Although I haven’t watched much of the Winter Olympics this year, I did happen across an article about Steven Bradbury talking about *that win*. He seems destined to have his story pulled out of the proverbial closet and given a dust off every four years. And why not? It’s a cracker of a story and has become somewhat of an Australian folktale – the incredible string of luck that led to a miraculous win.
For those of you who aren’t Australian (and I’m sorry for those Aussies who’ve heard this story a bazillion times) Steven Bradbury was Australia’s first Winter Olympics Gold Medallist way back in…2002. Yup, not that long ago. We’re a country of sand and ocean after all.
Let me paint you a picture: It’s 2002, Salt Lake. The Event: The finals of the men’s short track 1000m speed skating. Five men line up ready for the starter’s gun. The competitors include Canadian Mathieu Turcotte, winner of 3 world championships, American Apolo Anton Ohno who has 2 world championships and a home crowd advantage, and Chinese Li Jiaju who has won a massive 10 world championships. The fourth man is South Korean Ahn Hyun-soo who will go on to be one of the most accomplished short track speed skaters of all time and will win 3 gold and a bronze medal in 2006. Amongst these powerhouses of speed skating, stands Australia’s Steven Bradbury. His personal world championship count? Zero.
The fact that Steven Bradbury is even on the starting line with these men is pretty surprising. At 30, he’s a veteran of the sport, and Salt Lake is his last chance to represent Australia. He’s only competing at these Olympics because he feels he hasn’t skated his best in previous Olympics, including a disappointing performance in Lillehammer in 1994 where he was eliminated in the event he was tipped to win. That was 8 years ago.
But as Bradbury takes his place, he’s already made history. Simply making it to the finals is the best performance by an individual Australian at a Winter Olympics (remember that sand and ocean thing I mentioned earlier?).
To reach the finals, Steven Bradbury has already had luck on his side. He won his heat but came third in the quarterfinals, and would not have progressed except that the second-place-comer was disqualified for obstruction. In the semi-finals, he hung back, hoping for a break (or a crash). Three of the five competitors went down. Bradbury came in second, moving him into the final. (It is interesting to note that in the second semi-final, the WORST time (4th place) was better than the first time in Steven’s semi-final.)
So here Steven Bradbury is with the best in the world, ready to compete for a gold medal. The starter’s gun goes off. These amazing athletes seemingly defy the laws of physics as they whizz around the tiny track at over 30 miles per hour. Steven Bradbury sticks to his game plan – he hangs back, and hopes, just hopes, he can sneak a medal (any medal). But as the race goes on, Steven Bradbury falls further behind. These guys are just amazingly, unbelievably good.
Then, on the last corner, something happens. One of the competitors loses his footing. There’s a collision. China goes down, South Korea goes down, and he takes Canada and the USA with him. Four of the world’s best short track speed skaters crash against the barrier walls in a heap and Steven Bradbury glides across the line to take a gold medal. The look of surprise as he sails across that finish line is priceless.
You can watch the race with original commentary here:
And the win in Bradbury’s own words, here:
So what lessons can we learn from the Steven Bradbury gold medal? The media went on to dub him one of the luckiest athletes ever and people joked he should buy a lottery ticket. The fact that he was nearly 20 metres off the pace at the end of the race made him look like the guy that just showed up and won a gold medal.
But that is far from the truth.
You don’t just show up at the Olympics.
Steven Bradbury was an amazing athlete, a star who dedicated himself to his sport. He knew after he’d won, that the media would want to know if he thought he deserved his medal. His answer? He said he was accepting the medal, not for those few minutes of racing, but for the 14 years of dedication he’d given to his sport.
Steven Bradbury was a serious athlete. He was part of the short track relay team that won Australia’s first ever winter Olympic medal, a bronze in 1994. In 1992, he’d be part of the team that won the World Championships in the 5000m relay in Sydney. This wasn’t a guy who had just showed up. This was a guy who had worked hard, damn hard, to achieve excellence in his sport. (And suffered for it too – in 1994 a skater’s blade cut clean through all four of Bradbury’s quadriceps. He lost 4 litres of blood, needed 111 stitches and 18 months recovery).
Was he lucky? Yes, he was. Bloody lucky. But that luck couldn’t have come if Steven Bradbury hadn’t been the athlete he was. He earned his place at those Olympics by sheer hard work and persistence. He gave himself the opportunity to be lucky. When he sailed across that finish line with a look of surprise on his face, he made what he’d been doing for over a decade and a half look easy. But actually, the element of luck played only a small part in his win.
We see it all the time – the actress who seemingly comes out of nowhere with a lead in a blockbuster movie – and you go off to google her only to find out she’s done bit parts in 20 movies and 5 TV series. That writer you’ve never heard of who lands a huge sum for her multi-POV fantasy work, but then you find out she’s actually a Hugo-awarded short-story writer with a dozen publications under her belt.
There’s luck in everything, but often less than we think. Writing the right thing at the right time, hitting the right market, getting your work in front of the right publisher, that’s often luck. But finishing a novel (a good novel, a publishable novel), attending workshops, thinking deeply on structure and prose, elevating your craft above the mundane – that’s just hours of you and your butt in the chair – and you’ll never, never get published without it.
Sometimes, writers who you feel are less talented, less articulate, and (dare I say!) younger than you are going to sail on past you and get published more widely and make more money despite your best efforts. That’s part of writing game, it’s part of the risk. When you write to be published you accept those risks – just the same way Steven Bradbury accepted that the likelihood of crashing out was a very real part of his sport.
No, you can’t win a gold medal at the Olympics by showing up, no more than you can get a publishing contract if you don’t put effort into writing (or if you never send your story out to agents and publishers). So, put in the work and put your butt in the chair. Make your writing great. Then, put on your skates and put it all on the line. Maybe you’ll cross the finish line because you’re brilliant. Or maybe, you’ll cross the line as an outlier. Maybe you’ll make it look so easy everybody will say that they could have done it. Whatever way you get there, the best thing about writing is that if you don’t succeed, you don’t have to wait 4 years to try again.