Full text of cyclist Mara Abbott’s talk: The Privilege of a Broken Heart at TEDxBoulder 2016 conference
Notable quote from this talk:
“No one else gets to decide what is or is not enough for you.”
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Mara Abbott – Cyclist
About a month and a half ago, I stood clad in American flag spandex on the beach in Copacabana. Unfortunately, I was completely nauseous.
This was possibly because I also happened to be standing on the start line of the road race at the Olympic Games this summer, so I was a little bit nervous.
Now before you guys get any wrong ideas, I never started cycling because I loved the feeling of the wind in my hair or the freedom of the open road. I became a cyclist because I loved competition, elite competition, and this was my avenue to being the best in the world.
I had also decided that this road race in Rio would be the poetic finale to my career, so therefore also my last chance to embody that greatness.
Well, they said that the course that day had a little something for everyone. Now what that actually means is that it had some aspect that was going to be genuinely terrifying to each and every one of us. It began with cobblestones.
Now, routing a race across cobblestones is one of the hallowed traditions of cycling. It is not one of my favorites. As a rather small rider, hitting a cobble at speed is pretty similar to being the little kid on the wrong end of the Seesaw.
And then you’re going to add into that extra crashes and flat tires and everything bouncing off at angles you don’t expect.
Furthermore, that particular day, the current world champion had spent the last week telling the media about how she planned to use the cobbles as a place to get rid of me, personally, as a threat before the race had even started.
Now, to be fair on her part, that wasn’t entirely stupid strategy because the second major challenge of the course was a big climb that came perilously close to the finish.
Now I got selected for the Olympic team based on my ability as a climber. And my rivals have learned that the best way to deal with me on a climb is to get rid of me before the climb.
So we came to the cobbles and I kept my focus and made sure I was to the front of the group. And I kept my hands light on the bars and tried to keep my pedal stroke steady.
And after two laps of that section, nothing bad had happened. That is apart from the bee that flew into my helmet and stung me on the head.
Well now I faced even greater challenge – patience. Because for the next hour my job was to stay out of trouble and not use any extra energy.
So I ate and I drank like I was supposed to and I talked to my teammates, and I tried to stay out of the wind. And as we got closer and closer to that finishing climb, I started to feel a little shaky.
And at first I attributed that to, you know, maybe too much sugar from all of the energy gels. But then I realized it was much more likely that it was just the nerves of potential.
Because see, this was the moment that everyone had been telling me about for months – if I could make it to the base of the climb with all of my major rivals, something extraordinary might just happen.
So I went hard from the bottom of the climb just like I was supposed to and now I had to call on another lesson. And that’s faith. Faith that if I kept going at this pace, just like I had so many times before, one by one my rivals would fade away.
Now that’s not a very easy thing to believe when a glance under your shoulder reveals the faces of people that you are sure are not suffering at all, in spite of your very best efforts. But I had learned this lesson before, commit, believe and keep going.
And so when we got to the top of the climb, it was just myself and one Dutch rider, Annemiek Van Vleuten who remained. There were about 15 kilometers that remained to the finish line and about half of them downhill. So for perspective, that’s going to be 20 or 25 minutes out of a race that took just under four hours.
There was a big gap to the next group of riders behind us. I was exactly where I needed to be to win an Olympic medal.
So we started the descent and Annemiek immediately proved herself, not for the first time to be a more daring descender than I was. And so she shot away around the corner as the light rain started to fall, making the roads a little bit slick.
But still, that left me in second place until I came around one of the final bends and I saw an orange shape crumbled to the side of the road.
Annemiek had crashed in one of the final corners, which meant now somehow as things go in cycling, I was back in the lead, in the lead of the Olympics road race with now less than 10 kilometers to go to the finish line.
Now another thing you learned about in bike racing is physics. So when you’re in the draft of another rider, that is, behind them so that they block the wind for you, you’re using about 30% of the energy that you would be using if you were riding by yourself.
So when you see all the riders in the Tour De France moving around in that blob, well it’s called a Peloton, and they’re not doing it because they’re gossiping. And they’re not doing it because they want to play Russian roulette with the bike handling skills of the guy next to him. Although both of those things do happen, but they’re doing it to save energy.
So the question is: Why on earth would a rider ever want to be where I found myself off the front solo?
Well, in my case, although I’m known for my climbing ability, my sprinting capabilities are a little bit less lauded. So if I came to the finish line in any sort of a group, I wasn’t winning anything.
Being in the front was a gamble, absolutely. But it was also my best chance at victory.
Eight kilometers to go. And you can see the gap to the next riders behind me. 39 seconds. It had developed that there was a group of three riders behind me working together, taking turns in the wind. Their advantage was this teamwork, my advantage: a 39 second head start.
Five kilometers to go. I had arrived to this point of the race with absolutely no excuses and this was going to be a tight finished. But I had no ego-sparing notions of, Oh, I’d be in a better place if I had just eaten a little more, or if I had only slept better the night before. as it’s pretty rare in cycling I was actually riding. I had spent those four hours at the absolute height of my potential.
Four kilometers to go
Have you ever worried that you aren’t enough, not smart enough, not wealthy enough, maybe, not strong enough or not fast enough?
Me, all the time.
Two kilometers to go.
Unfortunately, in this particular case, at the same time, millions of viewers across the world were wondering the same thing of me. It was a fine time for them to take an interest in women’s cycling,
One kilometer to go. And then with 300 meters to go. This happened:
I finished fourth.
And so I looked like this. They don’t give out medals for fourth place.
Now since I’ve been back, a lot of people want to tell me how spectacular it is that I got to go to the Olympics. And they want to congratulate me on such a brave race and Oh, such a gutsy finish.
But here’s the thing about enoughness. No one else gets to decide what is or is not enough for you. I had spent 10 years, basically my entire adult life learning to become the best in the world. So fourth place and after that sort of a finish, not enough.
Now cycling is an easy one because it’s easy to quantify, but it certainly isn’t the only place in our lives that we take risks.
What about asking your boss for a promotion or putting all of your money into an unproven startup venture? What about proposing to the person that you love?
These are all one way doors and they are terrifying to us, precisely because if we choose to step across that threshold, we are undertaking the risk that we might have to face actual failure.
And so the question is: would you rather have an excuse, a sort of talisman that you can massage forever and I could have won but…
Or would you rather know that you had given absolutely everything of yourself to a task but have that everything be not enough?
It isn’t an easy question, really. Because we are willing to face the specter of the things that we cannot be. We are never going to be able to grasp the things that we can.
In Rio, I was forced to face the fact that on that day I wasn’t enough. At the same time, I gave myself the opportunity to truly experience the potential that I had been building quietly, second upon minute upon hour for really my entire life.
So this race ended like many things do, exactly in the place that began on the beach in Copacabana. I sat on a curb with my coach Dean, our backs towards the ocean. Watching the lights blink on, has darkness begun to fall?
He told me he was proud of me even though that didn’t really mean anything at the time.
Dean’s been there with me since the beginning, my ally through every victory and failure. So perhaps he alone could understand the sorrow that was beginning to settle in bittersweet as my emotions settled back down to earth.
I had taken a risk, I had to. There was nothing left but to face this. It is an earned privilege, this sort of a broken heart.
Resources for Further Reading: