Lessons From Olympic Athletes: Resilience and Innovation

Siu-Hin Wan, MD, FACC

As cardiologists, we are no strangers to achievement and performance. From rigorous training to the responsibility of making life-altering decisions for our patients, each one of us develops mental fortitude to meet the challenges of our profession. One of my favorite places to draw inspiration is from Olympic athletes. Every four years, the best competitors in the world gather to showcase their physical and mental strength in a variety of disciplines. Regardless of their superhuman abilities, athletes have stories behind their successes. In this first of a two-part series, I wish to share lessons I have learned from the athletes of the 2022 Winter Olympics on resilience and innovation.

Nathan Chen and Resilience

The "quad" represents four full rotations in a figure skating jump and is one of the most difficult jumps in figure skating. Nathan Chen was the first skater to land five quadruple jumps in a single program, pushing the boundaries of the quad revolution. In February 2018, with the immense pressure of the world stage, Chen had a disastrous short program, falling on his typically consistent jumps, and out of medal contention. Massively disappointed, he spent the next four years training, working on both his technical and artistic elements, taking six national champions and three world titles, all while studying at Yale, on his way to the 2022 Winter Olympics. Flawlessly skating to "La Boheme" in the individual short program, and Elton John's "Rocket Man" in the free skate with five quads, Chen broke the world record on his way to Olympic gold.

It is inspiring to see how he turned a devastating loss at a time of great expectations, to hard work, resilience, and eventual redemption. The mark of success is often less about achievement, and more about the response to failure. As Adam Grant wrote in his book "Think Again" about the power of mental agility, a good outcome with a shallow process is luck, while a bad outcome with a deep process is an experiment. Rather than treating a fall as a failure, it is but an opportunity to improve. Personally, despite how much I tend to hate losing and the fact that good luck never hurts, I would choose the experiment over luck any day.

Eileen Gu and Innovation

While downhill skiing and cross-country skiing have been part of the Winter Olympics since close to inception, freestyle skiing has never been particularly popular in winter sports.  At the 2022 Olympics, though, that changed.

Eileen Gu, born and raised in San Francisco and competing for China, her mother's homeland, wanted to grow the relatively unknown sport. Known for being disciplined and an incredibly hard worker, Gu, instead of celebrating, would often practice immediately after major competitions to perfect any flaws or inconsistencies. In interviews, she talks about her use of the visualization technique, practicing her tricks in her mind. Her desire is to transcend merely winning competitions, but rather to push the boundaries of the sport.

In the final run of the Big Air competition at the 2022 Olympics, Gu was sitting in bronze medal position.  With one final run to go, Gu unleashed a double cork 1620, something she had not done in either competition or practice.  Gu stated that regardless of whether she landed the jump or not, she wanted to go for it, because her purpose was to inspire others, regardless of the outcome. The boundaries of the sport were broken again.

Cardiology is an inherently paradoxical specialty. On the one hand, we emphasize the importance of following evidence-based guidelines, the tried-and-true path. On the other hand, examples of innovations in the field of cardiology are abundant. While patients want to know the evidence, testing, and safety of a medication, they also desire the most cutting edge and innovative treatment available. As cardiologists, we can easily fall into the trap of what is most comfortable. But what I personally fear most is complacency, despite the comfort that familiarity brings. To have a purpose includes delivering excellent patient care, but it should also encompass pushing the boundaries of the field. Innovation may take many forms, from the research lab, to learning a new interventional technique, to trying a new way of explaining a concept to patients, or even teaching the next generation of medical students. Learning from Gu's example at the 2022 Olympics, pushing the boundaries with a strong desire for innovation is equally if not more important than achievement alone and is what will continue to propel the cardiology community forward.

Click here to read Part 2 - Lessons From Olympic Athletes: Representation, Diversity and Purpose



Siu-Hin Wan, MD, FACC

This article was authored by Siu-Hin Wan, MD, FACC, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

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