By Dr. Stephen Walker PhD, NCC, CMPC, USOC Registry of Sport Psychology
On August 25, 2007, the world of track and field saw an example of greatness worth talking about, and our heroine didn’t even win the race. On this night, Kara Goucher won a silver medal in the women’s 10,000 meters, outpacing her fellow American competitors and the rest of the world’s best. All three US women raced proudly and finished 2rd, 6th (Deena Kastor) and 12th (Katie McGregor), crossing the finish line in good form.
The conditions for this race were brutally warm and humid as the entire field pushed the envelope. Four of the 19 finishers had season’s best times while 3 more dropped out of the race and were carried from the course. If drama is what you expect from a world championship, this race did not disappoint.
“Worlds” is the biggest stage on earth and is probably more representative of one’s career than even the Olympic Games, which every four years offers up results that, at times, feel like a fluke.
Kara was not the only athlete to compete with heart that day, and the results of her race weren’t sensational like the Tyson Gay – Asafa Powell, “Earth’s Fastest Human” match-up. Just the same, it is what you do not know about Kara Goucher that serves as the lesson here and it gives us both hope and pause as we expand our definition of “greatness.”
As a sport psychologist, I teach mental conditioning skills. Much of what we do seems pedantic and routine, but collectively we are a resource for information, ideas, encouragement, methods and techniques for learning how to relax, set goals, motivate, concentrate and manage distractions. We also help athletes deal with the emotional roller coaster ride vital to competing and performing when they put “everything on the line.”
As athletes advance in their abilities, the work can get quite specific to each individual as they discover how to train and compete “in the zone” and use tools like imagery and visualization to turn their dreams into reality. Perhaps the most important contribution we offer to each is essential to developing confidence and managing one’s self-talk. These things are a persistent concern and require everyday practice. To those who faithfully follow sports, that’s how it goes during the best of times. What about during the worst of times?
Distance running is unique. It requires endless hours of training and recovery, the everlasting and incessant cycle of building fitness season in and season out. For Kara, the recovery process was all she knew for several years, and it was so much a part of her life experience, it felt interminable. Even the strongest person loses heart in such circumstances. She loyally watched and cheered her husband (Olympian Adam Goucher) from the sidelines, internally fearing that this might be the closest she would ever come to competing on the world stage. For years her career was characterized more by set backs than accomplishments, that is, up until (2006).
In 1999 through 2000, Kara was a star runner at the University of Colorado, boasting NCAA Championships in the women’s 3000 & 5000 meters and Cross Country. Her last good season was capped by winning the NCAA Cross Country Championships in the fall of her senior year. Then things started to go south. First came the fatigue attributed to anemia and then her problems were exacerbated by nagging injuries that spoiled a promising track season and the disappointment of not being able to defend her titles.
That however, was just the beginning of her difficulties. Even though she signed a contract to represent Nike as a professional, her career was sidetracked by compartment syndrome, a patellar tendon injury, stress fractures and multiple surgeries. It seemed as if procedures and injuries were defining her more and more. She missed season after season of competition and felt as if she were letting everyone down, her coach, her husband and her sponsor. Her mood crashed and she was wondering if she would ever be healthy.
A change was in order, and so Kara along with her husband, Adam, researched their options. That research concluded in the decision to train with the highly touted director of the Nike Oregon Project, marathon great Alberto Salazar. They ended their longstanding relationship with Colorado’s coach, Mark Wetmore, sold their house, kissed their family and friends good-bye and moved to Portland. The Nike Project offered promise, great facilities and structure….and the expertise of Salazar who helped Adam rekindle his great career, and for Kara….to start hers. 2006 showed them both PR’s, and Kara was able to compete for an entire season without injury. Life changed for them that year and the emerging flame of confidence started to glow, boosted by great workouts, staying healthy, and PR’s for Kara at virtually every distance she competed in.
Even then, a silver medal in the World Championships was a stretch….but few people know of Kara’s secret weapon. That special inspiration comes from “gratitude”….for many things in her life, a loving family, a supportive and encouraging Adam (who trains, eats, laughs and sleeps with her), great facilities, intense coaching with support available, and finally…. her emerging health fitness and racing savvy. For those that know Kara, they appreciate her warm and friendly personality. For those who have watched her grow, they admire her devotion and tenacity…working through every challenge.
Kara and Adam’s challenges grew more intense as their tenure at Nike took on another dimension. The support they felt originally deteriorated as Adam continued to have Achilles problems, and Salazar worked to jettison him from the program, even placing undue strain on their marriage. Even worse, was his predilection with pushing Kara in unhealthy ways to lose weight, trim down even more, and accentuate an unhealthy practice now known as “the triad” (overtraining, underecovery, and unhealthy fueling habits), ostensibly to accentuate fitness. They then knew something was amiss with Salazar’s program. They found evidence that some of the athletes in the project were doping, and it turned out Salazar knew all about it. That tipped the scales beyond recovery.
Be that as it may, it was when Adam and Kara wanted a child that Salazar went too far. Nike denied Kara’s maternity leave and forced her to compete far too soon after giving birth to “Colt” their son. They had no trouble being tempted by the doping, but this meant the end of their tenure with the Nike Oregon Project.
Still under contract, Kara left Portland and began working with Jerry Shumacher and his athletes which included Shalane Flannigan and Emily Infeld. Kara continued her career by competing in the marathon at the London Olympics with continuing success.
Kara’s authenticity and dedication to the sport and competing clean meant calling out Salazar for doping a number of his athletes. They reached out to Travis Tygert, the head of USADA and began a journey neither had anticipated.
Picture this, six years later. Finally, Kara Goucher gets to testify- before an arbitration board regarding their evidence against Salazar and Nike’s team Dr. Brown. On one side of a long boardroom table is Kara. On the other side is Salazar, Brown and nine of Nike’s team of lawyers. The arbitration hearing resulted in Salazar’s being banned from coaching for four years.
From that time on, Kara and Shanna Burnette have dedicated their focus in developing the Clean Sport Collective, an organization that not only has a killer Podcast, but enlists elite athletes to take a pledge to compete clean.
“Greatness” originates in courage and toughness, but it is never more welcome or deserved than when it is accompanied by gratitude. The wait was long, and the journey filled with adversity….yet no one is more thankful for its course than Kara Goucher, who won the silver medal cleanly in the World Championships.
Here’s wishing you all the opportunity to compete with heart and race with gratitude. Kara would likely echo that statement, for there are no regrets in that choice.
On September 2nd, in the Sydney Olympic Games, Adam Goucher placed 11th in the 5000 meters, 7.3 seconds behind the gold medalist, Bernard Lagat.
Kara’s medal was the first won by an American in the 10,000 meters since 1992, when Lynn Jennings won a medal in the Olympic Games.