“I knew I wanted to be at the Olympics one day,” Sasha Cohen said. “Even though I didn’t fully understand what it was. I just knew this was when the whole world stopped.”
It was 1992. And Sasha had just seen Kristi Yamaguchi win the gold medal. She and a million other young girls were watching Kristi. And I bet all of them thought ‘Boy I’d really like to be in the Olympics for ice skating’.
So why was Sasha different from the other million girls out there? How come she actually made her dream from true? While so many others didn’t?
I wanted to know what it was because these are things people struggle with everyday:
How to figure out what direction to go in or what dream to pursue
How to actually go for it.
Here’s what I learned.
A) YOUR DREAM DOESN’T HAVE TO BE A “NATURAL” FIT
First, let’s back up to where her story really began (before she became one of the best in the world):
I started with childhood. I wanted to know how far back her success started. And if she had some crazy advantage over everybody else.
“So were you just some incredible, natural athlete as a 3 year old?”
“My mom decided to put me in gymnastics for 3 hours a day to use up my energy,” she said. “I was basically the most hyperactive child. I destroyed the house. Once I started doing gymnastics, my family got a docile, well-behaved child. And from there I started ice skating. And I fell in love with it.”
“In that very beginning period, how much was natural talent versus skill?”
“I don’t know if I had a lot of natural talent. I had a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of energy to burn. I loved to run, climb trees, cause trouble. Skating allowed me to develop myself athletically. And artistically.”
B) FOLLOW YOUR FOCUS
This was the THING that made Sasha different from all those million of other young girls:
“I think I have a laser like focus when I find something I’m interested in,” Sasha said. “I latch on like a dog and I don’t let go. I’m obstinate. It’s repeat, repeat, repeat. And when I found ice skating it became obsessive. It was this incredible sense of purpose.”
It was a single minded focus. She took ballet and pilates. She was homeschooled. Almost nothing else mattered besides ice skating. She made it to nationals when she was 12. And she had a huge shot at making it to the Olympics one day.
We all procrastinate. Notice what you’re procrastinating. And notice what you’re NOT procrastinating. This is a good first step to figure out what you really love.
C) LINK YOUR POTENTIAL TO MEANING
“There’s promise, but there’s hundreds of girls who have promise. And you don’t know.”
And in sports everything is unknown. The timing might not be right. Or you could get seriously injured. And Sasha did. She broke her back. She was only 15.
“How did you break your back,” I asked.
She had repetitive stress from jumps and back spins.
“And I was growing. It just whacked everything out of place.”
“Did you cry?”
“I’m sure I cried. I think early on I learned to put up walls. And not let people see how I felt. You hold yourself together… but I remember watching people compete and earn spots on the world team, and just being crushed I wasn’t there. And then there’s doubt that sits with you.”
This was a lot. She broke her back. She had to sit out of the competition. She was missing her chance at the World team. She’s seeing other people make it. AND then she feels doubt. I can’t imagine going through this at 50, much less at 16 or however old she was.
Her career was on hold for 3 months off. Which seems like a long time. But if I were her, I wouldn’t have been able to look at ice again for as long as I lived.
“How did you get yourself to go back? And why? Why did you go back? You could’ve died.”
“Because once you understand what the Olympics are and what they mean, it’s consuming,” she said. “There’s nothing else.”
D) PUT THE PRESSURE ON
Timing is everything in sports. Because you only have a small window of time every 4 years to be considered.
“You just hope it’s right. It’s like the eclipse. You hope it happens at the right time when the Olympics are there,” she said.
The rest of us have to create our own timing. I tell myself to write everyday. And I publish a book a year now.
I like to say that there are two “right times” to start something. Five years ago and today.
E) REPLACE FEAR WITH PRACTICE
Sasha missed the 2002 window. “Were you scared when you first got back on the ice after breaking your back?”
“I wasn’t scared. I was trying to be smart.”
She didn’t have time to get hurt and be set back again.
“I trained my ass off. I was in physical therapy, pilates, ballet, skating and off ice conditioning. It was from morning until night. And then I would come home and watch the videos that my mom would record of my jumps and my program.”
F) KNOW WHAT YOU’RE WILLING TO GIVE UP (TO GET WHAT YOU WANT)
Sasha was relentless. She put total focus into ice skating. She thought of everything that would help her make it happen.
“Whatever you’re obsessive about, whatever means more to you than anything else is where you will put your time.”
There’s not many people in the world that learn to be the best in the world at something. There’s something extra you have to put in everyday.
“What you need is to be obsessive. And it’s not healthy because it’s at the expense of something and usually everything else. And it’s the unhealthy, obsessive quality where it’s so easy to just not have friends, to not be social, to put everything into one thing. It’s the obsessiveness which I think creates greatness.”
Finally, in Turin, Italy, 2006, it was Sasha’s time. She competed and she won the silver medal.
“I felt like I was on fire. It was this incredible sixty or ninety seconds of holy sh-t, I am on top of the world. I did this. This is incredible. It’s a high that I’ve never had before.”
Ten years later, Sasha decided she was done with ice skating.
And this is what seems crazier to me than the rest of her journey…
Sasha said she was ready to be a “tadpole in the ocean.” And she was ready to reinvent. So she went to Columbia University. And now she works for Morgan Stanley.
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