Competing with Heart, Racing with Gratitude

Triathletes during a running session
January 9, 2017

Mike Ricci


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On August 25, 2007, the track and field world witnessed a display of greatness worth discussing, and our heroine didn't even clinch the victory. On this remarkable night, Kara Goucher secured a bronze medal in the women's 10,000 meters, surpassing her fellow American competitors and some of the world's best athletes. All three US women raced proudly, finishing 3rd, 7th (Deena Kastor), and 13th (Katie McGregor), crossing the finish line in commendable form.

The race conditions were harshly warm and humid, pushing the entire field to their limits. Despite the challenging conditions, four of the 19 finishers achieved season's best times, while three others were unable to complete the race and had to be assisted off the course. If drama is what you expect from a world championship, this race certainly did not disappoint. 'Worlds' represents the pinnacle of athletic competition and arguably defines an athlete's career more than even the Olympic Games, which, every four years, produce results that occasionally feel like a fluke.

Kara was not the sole athlete to compete with tremendous heart that day, and the outcome of her race wasn't as sensational as the Tyson Gay – Asafa Powell, 'Earth's Fastest Human' showdown. Nonetheless, it's what many people don't know about Kara Goucher that serves as the lesson here, offering both hope and reflection as we broaden our definition of 'greatness.'

As a sport psychologist, I specialize in mental conditioning skills. While much of our work may seem mundane and routine, collectively we provide a wealth of information, ideas, encouragement, methods, and techniques for learning how to relax, set goals, motivate oneself, concentrate, and manage distractions. We also assist athletes in navigating the emotional roller coaster essential to competing and performing when they're putting 'everything on the line'. As athletes progress in their abilities, the focus can become highly tailored to each individual as they discover how to train and compete 'in the zone', utilizing tools like imagery and visualization to transform their dreams into reality. Perhaps the most significant contribution we offer is in fostering confidence and managing one's self-talk. These aspects demand persistent attention and everyday practice. For those who closely follow sports, this is the norm during the best of times. But what about during the worst of times?

Distance running is a unique pursuit that demands countless hours of training and recovery, an ongoing cycle of building fitness season after season. For Kara, the recovery process was all too familiar for several years, becoming such an intrinsic part of her life that it felt never-ending. Even the strongest individuals can lose heart in such circumstances. She faithfully supported her husband, Olympian Adam Goucher, from the sidelines, inwardly fearing that might be the closest she would ever come to competing on the world stage. For years, her career was marked more by setbacks than achievements, until last year (2006).

From 1999 to 2000, Kara shone as a star runner at the University of Colorado, boasting NCAA Championships in the women's 3000 and 5000 meters, as well as in Cross Country. However, her fortunes took a turn for the worse. Initially, she faced fatigue attributed to anemia, followed by nagging injuries that disrupted a promising track season and the disappointment of being unable to defend her titles.

Yet, these challenges were just the beginning. Despite signing a contract with Nike as a professional athlete, her career was derailed by compartment syndrome, a patellar tendon injury, stress fractures, and multiple surgeries. It seemed as though procedures and injuries were increasingly defining her. Even after being screened for the female athlete triad, she missed season after season of competition and felt as though she was letting everyone down – her coach, her husband, her sponsor. Her mood plummeted, and she wondered if she would ever regain her health.

Change was imperative, and so Kara, along with her husband Adam, explored their options. After extensive research, they decided to train under the highly acclaimed director of the Nike Project, marathon great Alberto Salazar. They severed their long-standing relationship with Colorado's coach Mark Wetmore, sold their house, bid farewell to family and friends, and relocated to Portland. The Nike Project offered promise, excellent nutritional and medical support, and the expertise of Alberto Salazar, who revitalized Adam's illustrious career and helped Kara start hers. 2006 marked PRs for both of them, and Kara was able to compete for an entire season without succumbing to injury. Life changed dramatically for them that year, and the flickering flame of confidence began to burn brightly, fueled by exceptional workouts, sustained health, and PRs for Kara at almost every distance she contested.

Even then, a bronze medal at the World Championships seemed like a distant dream...but few people are aware of Kara's secret weapon. Her unique inspiration comes from 'gratitude' – gratitude for many things in her life: a loving family, a supportive and encouraging partner in Adam (who trains, eats, laughs, and sleeps with her), access to the best facilities, coaching, and support available, and finally...her burgeoning health, fitness, and racing acumen. Those who know Kara appreciate her warm and friendly demeanor. Those who have witnessed her evolution admire her dedication and resilience in overcoming every obstacle. 'Greatness' begins with courage and toughness, but it's never more deserving or welcome than when accompanied by gratitude. The wait was arduous, and the journey fraught with adversity, yet no one is more grateful for its trajectory than Kara Goucher, bronze medalist at the World Championships.

On September 2nd, Adam Goucher finished 11th in the 5000 meters, 7.3 seconds behind the gold medalist, Bernard Lagat. Kara's medal marked the first time an American woman had won a medal in the 10,000 meters since 1992 when Lynn Jennings clinched a medal in the Olympic Games.

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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