How to fall on your ass and get up to win gold

Imagine this: you are an up and coming 24-year-old hammer thrower ranked in the world’s top 10. You arrived at the Olympics in the best shape of your life, having qualified in fourth position and been on the podium in every meet except one that year. As you leave the call room in the depths of the stadium and emerge onto the track you’re greeted by more than 110,000 fans and also by torrential downpour. The throwing rings has quickly turned into a slippery lake.

Throwers at major championships are given just two warm up throws. The first one you abandon part way through. And on the second one you fall on your ass. Well, that’s a bit of an understatement. Here’s what happened:

Now the competition is set to begin. How do you respond? We know how most people would respond, but this isn’t the story of most people. This is the story of Szymon Ziolkowski who was leading the competition 15 minutes later. He will be joining the HMMR Podcast next week to walk us through the competition. In the meantime, here are four key points that helped him turn a bad event into the highlight of his career.

» Related content: Ziolkowski will be back on the podcast next week, but you can already listen to the last interview we did with him on Episode 122.

Be prepared

The same saying holds true whether you are a 12-year-old scout, or an Olympic hammer thrower: always be prepared. When Ziolkowski got up, he was soaking wet. The cool springtime temperatures in Sydney quickly started getting to him. Thankfully he had packed some fresh clothes to stay dry. His advice:

“During the competition you have to bring two hammer gloves, different shoes, something to wear if you get wet. You have to be prepared for anything.”

Preparation also doesn’t just start the morning of the competition. As Sergej Litvinov recommended earlier in the week, taking yourself out of your comfort zone in training will help you deal with uncomfortable situations in competition. If you never train in the rain, of course you will get scared as soon as the first drop hits the ring. It’s nothing fancy, but simply training in the rain prepares you, and Szymon had done that plenty of times:

“If you live in Poland or Northern Europe you don’t have to do any special preparation since the weather is changing so much. In the winter the coldest day I threw was -26º C (-15º F). We trained in all different kinds of weather, so I was prepared for to compete from -10º to 40º C. For athletes which are only preparing in warm weather it is more difficult.”

Get up

It is easier said than done, but after something bad happens just get up and try to forget it. Think about the next throw rather than the last throw. Find your routines as quickly as possible and then think about your technique. As Ziolkowski put it:

“Don’t think about the medals or the result, just think about your technique. This is the only thing you can control.”

See the silver lining

The saying goes that very cloud has a silver lining and the rain clouds in Sydney definitely did. When talking with Ziolkowski now, he feels he would not have won Olympic gold if he had stayed on his feet:

“My fall was one the big steps towards winning the Olympic Games. Everyone saw that and I’m sure that they got scared. You see it in the results. I won with 80.02m and that was the 21st best result in the year that year. A lot of people in the field could throw that far, but they didn’t.”

We’ve all seen that at competitions: one person slips and the whole field tenses up. Ziolkowski had the advantage that he was the one who actually slipped and knew what he needed to do to fit it. This gave him an edge that helped him win.

Harness the power of the underdog

As Ziolkowski points out, the whole field underperformed. If you look through the results only three names stand out: Ziolkowski, Nicola Vizzoni, and Ivan Tikhon. The one thing they all had in common is that they were underdogs. In his own words, “We had nothing to lose.”

Of the 12 finalists in the competition, only three athletes had personal bests under 80 meters. Vizzoni and Tikhon were among them. Vizzoni was the only thrower in the field to hit a personal best and that helped him capture silver. Like Ziolkowski, Tikhon was just under his personal best. He tied for third place but lost out on the bronze as his second best mark was less than Igor Astapkovich.

The underdog mentality is more than a label, it is a mindset. Later in Ziolkowski career he became a favorite, but he kept thinking of himself as an underdog. In 2001 you might think the defending Olympic champion would be a favorite at the World Championships, but some thought it was a fluke and the young Koji Murofushi was up and coming. Ziolkowksi tossed a meet record for a convincing win in one of the deepest competitions of all time.

When I had the chance to compete against him he was nearing the end of his career. It would have been easy to think of him as past his prime and out of medal contention, but he continued to overperform for this very reason, winning global medals up to the age of 36. Even if you are not the underdog, treat yourself as one if you want to get an edge.