Olympic Hurdler Sarah Wells: Catalyze Self Belief With Action
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About This Episode
Sarah Wells didn’t get into track and field because she loved running, or was inspired by a particular athlete, or dreamed of standing a podium. As a Canadian high schooler she really just wanted to be “sporty” like the cool kids, but unfortunately didn’t succeed in any sport that she tried. She was cut from dance, volleyball, basketball, and field hockey. Eventually a high school gym teacher encouraged her to give track and field a shot and she decided to give athletics one last, triumphant effort. Just running around in a circle didn’t appeal to her, so she gravitated towards hurdles since they offered a fun distraction from sprinting. Her track coach was a former hurdler and the Varsity coach for a local university. He immediately noticed her natural ability to pace herself — something that most athletes spend years perfecting. He encouraged her to focus on the 400 meter hurdle event and even drove her to practice with the collegiate athletes that he coached. “It was great to be very ignorant to my ability at that time,” said Sarah. Training with collegiate athletes set the bar so high from the beginning that she didn’t necessarily feel unique; she was just in step with the athletes around her. Within a year she was ranked nationally for her age group and she began setting higher and higher goals. “Thanks to that teacher who believed in me I started to see my own ability over time,” said Sarah.
For nine years she trained with her original coach and followed him to the University of Toronto where she had practiced with the team through high school. She had never really considered the Olympics as a possibly until a close friend and training partner qualified as a decathlete for the 2008 Games. Having observed him put in the hard work, focus, and dedication to his dream and see it come into fruition planted the seed in her that she could do the same. The next four years were defined by sacrifice and discipline and, though she wasn’t at Olympic pace yet, she was inching ever closer. Unfortunately, while at a training camp, she woke up to searing pain in her leg. When she returned home, an MRI revealed that she had a stress fracture in her femur. Stress fractures among hurdlers are not uncommon, but usually they are in the foot and typically require only six weeks of rest. But the femur is the largest bone in the body and training on that injury could risk a clean break which carried complications as serious as death. To allow her bone to heal properly, the doctor recommended three months of complete non-weight bearing which suspended not only her training, but her entire life.
This news crushed Sarah. “Every night I wouldn’t go to sleep until I cried myself to the point of exhaustion,” she said. She was just under two years away from the Olympic trials and couldn’t fathom the repercussions of halting her training plan. Not only would that have an impact on her performance, but she began to question her self worth without hurdling. The recovery was an emotional roller coaster; the mood of everyday was determined by the status of her leg and her progress. The temptation to quit struck her daily, but she continued to attend physical therapy, attempted to stay in shape, and battled through it one day at a time. When she arrived at her doctor’s appointment three months later she was elated to have survived was she considered the most challenging part of her career. But an MRI revealed that the bone still wasn’t healed and she was placed on another month of bedrest. This didn’t just happen once or twice, but month after month she was turned away with disappointing news. “Every time I would climb to the top of the mountain thinking that I’d be cleared, to just fall off the edge of the cliff on the other side,” she said. For nine straight months she stayed off of her leg. “I felt like I was watching my dreams slip away,” said Sarah.
With only eight months until Olympic trials, she was finally given clearance to compete again. She remembers the exact day that she stepped back on the track, because it was the same day that she drove to a tattoo parlor and got the world “Believe” tattooed on her wrist. Despite the practical realities in front of her and the kind people encouraging her to be realistic, Sarah believed in herself. In the following month she not only got back in shape, but improved upon her time, and vividly remembers the day that she qualified for the Olympics as the best day of her entire life. “Everything seems worth it in that moment,” she said. She represented Canada in the 2012 Olympic Games, was a semi-finalist in the 400m hurdles, and promptly came home and added a tattoo of the Olympic rings underneath “Believe” on her wrist.
“I had a strength inside of me that I would have never recognized without that experience,” said Sarah. Working through such a lengthy recovery and building back her strength at record speed uncovered a unique fortitude that would carry her through more trials to come. Upon returning from the Olympics she felt a shift in the way that she viewed herself. “I saw myself as ‘Sarah Wells the Olympian’,” she said. She started to expect a certain level of performance from herself every day, didn’t allow herself to show weakness or reach out for support, and lacked physical and mental compassion for herself. “When we achieve a certain level of success we instantly assume that’s our new baseline; that nothing except that or better will be a success,” said Sarah. This battering led to a recurrence of the same stress fracture and she was back on bedrest. But knowing that she overcame the injury once gave her the strength to persevere again. She was able to return to hurdles to tie her personal best and snag a silver medal at the Pan American games. Just two months before the 2016 Olympic trials she chose to push herself too hard in practice when her coach recommended for her to back off, which resulted in a tear in her hamstring. Despite getting back up to 90% of her strength by the time the Olympic Trials rolled around, Sarah came in 4th place, narrowly missing out on the team. When she got home from the event she remembers pulling into her driveway and not being able to get out of the car to walk inside; it was too symbolic of the fact that her dreams were over. She just laid on the driveway and cried, feeling foolish, defeated, and like all of her effort was a waste.
The following year Sarah took time off from training completely to focus on healing emotionally and physically. She began sharing her story of victory and perseverance, but her audience always resonated most with her moments of defeat. “We can all remember our ‘lay in the driveway in the fetal position and cry’ moments,” she said. So many people know how it feels to work hard, but not achieve every single dream and in that, she could relate deeply. During this year she founded the Believe Initiative which helps kids learn to believe in themselves. During Summit Days at school, Sarah brings in keynote speakers, hosts workshops, and leads group discussions. “We help students connect a passion that they love with a problem that they see in the community,” she said. There is a ten week curriculum that follows the event which culminates in a Passion Project for each student that is shared at an Inspiration Fair. She challenges others to consider the question: “What if you believed that you could?” Sarah recognizes the power in speaking out dreams, writing out goals, and sharing them with others. It requires immense vulnerability to let family and friends in on a big dream, because there is always the chance that it won’t happen. But the fulfillment in journeying together towards our goals is worth it. Sarah likes to tell students that “You don’t build self-belief through achievements, you build it through action.”