LOST IN TRANSLATION


Hello everyone!



This is a bit long, but I have tried to articulate the feelings I have right now after winning the World Championships- not an easy task! The one good thing about waking up at 1am as if it is morning (thank-you, jet-lag), is there's plenty of time to ponder! It is an interesting time, I wanted to try to share it with you all.


Thank you so much for such tremendous support!


Clara


LOST IN TRANSLATION


I can relate to Bill Murray’s character in the movie Lost in Translation after passing ten days in Korea. Seoul, one of the world’s largest cities, played host to the World Single Distance championships, and the world of speed skating descended on the disturbingly populated city. Most of us wandered around in awe of the fast-paced flow, neon signs and mammoth sized flat screen billboards flashing commercials high about the hustle and bustle.

It felt more like months as the days dragged by and I began to see the stress of this foreign land on the faces of my colleagues in sport. It’s not often I feel like a complete outsider; most of our races are in Europe and though much is different, it is easier to blend in with the euro crowd than in Asia. Not understanding anything people said was frustrating and all I could muster by memory was a pathetic thank-you (gamsa hamnida), most often met with a confused look from a local Korean. We were the obvious tourists: long-track speed skaters in the land where short-track is king, so obviously different, yet virtuously anonymous within the flow of millions. The sheer scale of the city easily swallowed the mighty world of speed skating, like a shark with a minnow.

As I sit in the comfort of the known, back in Canada, and think back to yesterday (as far as today goes, here; tomorrow, back in Asia…), the last day of the World Championships, I find it difficult to make sense of what’s happened. The physical pain has been all but erased and I am left with a golden box encasing a shiny matching medal; yet I wonder, can it really be true? I wonder how to make sense of this- what it means to be a World Champion.

Sitting in the quiet solitude of my winter training base, passing the last few days before returning to my home in Quebec, I realize how lucky I am. Not lucky to have this material reward; instead, to have the experience that lead to the golden souvenir. What I have is myself. As soon as I left the bubble of the speed skating world I realized it’s just me, plain and simple. What’s changed is perspective. Not in relation to who I am; more so to the profound sense of self this most recent journey has allowed.

The combined moments leading to this peak performance, when reflected upon, seem like phrases in an enormous poem, a work in progress I suppose, representing my life. The lines of this poem are mere insights, lending some sense of the marvel, the miracle and the wonder of life. I am talking about feeling the rapture of being alive that’s only possible when moving forward with an open mind- not being closed and wanting only one specific something, fixating on this, and missing the whole experience along the way. The more I experience, the more I realize this importance of moving with openness. The potential result is to be struck by the sudden wonder experience has to offer.

Such was that special day for me. In my heart I knew of no limits, and with patience and care I was able to allow the possibilities to evolve and supersede the confines of goals, wants, and needs. You see, when there is only a specific goal in sight, the limit is such that it depends on the actions of others (in my sense other competitors) and thus become impossible to achieve. I could not say ‘I am going to be the fastest’ on a given day, that is impossible, but I could go into each experience and find out what the fleeting moments offer.

It was the path that was most interesting. Instead of becoming panicked when falling ill with laryngitis much of the time between the last world cup and the world championships, I accepted illness as if a planned part of my preparation, making the most of what I was able to execute in training, spending the rest of the time focused on healing my ailing throat and lungs. When falling the first day of hard training in Korea, my only crash of the year on the ice, I took it with humor, realizing the importance of not taking oneself too seriously; a reminder of the instability of the ice under me and the necessity of being in each moment, not getting ahead of myself and allowing carelessness to slip in. Having felt so good on the ice each day leading to the race, I welcomed the feeling of heavy legs the day before the 3000 m with the sincerity of the re-acquaintance with an old friend. It was a reminder that I may not have the feeling of strength and ease I had become accustomed to in my final training taper for the World’s, and that I would have to work with what the day offered, be it a lightness of being or a potential grind of fatigue.

Each sensation was a lesson, planned in sequence to prepare my brain to tackle those last 5000 m I had patiently prepared to allow to happen for months. Each day I felt my energy building. With the advice of my mentor and coach Xiuli Wang, who was back in Calgary in the role of Mom with her new child, I met with the coaches and shared what I felt possible: that I felt something special could happen over the weekend. I asked for their support, unanimously receiving guidance and precious words and signs of encouragement. I could not do this alone and with this support felt comfortable and confident each step of the way.

Every day, while on the massage table receiving treatment from Ed Louie, my therapist and friend, I would run through insights I was feeling, supported by his understanding of the here, the now. It was as if the universe was opening up in front of me, each day my perspective broadened as I allowed my system to be purged of thoughts of ‘success’ or ‘results’.

Before going to the oval Sunday morning my husband Peter called from California, offering encouragement. ‘I’m really happy for you, Clara,’ were the words that had nothing to do with a list of results. He was happy for me that I was able to experience these sensations with an open mind. Having seen me struggle through so many years of searching he knew the special place I was in; yet another reminder of the here and the now.

The morning of the 5000 m, I walked through the icy cold tunnel leading to the middle of the oval, singing a song I heard the night before. As I walked up the steps I heard the exact song being pumped out of the speakers track side. The agility exercises completing my warm-up felt snappy and sharp. As I began to skate the rhythm of the prior day’s 3000 m immediately took over. It was as if I could not skate any slower for fear of losing the ideal tempo I had found on the ice.

I remembered Coach Neal Marshall telling me about the winning race in the men’s 5000 m, the way in which the champion went out fast and suffered lap after lap, not giving into the slow ice or the pain of exertion, not being intimidated by the conditions. I wanted this feeling and accepted the inevitable pain as reward, not punishment. Every step I took leading up to the race was important. I wanted to be focused, but not too focused; motivated but not too motivated; relaxed but not too relaxed…everything I did was with the goal of balance.

The firing of the starter’s pistol marked the moment something outside of me took over, a sort of moving meditation. Stride after stride I was close to the speed of my 3000 m race. It occurred to me for a split second I should be afraid of the speed when seeing that first lap, so fast, and immediately I told myself not to judge. I was there to discover just what was possible, to finish without holding anything back.

With five laps to go this effort about killed me, or at least that’s how it felt. I focused on the words of the coaches and my teammates around, spurring me on, reminding me of frequency and tempo. I adapted my technique to not only the ice but the fatigue that had built. I had to ignore the muscles that screamed bloody murder for me to stop the abuse of exertion and persevere. With 3 laps to go I felt I was in a drunken state of oblivion, caused by lactic acid instead of alcohol. I was sure there was only one lap to go, it had to be one to go, I thought, the pain was so deep. Passing the finish line I waited to hear the bell signifying one to go. After a moment of hopeful ponder that they had perhaps forgotten to ring it, I realized there was still 1200 meters left. A lap later I had the moment of truth.

I remember rounding the turn, thinking ‘This is it. If I have any chance to win this race this is it. If I slow down that’s it, it’s over. I’ve come too far to give up. If I fight I just might have a chance…’ This dialogue shifted within a few strides and I realized it was not within me to bow down to the pain; to the challenge. I had no choice but to fight and I found my second wind, thinking ‘push, push, push!’ They were two of the longest laps in my life, yet somehow I managed to hold the same pace until the finish.

The pain of exertion was so intense all I could do was snow plow to a stop and collapse in fatigue on the nearest bench. My legs would no longer support me; I thought I was going to explode from the agony of effort. With my head hanging low I had no energy to think of what I had just done. The time people congratulated me on seemed so insignificant when compared to the satisfaction in having met the challenge of facing and transcending pain. Though exhausted I was elated, and slowly began to move around.

After cheering for my teammates in the following pair, I made my way down to the changing room. I could not watch the remaining skaters, feeling it was too much to see. I did not care so much about my final placing, I just did not want to allow the satisfaction I felt be altered by seeing what the others had to offer. I knew I had executed as close to a perfect race possible at the present time in my life. I reached my capacity. This is something that will evolve, but for the moment I knew that was it. With two laps to go in the final pair I went out and saw the suffering on my competitors faces. I wondered what they were thinking, what they were focused on. I smiled and felt relieved I was finished. I had exhausted all possibilities and had nothing left.

Upon seeing the final result, with my name at the top, I didn’t really know what to do. I had already felt the elation of success in terms of achieving the race I had only dreamed of. It was fun to share the success with the coaches and my teammates, not to be alone in the moment. I wished Peter was there to share in it, and Xiuli, too.

It was a conversation that same evening, while slipping out of the banquet for a breath of air with Ed Louie, which helped me begin to find some sense in it all. We spoke of the ice conditions and Ed shared some thoughts that went something like this: after thinking about it, it occurred to him that ice is just a bunch of frozen water. Like water in a stream, sometimes it is fast, sometimes slow. You have to work with the flow to get through it, if you fight the current all you do is waste energy. Fast water, like the fast ice in Calgary, carries you along, and slow water, like the ice in Seoul, needs more of an effort to move with.

This helped me begin to understand the satisfaction I was feeling. I had found the best way to work with the elements, not against them, and then found the courage to exploit this interaction. In the end, it is just a bunch of left-hand turns on that frozen water. It’s so simple, yet can be complicated when coupled with emotion, pressure and expectations.

Those twelve and a half laps happened through me and, if only for a brief time, approximately 7’10.66”, I was one with the elements. Now that the pain has subsided, I savor every second of the way.