It’s funny how as you get older you realize that the strangest lessons can stick with you: when I was in grade 10 my teacher taught us about goal setting, and had us write long- (where you’d like to be in a year or so), medium- (a mid-length goal to check-in on your journey’s progress) and short- (immediate goal, in the next few days or weeks) goals. A critical piece of advice we were given was that if you achieve all your goals, you are setting them too easy, and if you fail to achieve any, then you might be setting them out of reach. At that point I was just starting into distance running and was completely captivated by it. I don’t have the piece of paper that I scribbled my assignment on, but I’m sure it looked something like this:
Long term: win the BC High School Championships
Medium term: run a personal best in the 3k this summer
Short term: complete my assigned training for this week
I think this aspect of goal setting is partially why I fell so hopelessly in love with athletics; it’s a sport about guessing your limit, and creatively finding ways to get there. Over the years, I’ve continued to set these style of goals, but the scale of my dreams have grown with me: evolving from provincial medals, to making provincial teams, to junior national teams, to eventually making senior national teams. I’m proud of the ratio of goals I’ve achieved vs. missed: I never won the BC High School championships, but I managed to medal in my senior year. I never made a Junior National Track and Field team, but I made the Junior World Cross Country team and went on to represent Canada in Senior Track and Field. I never became a World Class 1500m athlete as I had once – lucratively – dreamed, but I have had international success is the longer events. All that said, there is one clear, glaring goal that I have yet failed to achieve: I have not become an Olympian, despite two authentic, and painfully close attempts at qualifying.
One thing we never covered in my high school goal setting class is what happens when a major goal isn’t achieved. Especially one as big as the Olympics – a goal that requires setting four, or in the case of the last Olympic cycle, five years of your life aside. If you fail to achieve such a big goal, how do you handle the embarrassment after putting yourself out there? What about the emotions? The regret? How do you pickup the pieces and re-focus on your next goal, having faith in a different outcome?
In 2016 I qualified for the Olympics, but the selection committee, having been able to choose three athletes, chose to take two, leaving me at home. By the following year, I could have written a book on “how to recover from goal failure”: in my eyes, I had handled each stage of shock, disappointment, anger, and recovery perfectly. Of course, I never would have written it because I would have been scared to “jinx” myself, but the truth is I felt more qualified then, than I do now, to explain how to handle not achieving a goal. I had dealt with the “ultimate heartbreak” of qualifying for an Olympic team and being denied the right to compete by my national federation, only to come back the following year as an athlete of the same caliber or better. The anger and pain at the beginning had been so raw and so hurtful that I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop talking about it, and ended up in tears most days. I went to my GP, I got counselling, I held it together enough to go to Rio and watch my husband compete. After, we took a long vacation to Ireland with my family to reset. When we got home, I returned to training, got a job, and worked closely with my sports psychologist and coach to progressively transform my anger into productive focus. In short, I was able to return my sights to my short-term (weekly training), medium-term (winning 2016 national XC, making 2017 IAAF World Championships), and long-term (making the 2020 Olympics) goals.
But when the failure happened again in 2021, my emotions were foreign to me. I kept reflecting on what my 2017 self would advise – I thought I knew all about this type of recovery – and yet I had no thoughts. I think my 2017 was so motivated by the idea of making the Tokyo Olympics that the idea of missing out on yet another games would have been too painful to prepare for. Deep down, I don’t think I believed that failure was an option, I WOULD make it to Tokyo, because I wasn’t going to make any mistakes, and because “fate and karma” would have my back. Yet there I was, in 2021, having to process one of my greatest fears: missing out on yet another team that I had the standard for. In hindsight, there’s no way my 2017 self could have imagined the 2020 pandemic, the postponement and uncertainty of the games, and then an injury that occurred after when the Olympics were initially scheduled to be. Maybe because of all this, 2021 Rachel’s way of processing this loss was completely alien to me. Where I felt I should be crying, I was laughing at the randomness of it all. When I felt I should be itching to compete I was happy to put my feet up and give myself the recovery I felt I needed. I was able to tune out Olympic coverage and calmly leave the room (mentally or physically) when confronted by it. I was being commended on my ability to “process this” and yet I didn’t feel like I was processing anything at all. That’s not to say I didn’t have sleepless nights, angry outbreaks, tears, and questions about my choices during my Olympic journey, but in general the feelings didn’t get as intense as I expected. I knew I wasn’t “ok” with what had happened, and yearned to be more visibly upset as I knew deep-down I was hurting, yet I felt in control of my emotions while going through them. This is hard to admit but I wasn’t proud of how I was handling the loss because I felt like I was just burying my head in the sand.
The week of the 2021 Olympics I was invited to a seminar titled: “Athlete-to-Athlete Co-Op”, targeted at athletes who missed the Olympics, hosted by the Canadian Athlete Wellness Program, Game Plan. I came in with no expectations but found this seminar to be incredibly valuable. It was hosted by someone who herself had missed out on the 2012 Olympics and revolved around a word the often throw around, but one we don’t discuss in depth: GRIEF.
It should have been obvious to me at that point that I was dealing with a form of grief, but grief of an intangible loss – hopes, dreams, an identity, belonging, roles and responsibility (all things an athlete looses when missing an Olympic team) – is something we consider far less often than grief of a tangible loss – a loved one, a pet, a job, finances, a home. Most importantly, the seminar forced me to re-examine grief, what it is, and how we can process it. In short, it allowed me to forgive myself for how I was processing 2021. Here were some of the major take-homes for me:
Every goal has its own unique “life”: Just like a person, my dream of making the 2016 and the 2020 Olympics were “born”, and, in both cases, these dreams “died”. Grief is a natural, and subjective response to any severed attachment often affected by the significance of that attachment. In the case of an athlete, the Olympics are much more than a dream – being an Olympian is an identity, a job, a role. There was even potential financial and professional gain. Being in Rio in 2016, one of the most painful parts was not being able to compete when I knew I was in the best shape of my life and ready mentally and physically, to perform. When the pandemic postponed the Olympics in 2020, I was left questioning what I should focus on that summer and how to move my life forward when I didn’t have a race in the foreseeable future. Maybe that meant that some of my processing for 2021 was already done in 2020.
Grief is not an emotion, it is an all-in response to loss, potentially impacting every aspect of how we function. An individual’s response to grief is unique, and involuntary, sometimes striking when we least expect it, and in ways that surprise us. This was an incredibly validating thing to hear: both my responses to Olympic loss had been so unique that I didn’t identify them as the same experience: grief. But while I was grieving in both cases, they weren’t the same experiences, and neither was I. Myself in 2021 had more confidence and pride in my accomplishments than myself in 2016. When grief struck, I reflected on the positive memories I had in the sport (not that I didn’t have any in 2016 but I had years more in 2021 to reflect on). My Olympic dreams had been different – in 2016 I didn’t entirely believe I could make the Olympics until I started getting very close to the standard in June 2016. My 2021 self was hardened by the pandemic and, for better or worse, might have been more resigned to the idea that life can be unfair.
Grief never goes away: this was something I discovered, painfully, in 2016. I identified that this was a loss that would stay with me forever and, with time, I learnt to embrace that. Eventually, the frequency and duration of my “grief episodes” decreased, but sometimes they came up suddenly when I least expected them. The seminar highlighted that this type of pattern of a decrease in frequency is normal in grief. In fact, the most difficult time for me was leading INTO the 2016 Olympics because the frequency, intensity and duration of grief was increasing, and I didn’t know when it would stop. This feeling was scary and was what forced me to seek out counselling. After the 2016 Olympics ended, my grief followed a healthier pattern. It is still with me today – I saw the word Rio written somewhere recently and it left a knot in my throat – but I’m accepting of it. When I didn’t make the Olympics in 2021 I never had to learn this, I realized immediately that it was just going to be another scar that would stay with me, and so I embraced it rather than letting anyone, including myself, tell me to “get over it”. I just hope this grief doesn’t lead to a permanent aversion to sushi or anything like that!
The concept of “tears being a sign of weakness, and if you don’t cry, then something is wrong” is a myth: there is no right way to grieve and there is no way of knowing how you will respond. When I cried more than I thought I should in 2016, for whatever reason, that was my coping strategy. When I hardly cried in 2021, it didn’t mean I wasn’t upset or was in denial, it just meant that my coping strategy was different. Not crying in 2021 was nothing to be concerned about, just as crying frequently in 2016 was nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s funny how even in grief we can be so hard on ourselves for our own response.
Your friends and loved ones will not always know how to support you, and therapists, doctors and counselors are not necessarily trained in grief: some of the smallest comments can be so supportive and helpful, often coming from the people you least expect. Other friends, who you think you should lean on just might not know what to say: both are okay. It’s important to not judge people for how they do, or do not support you, but to make sure you get the help you need. I think in 2016 I learnt how to seek out the right type of support for me, so I knew better where to look in 2021 and was less offended if someone said “the wrong thing”.
Maybe, on some subconscious level, my lessons learnt in 2016 guided me through my grief in 2021. Or maybe, the experiences were simply so unique that my ways of processing them were entirely different. Or perhaps, it was just my way of processed grief in 2016 vs. 2021. Whatever the reason, this seminar taught me to accept my own process. For anyone going through a loss, of whatever type, here are my top 3 pieces of advice:
Embrace how you are processing your grief. Be confident in your mind and body and remember that grief is natural, and it is how you get yourself through loss.
Be kind to yourself, be aware of the “symptoms” of grief so you can understand your own emotions rather than penalize yourself for them. Don’t let others force you to question whether this is a “real” loss or not – only you can decide what is worth grieving for.
Don’t be afraid to seek out professional help (or not – if you don’t feel you need to right now!). If the professional you work with doesn’t feel like the right fit, don’t be afraid to keep looking. Grief is hard, it takes time and can be scary; finding a person who you can trust in the process is worth fighting for.
No matter how big or small, setting a goal and chasing it is a part of what makes us human. If we achieve a goal, it deserves to be celebrated, and if we miss one, we owe ourselves the time and energy that it takes to grieve: whatever that means for us. I believe that by allowing ourselves to embrace and process our grief, in the way that feels best to us, we can eventually regain the desire to dream fearlessly again – this time with more wisdom than before.
- Rachel Cliff
Photo credit: Janis Hofmanis of Hofmarkphotography