Western University, Department of Communication & Public Affairs
Westminster Hall, Suite 360, London, Ontario, Canada, N6A 3K7
Tel: 519-661-2045 • Fax: 519-661-3921
The will to win
Alumna Silken Laumann reflects on her bronze medal win 20 years ago at the 1992 Olympics, known as one of the greatest comebacks in Canadian sports history.
At Western, with the exception of my athletic activities, there was little to indicate my future as a speaker, writer, child advocate and life coach. But, somewhere between Women’s Studies, Shakespeare, and public speaking classes, I would find a clue to my vocation. Since my university days I have guided my life from a map of passion, made easier by the fact that I seem to be incapable of achieving things I’m not passionate about. I am outstanding at a small handful of pursuits that truly capture my imagination. Passion is my driver.
I often know I will do something decades before I actually achieve it. My involvement with the Right to Play organization began as a childhood dream to help kids in Africa, spurred on by news coverage of the Ethiopian famine in the late 1970s. In 1976 I watched Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci win medal after medal, and I imagined myself on an Olympic medal podium one day. Sixteen years later, I was poised to win Olympic gold, entering the 1992 Olympic season as the defending world champion. But, just ten weeks before the Olympic Games, I was broadsided by a German men’s pair in the warm-up area at the World Cup in Essen, Germany. Their boat shattered my wooden splash board, driving hundreds of splinters into my right leg. It was a life changing moment, confirmed when I learned my calf muscle had been shredded, the skin damage was significant, and my ankle had shattered with the impact. The doctor sensibly told me “the Olympics were over."
But, I chose not to hear the doctor. Naivety and obstinance combined to convince me not only were the Olympics a possibility, I could still aim for a medal. With this in mind, I visualized my healing, seeing blood flowing to the damaged tissue, imagining my body strong and capable. I tied Therabands to the end of my bed and began “rowing." What a sight I must have been; my leg an open wound, metal screws driven into my foot and shin, desperately trying to keep myself conditioned by pulling on a glorified bungee cord. Negative people, even at times family, were swept aside in the intensity to accomplish my recovery. Friends and family, though, proved a huge support. Marilyn and Peter Copland put their lives on hold to nurse me back to health; Cam Harvey took a week of holidays to row with me.
I decided to train as if I wasn’t hurt. When I got back in the boat 22 days after my accident, I was supposed to take a few strokes to judge how the adapted boat felt on my damaged leg. Instead, I rowed stroke after stroke, until I was in the middle of the lake. Only then did I glance back to see my doctor and support crew spring into action; obviously they perceived a risk I couldn’t see in my enthusiasm to row again. This was no time to be tentative. I pushed myself to exhaustion, making up for lost time, trying to squeeze through that narrow window of opportunity to still be fit enough and fast enough to compete in Barcelona.
As difficult as those days and weeks were, they were also magical as we were achieving things that didn’t make sense on a purely physical level. With a bandaged leg, broken ankle and massive skin damage, it didn’t make sense that I could row 10 consecutive one-minute sprint pieces or 500 repeats at race pace, but we were taking these little miracles as they came. Ten weeks later I crossed the finish line breathless, body screaming with lactate, winning bronze for Canada. That feat made every front page in the country and changed my life forever by making me a household name for two decades.
However spectacular, we are not defined by any one event in our lives. My performance in Barcelona is how many Canadians know me, but my life is a rich tapestry of all my varied and, often intense, experiences. I have used my experiences in sport to speak and write about many of the ideas, beliefs and perspectives I have solidified after sport. Sport is a great illustrator of the power of the mind, the force of focus, and the role of grace and magic in our lives. I was lucky enough to have all of those by the right measure, at the right time. I continue to see things I will do years before I actually do them, and the future looks bright.
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