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BMF Conference: Making the boat go faster

Anna Hemmings watched the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles on TV. “From that moment I was hooked,” she told delegates at the 2015 BMF All Industry Conference. “From that moment I had a very clear objective. I wanted to be an Olympian and a World Champion.”

BMF Conference: Making the boat go faster

Taking kyacking as her chosen method, Hemmings achieved both those goals – competing in both the Sydney and Beijing Olympic games and winning 11 World and European Championship medals. She won three World Championship golds on the trot – 2006, 207 and 2008. However, it wasn’t without a lot of setbacks.

Hemings won her first European Championship in marathon canoeing. “I realised early on that talent isn’t enough. Everyone on the starting line is talented or they wouldn’t be there. What makes the difference is up in your head. Training too, we all train. As an athlete it’s a given that you train hard. However, to get to be the best you are always having to ask: how can we be a better team? How can we get better at this. I realised that if I could make a 1% improvement and then another 1% improvement and then another and aggregated all those little improvements together and achieve gold. Those 1%s can make the difference between silver and gold.”

Hemmings said that one of the most valuable things she learned was the folly of worrying about things that you have no influence over. “Control the controllables. There is no point in worrying about what others are thinking because you can’t control those. It’s like worrying about the weather. You can’t change that. I knew I had to focus on my race and my race strategy. Focussing on positives allowed me to overcome some of the doubts. When it gets tough is when you need to revisit earlier triumphs to work out how to move on.”

“The sense of feeling of standing on that podium after winning is what motivates me. I was aware that if I wanted to win again, the same performance wouldn’t be good enough. In business and in sport there can be trend to lose focus and momentum you can’t think about sustaining performance, you have to improve it.”

Then it all went horribly wrong.

“Have you ever felt that you just don’t have the energy to get going in the morning? What if the energy you require just isn’t there – not that you don’t feel like getting up but that you simply can’t? I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. The physical symptoms were dreadful – I couldn’t do anything. I literally had no energy. However, the emotional symptoms even worse. I imagine it was a bit like going through the worst recession ever and seeing everything you have worked so hard for just swept away. This was my livelihood at stake and it’s something that people simply didn’t understand. It’s not like a broken arm, they could relate to that. But many people said I was just being lazy and that I should get my act together, but my dreams and ambitions were shattered.”

Hemmings says she was advised by doctors to accept what her body was telling her – that it was time to hang up your paddles and retire. “But I couldn’t understand the idea of giving up and not getting back to racing and training. There is always one thing that you can control. You can choose your attitude, choose to stay positive, choose to stay focussed. The attitude is the difference that makes the difference.

“I realised that I had the perfect opportunity to start again. When you have hope in the future you have power in the present. Used dreams and ambitions to inspire me. As long as I focussed on the goal, I should have the motivation to keep going.”

One of the things that her illness taught Hemmings, she says, is that if she wasn’t happy in her mind and her body she was never going to achieve her goals.

“I also realised the power of letting down your guard and recognising there is no problem with asking for help. Things go wrong but if you stay focussed on the goal you can get round them and move on. Learn and move on. I learned I needed to become more resilient if I wanted to compete again. Resilience is what allows you to thrive rather than survive.

To return to fitness, Hemmings realised that she needed to embrace change and drop old habits, as she explained: “I needed to build the right team who I believed in and who believed in me.”

“Teamwork is vital, as is understanding that the team is not just your teammates, it includes sponsors, psychologists, nutritionists. The priority is to make every one of those team members felt as though they belonged. It was imperative that we worked well as a team; we all had different roles, we all had our parts to play. They weren’t in the boat with me but they were all crucial in making me and the boat go faster

“Success should be measured not by the positions we have achieved, but by the obstacles we have overcome along the way.”

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Fiona Russell-Horne
Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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