also your friends and family. You need to reach out to them and not only have them support you, but also support them in what they’re doing. You do need to be selfish at times, but making those opportunities to support others and be part of life is very important.

You plan to work as a coach and sports psychologist when you retire from competition. How will you tap insight from your post-Beijing low to help other athletes shatter their barriers to success?

(When an athlete loses a competition) you have to get them back to a place where they can be more objective and see where they could have done something differently. I’ve definitely lost a lot of matches in my career, but I’ve used that experience to learn.

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