At the Parc del Segre, just a few seconds of sprinting our doubles canoe across calm water separates the Olympic start line from the first drop on the river channel where we descend into the whitewater.
From outside the river, our quick and synchronized strokes off the start line must look like an assault on the water.
But actually, it feels calming. Nearly comforting.
Only Scott and me. Our canoe. The water. The race course.
A moment like this is practiced, visualized, and dreamt about countless times over the span of many years.
And when the final run of an Olympic Games is under way, it is a relief to just paddle.
As we enter the top third of the 300 meter whitewater channel, the sense of connection to the water — and to Scott — is vividly high.
But, over the past 12 months, if anyone has felt the imposition of this river’s uncertainty, it is us.
Just a year earlier, in 1991, at our first competition at the Olympic canoeing venue, our lack of response to correcting mistakes led to one of our most dismal performances of that season.
I distinctly remember walking through La Seu d’Urgell back to the hotel after this competition, which had just been broadcasted on Spanish national television. Every television in every bar in the city featured the slow-motion replay of river water dripping from our faces as we rolled our doubles canoe upright from its previously capsized position… in the middle of the competition.
Not a good sight… and an even worse feeling.
My score card:
Joe & Scott 0
Our failure to course correct seems to play on a never-ending loop on every television across Spain.
And the only difference a year later at these Olympic Games is that after the first of two competition runs, we are now the race leader… and the television audience extends far beyond the borders of Spain.
Based off of our nearly 100 days of practice sessions in La Seu d’Urgell over the past year, small mistakes on the 1992 Olympic canoeing channel have a way of snowballing into bigger mistakes extremely fast.
The first signal that our final run in the Olympic race may be a little different than our previous practice sessions appears at the halfway point of the course.
After our canoe is unexpectedly pushed to the far right side of the river and away from the center point of the river where we had planned to be, we adapt with a few quick and well synchronized strokes that counter the river current. This course correction lets us run our canoe at a higher-than-normal speed into the next upstream gate — a transitional maneuver in the course where boat speed is typically lost and and extra energy is spent.
For us, our course correction converts a mistake into an effortless slingshot of energy through this transition.
This energy aligns our canoe nearly perfectly with the river for next quarter of the two-minute race run.
When your goal for the previous six years has been to simply align your canoe with the powerful force of the uncertain river, it is nearly impossible that some part of your body, mind, or spirit does not acknowledge when you are actually doing this….
To the best of your ability…
At the Olympic Games…
Which leads to an interesting final 10 seconds of this race run.
Carrying a lot of momentum into the last two gates of the course — two downstream gates offset from each other requiring a deliberate side-to-side traversing movement — we make a mistake. The kind of mistake that offers a very small window in which to course correct.
Just before these final two gates, we align our canoe more in the direction of the finish line instead of the gates themselves.
We pass through the first gate just fine. But, we are not traversing enough to the right side of the river to clear the last gate on the course.
As Scott cleanly passes through left side of the last gate, I am on a collision course with the gate’s left-side pole.
The five second penalty incurred with touching this pole would negate our entire final run of the Olympic Games, which so far has been the best we have ever paddled on this river.
If I touch this pole and the five penalty seconds are added to our time, we would need to rely upon our first run in the final results — the same first run that our coach believed would not be good enough for a medal.
This story is hardly about the traditional elements of peak performance that typically suggest stronger, faster, or better win Olympic gold medals.
This is exactly about deliberately and passionately correcting mistakes, deficiencies, and setbacks — big and small — over and over again… like life depends on it.
So, without space to adjust side-to-side for this last gate of the Olympic course, I just lean back.
The life jacket I am wearing that extends from my chest passes under the left pole of the final gate… with the clearance space equal to the thickness of a single sheet of paper.
No poles touched. No poles left to go.
A few final strokes and we will arrive at the finish line.
Momentarily, my score card for this day will read:
Joe & Scott: 2 + A Course Correction As Thin As A Sheet of Paper
With gratitude, — Joe
The Gap Between Start And Finish is a part of my continuing Sunday Morning Joe series, The Pursuit Of Contentment On The River Of Uncertainty.
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I coach seasoned 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.