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Friday, September 24, 2021

For Olympians, finishing second can be hard to accept

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TORONTO — The defining moment of Annie Vernon’s rowing career is one forever captured on TV news footage – she and her three teammates standing at the rowing-canoeing park in Beijing, receiving their Olympic medals in 2008. But the footage shows clear anguish on the faces of Vernon and her Great Britain teammates; the medals were silver, their quadruple sculls boat having been passed by the Chinese in the race’s home stretch.

For Olympians who train with the dream of feeling the gold medal being placed around their neck as their national anthem plays, falling just short can feel like missing the opportunity of a lifetime.

Even now, the memories pack a punch for Vernon.

“I think I still feel 90 per cent the same emotions that I did in that moment, which was just huge frustration. I really felt like we’d let ourselves down. We would really focus on winning gold and I still think we were capable of doing it on that day,” Vernon told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday.

It’s a reality that can seem strange to an armchair fan, watching elite athletes compete at a global level for the highest honour in their sport. Surely, finishing second in the world should feel like an amazing achievement? It’s a nice thought, but one that runs into the reality that any competition that is about winning is also about losing. For instance, Vernon points out that the area where athletes are able to see family and friends immediately after a race is often referred to as the ‘kiss and cry’ area, with tears that are not always for joy.

Vernon, a two-time world champion, has examined the subject beyond just her own first-hand experience. In 2019, she looked at the psychology of elite athletes in her book “Mind Games.” She says that finishing a close second can often be more difficult for an athlete to process than missing the podium outright, or finishing well back of the leaders.

“I think it’s because you’re so close but you’re so far. You know you can touch the podium but you’re not standing on it. You’re watching other people stand there they get their medals and have their moment,” says Vernon.

Now 13 years removed from her Olympic medal race, Vernon has had time to reflect on her performance and can recognize it for the monumental achievement it was. She says she tells athletes that it’s important to look beyond the podium.

“I think as an athlete you’ve got to look beyond the result, you’ve got to understand everything you’ve achieved, the highs and lows the friendship, the memories, the people you’ve met, the experience you’ve had,” she says. “Yeah, that the medal, the result is a huge part of that, but it’s just still one part of that picture.”

That said, as someone wired for elite competition, the sting of losing can linger. Vernon had hoped to repeat on the Olympic podium at the 2012 games in London, this time with a gold. Instead, her eights crew finished fifth.

“Resilience comes from being tested, doesn’t it?” she says. “Obviously four years later I wasn’t able to get that goal that I wanted, so I didn’t have that that fairy tale ending that I would have loved. But again that’s life isn’t it? You grit your teeth you smile and you move on to your next challenge.”

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