Canadian Olympian Jessica Zelinka: Winning in the Long Run


During this month many of us will watch most or parts of the Olympic Games. Some people we had never heard of before, quite possibly in sports we’ve never heard of either, will occupy media for a few weeks. Putting aside the political issues of the Olympics for a moment, for many participants the Games are quite possibly their only opportunity to strive for levels of performance that has any kind of visibility and validation beyond the microcosm of their sport.

It was with this context that I thought that Jessica Zelinka’s journey to the upper echelons of sport and back was worth considering by the reader’s of this blog because, as a community of high performers working to achieve breakthrough results in our organizations and fields, we have much to learn from a person who operated at a world-elite level.

On July 9th and 10th of this year Canadian Heptathlete Jessica Zelinka competed at the EAP Combined Events 2016 at Hexham U.K. with the goal of scoring 6,200 points, the level required to qualify for the Women’s Heptathlon event at the Olympic Games.

Zelinka did not qualify. Her post that day — the photo and the words — was not glossy and false, but communicated raw and honest disappointment. How could it be otherwise when one works that hard for that long? It is not as if Zelinka’s goal was unreasonable; she won Silver for Canada at the 2014 Commonwealth Games with a score of 6270, scored 6480 at the 2012 London Olympics (placing 6th), won Silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. At the 2008 Olympics she scored 6490 for 5th; the year before at the 2007 Pan Am Games, in Rio, she won Gold with 6136. Her personal best is 6599 set in 2012 and that score stood as the Canadian national record until last year.

But her event is, to the weekend warrior, an unimaginably tough gauntlet of 7 events over two days. Any injuries or weakness of form is magnified and cascades like dominoes falling. The mental load of keeping a game-face going for 2 days as well as the sheer range of events makes it one of the more taxing of the Olympic events to enter.

This blog focuses on elevating performance in the business world but I thought that Zelinka’s response and thoughts on the Olympics as an athlete and as a parent are well-worth reading on her blog. (There’s also a good article in the Toronto Star.)

In our line of work performance is not an event but a process. We don’t define high performance as achieving peak quality at a single point in time or even for a period of time, but over a long time horizon. It is analogous to a CEO declaring a company great because it had great performance for a few years but then faded as the leaders declared victory, cashed in and moved on.

Similarly I think we should view our own performance and that of others not through the lens of any one chapter of our professional life but rather over a longer time span, over several professional and personal chapters. For an elite athlete this means transferring skills from one field to another, a challenge of continual reinvention that all of us face although in a less visible and dramatic manner than someone like Zelinka.

The typical formula for success for Olympians is to medal (ideally Gold or multiple medals). These medals then are meant to confer on the athlete a legitimacy to speak about performance, mental toughness, resiliency in adversity and the other virtues corporate and civic audiences like to hear athletes address.

I suggest, however, that in her quest to qualify and in her public disappointment and equally public coming-to-terms with what comes next, Zelinka’s story is as powerful, and perhaps more meaningful, than any Gold medal story I’ve heard over the years.