If your definition of success involves pushing yourself to achieve a goal, there’s no one more successful than Olympic Gold medalists.
Every two years, we watch their victories replayed on highlight reels, forever freezing them at their athletic peak. But in the meantime, they’ve had to find out where to go after reaching the top.
Gymnast Carly Patterson was just 16 when her dazzling performance at the 2004 Athens Olympics made her the second American woman ever to win the all-around competition. She’s in the gymnastics Hall of Fame and even has a dismount named after her.
It all feels like a long time ago for Carly, who now balances a speaking career with raising three young children.
“I’ve been out of gymnastics longer than I was in it; I’ve lived a whole other life,” she says.
In this episode of SUCCESS Stories, Chief Storytelling Officer Kindra Hall talks to Carly about choosing hard work over teenage kicks, what happens when you retire from the sport that has defined you at age 18, and how her Olympian competitiveness still serves her.
The hardest times in your life are when you grow the most.
The months leading up to the Olympics were pivotal for Carly. The newfound independence that comes with turning 16 made spending all her time in the gym less appealing than ever—right when she most needed to focus.
Carly had a decision to make. She could commit to working harder than she ever had on her gymnastic for the next six months and possibly place in a medal position at the Olympics. Or she would spend that time hanging out with her friends.
As we know, Carly chose the former. It was grueling, especially on days when training didn’t go well. Only in hindsight does she understand that those toughest days taught the most.
This lesson stuck with her after she hung up her leotard.
Carly and her husband struggled to conceive, which was emotionally draining. Every negative pregnancy test was another gut punch. Now that she has three children, Carly says she understands how that experience ultimately helped her grow as a person, and strengthened her marriage and her faith.
Being a mom has its hard days too. Now, when she struggles to picture a life that isn’t filled with dirty diapers, tantrums and no sleep, Carly reminds herself that one day, the kids won’t need her as much, and she’ll miss this time with them. There’s always something to be learned from your hardest days if you can just keep going.
Accomplishing your goals is a double-edged sword.
When Carly won gold at the Olympics, she was also the U.S. National Champion and the World Gymnastics Champion. That final gold medal meant she had achieved all of her goals.
That sounds great. But it also meant that after years of being completely focused and disciplined, she had nothing to strive for. She was also physically spent. At 18, following medical advice, she retired.
After building her life around regimes laid out for her by trainers and coaching staff, Carly had to start making decisions for herself. This ranged from the basic—what did she want to eat, when did she want to sleep, what did she want to do in her spare time—to the existential. Now that gymnastics were over, what came next?
Being publicly known added another dynamic. The surge of attention that followed Carly’s Olympic success faded once she stopped competing. Yet when she tried a new path following her dad into music, some members of the public refused to accept her new career.
Winning gold was the end of one chapter of Carly’s life, but in some ways, it made figuring out the next one even harder. Ticking off your last great goal feels incredible at the time, but it comes with unforeseen curveballs.
Competition is a constant.
Olympic athletes are probably more competitive than the rest of us—at least until the Monopoly board comes out. And Carly says that the lessons she learned from competing on a world stage have continued to serve her, reminding her of the dangers of complacency.
Whatever your goals are, there is always someone else who wants them too, who might be more talented and better prepared than you are. If you truly want something, you can’t afford to let your guard down.
Carly says that the most significant lesson she took away from the Olympics was that the one thing you can’t skip if you want to win is hard work.
“Always keep yourself on your toes. Always work hard. Always know that there’s someone that wants it just as bad as you do, who’s ready and willing to do the work if you don’t want to,” she says.
Know when to take the pressure off yourself.
You don’t need to treat every aspect of your life like an Olympic event.
After retiring from gymnastics and going into music, Carly felt internal and external pressure to repeat the same level of success. She wanted to disprove the naysayers who thought she couldn’t be good at something other than gymnastics. She also wanted to live up to the world-class standard she had achieved in her sport.
However, she slowly started to realize that although she loved music, she didn’t want to make it her career. Once she’d accepted this, she was able to let go of the pressure.
“It was like a weight lifted and I could breathe again,” she says.
Having a goal and doing everything you can to achieve it is commendable, and there will be times when you need to push yourself. But you also need to balance that by letting yourself relax and just enjoy yourself in areas that don’t have to be so high stakes.