Tips From The Top: One On One With Olympic Gold Medalist Kerry Simmonds

I spoke to Olympic Gold Medalist Kerry Simmonds about her journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Kerry: For people who don’t know rowing well, I think they would be surprised to hear that I started rowing in college. It is not as uncommon as people realize for rowing. In fact, half of the women’s eight at the Olympics were “walk-on rowers” at their universities.

Adam: What is something that would surprise people about the life of an Olympian?

Kerry: Well my “life as an Olympian” started post-Rio. I think it still surprises people how hard it is for Olympians post-Olympics and post retirement. We are human after all that underwent an intense experience. Our sport was our lifestyle and it almost required we think about nothing beyond it. For our livelihood to end in one glorious but single event is somewhat jarring. After the period of celebration is over, you’re left thinking “ok, that part of my life I think is done, now what?” I have been blessed to have a solid support network of friends, family, and former teammates that have given me space, compassion, and understanding with my transition. Retirement from elite level sport looks different for everyone. Some struggle with their identity, others have a hard time letting go of the focused lifestyle. It took me over two years to be okay with more balance and to figure out where I wanted to go next in a career.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Kerry: How did I get to be an Olympic champion? There is the saying that you can’t have successes without failures, that still holds true. Relatively speaking, I do not think I had any major setbacks, challenges, or failures out of the ordinary. I dealt with overuse injuries that were unpleasant periods in my training that taught me to be a smarter athlete and know my body. Nothing derailed me from my goal. I believe that is one of my strengths, the ability to keep a big-picture mindset. To not “sweat the small stuff” and not get so down on myself when I underperformed on a training day or was having to nurse and injury. I learned in my five years with the National team that the mental game was equally as important as any physical game. Not letting myself get in my own way, so to speak, was very instrumental to my growth.

Adam: What are the best lessons you learned from the achievement of becoming an Olympian and then a gold medalist?

Kerry: Goal setting was a key lesson elite rowing taught me to practice and refine. The long term and obvious goal was the Rio Olympics. It is daunting to think “2016 Olympics is my goal, ok go”. I had to break that big, dream goal into smaller, more manageable short-term goals. Goals all the way down to details of how I could improve execution of both my training and my recovering (e.g. sleeping, eating, stretching, etc). Goal-setting required me to embrace the idea of staying patient with the process. Improvement in rowing is not an overnight thing. It takes time, patience, focus and many rowing strokes. The smaller short term goals helped to show my improvement and that helped keep me motivated towards the Olympic goal. Lastly, the lesson of all lessons that rowing taught me was how to work really, really hard for something with no guarantees that it would be enough to make the 2016 team. I’m now applying those lessons to my next phase in life as I set my sights on physical therapy school. It’s an intimidating process to make bigger moves later in life but I know I am well-rehearsed with hard work and patience.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Kerry: The cool and also frustrating thing about rowing is that you are literally in the same boat together. Working as a unit is essentially make or break for rowing. When you’re off from each other it can feel like you are fighting one another and fighting the boat. When you are working together you can feel the boat raise higher out of the water and, honestly, it feels like you are flying. That being said, an effective leader, in my mind, is someone that knows how to work well with others and also has the ability to keep them connected to the common goal. To lead is sometimes to follow, recognize that others may have strengths and insights that you can learn from – so listen! I believe leadership skills that take leaders to the next level are confidence to keep a big picture mindset and to stay patient with the process, and to know when to lead and when to follow.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Kerry: Having been in none of these positions, I can only offer how I can relate. As a coach of young women, I found success in maintaining a standard of professionalism while also being relatable. Working with 18- 22 year old women it was also important to keep things in perspective for them: not everything is the end of the world. Again, I go back to big-picture mindset. I had to guide them in extending out what they thought they were capable of, understanding improvement is a process, and validating their good behaviors while also recognizing negative behaviors that detract from their goals. Essentially help build their confidence to stay on a positive and realistic path to their goals.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Kerry: Something I had to remind myself at the start line in Rio: “your body knows what to do, so don’t overthink it.” When you’ve practiced enough, this is true.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Kerry: This is deep Adam. Not sure I know yet. What I have realized is that you never know what comes around. For me it has been a positive to have the rowing community be a small community, literally one degree separation if you stay in it long enough. I learned it is good to treat others well, connect with people, and avoid burning bridges. You never know how a person could affect your life later.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Kerry: Perhaps the hobby that shaped me the most was my early start in running. I was the kid doing the kid’s milers at age five. My mom, Karyn, was an ultra runner that exposed us to a group of people that loved running and love it with such purity. Running unknowingly laid the foundation for my later career in rowing, a power-endurance sport, as well as proved to be useful cross-training tool in my training for Rio.

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