Much of my summer as a 21 year-old was spent traveling from river to river throughout Europe. In this case, not just to paddle a river, but to join the best canoeing athletes in the world to race in the top whitewater canoe slalom competitions every weekend.
The weekly routine was simple yet a little dirt-baggish. Each of us lived frugally out of a duffel bag and were always adjusting to new and different environments, on the water as well as off.
With our sport’s base and popularity anchored in Europe, my European competitors often had the luxury of passing through their hometowns between races — to wash clothes, get a home-cooked meal, and sleep in their own bed for a night or two before moving on to the next stop on the international circuit.
Not the case for an American athlete competing much further away from home. Performing well for us was born out of adapting well. And persevering well.
In this particular summer, 1991, after many weeks on the road and feeling run down, we finally arrived in La Seu d’Urgell, the Catalan city that would host the Olympic Canoe Slalom events the following year as part of the Barcelona Olympiad.
We had made this inaugural trip to La Seu d’Urgell to compete in the Olympic “test-event,” a dress-rehearsal of sorts for all the event stakeholders, including the athletes.
I vividly recall arriving at our hotel after an all-day drive that started early that morning in the north of France. Exhausted from the travel, I dropped my duffel bag on the floor and fell down on to the bed.
And then, I had an epiphany.
I sat back up, looked at my bag, and thought:
“One year from now, I do NOT want to wake up in the Olympic Village here feeling like an American visitor. I want to wake up feeling like I BELONG here.”
These words stuck with me. They still do.
My canoe partner, Scott Strausbaugh, and I knew that we would participate in several training camps at the Olympic venue over the next year that would help us better learn the river.
But there was something more I wanted to feel on the day of the Olympic Games than just a better understanding of the river.
I was tired of losing ground to my competitors who had the luxury of a quick return home to recover and recharge.
So, how does one find a “culture advantage” when the home culture is thousands of miles and many time zones away?
Enter thoughtful strategy.
This is rarely about producing a surprising outcome. Instead, thoughtful strategy creates guideposts that identify the key experiences and feelings we want by anticipating and reducing the friction and resistance that stand to derail us.
Thoughtful strategy helps us see more clearly to what needs to be categorized as a “no” so that our essential “yes” becomes more clear.
Saying “no” to being a visitor at the Olympic Games flipped a switch for me on that warm July night in 1991 here in La Seu d’Urgell.
To not be a visitor meant saying “yes” to being a neighbor.
In the coming weeks, these Sunday Morning Joe posts will reflect and expand upon strategy and how we can put it into practice closer to where we are, what we do, and how we live.
Over the next year, Scott and I would spend nearly 100 days in La Seu d’Urgell practicing at the Olympic whitewater canoeing venue. Our objective was to learn the behavior of the river flow. Gaining more familiarity with every rock and wave helped us to feel more comfortable with the territory we sought to master.
Away from the canoeing venue, life in La Seu d’Urgell became an extension of this. As we deepened the connection with the river, we deepened the connection with our surroundings. And vice versa.
Daily interactions became friendships. Casual greetings turned into dinner invitations. Curiosity about the local culture and traditions became a part of my process… all of which brought me closer to this community.
About a year after my “Day 1 in La Seu” epiphany, I walked out of the Olympic Village and to the Parc del Segre, our competition venue. This was August 2nd, 1992, the day of our Olympic race. I remember feeling exactly the way that I believed I could feel a year earlier…
Which is very similar to the way I felt this past Tuesday morning when I left my house in this very same town as I went to the open air market to buy vegetables for the week…
Among my neighbors.
(Thoughtful strategies can stick around for a long time.)
With gratitude, — Joe
PS — Recently, I was interviewed by Sarah Johnston, a Sunday Morning Joe reader and owner of Briefcase Coach, a firm that helps high performers position for top jobs. Our interview just launched as part of her ongoing series, Curated Career Conversations.
Sarah’s questions presented a wonderful opportunity to reflect upon my time working in the United States Olympic and Paralympic movement as well as my transition away from this job and into my life here in Catalunya.
As I shared with a few clients last week, this was a period of my life where work consisted of many people and situations that I did not enjoy for the few opportunities to collaborate with people and situations I did enjoy. While I wouldn’t change anything about these experiences, I believe that the shift to a more collaborative and positive work environment is indeed possible. (Patience and thoughtful strategy help!)
Please enjoy our interview — you can read it → HERE.
Belonging To Thoughtful Strategy is a part of my continuing Sunday Morning Joe series, The Pursuit Of Contentment On The River Of Uncertainty. Subscribe to Sunday Morning Joe HERE.
Connect with Joe:
I coach established and experienced professionals, who feel stuck in place, to thrive in transition and bring focus to what matters most without compromising their lives.
My personal experiences winning an Olympic Gold Medal, serving as CEO of a national sports organization, and my current “Simple, Slower, and Less” lifestyle in the Catalan Pyrenees help to form accountable and transformative collaborations that see my clients create their next and most impactful chapter.