Olympic silver medallist Sarah Walker has broken 18 bones in her body over her career.
For her, that’s proof of her commitment to failure which - she claims - is the path to success.
“(Society sees) failure as such a bad word... (but) I aim to fail every week,” she said to the Olympic Channel Podcast.
The stakes for failing in BMX may be higher than other sports - but the New Zealander simply does not care.
"If I fail every week, then if I have a bigger failure – I have practised that feeling – and I am more comfortable with it and I am more accepting of the outcome."
Embracing failure with BMX Olympic silver medallist Sarah Walker
Embracing failure with BMX Olympic silver medallist Sarah WalkerThe consequences for failure in BMX are high as New Zealand’s Sarah Walker well knows – she’s broken 18 bones over her career. A big crash meant she missed Rio 2016 after her silver medal at London 2012. She believes that failure should be reassessed. “(Society sees) failure as such a bad word. It’s so negative and this thing that you need to avoid (but) I aim to fail every week. Then if I have a bigger failure – I have practised that feeling – and I am more comfortable with it and I am more accepting of the outcome.” Find out how to make some epic fails – Olympic style.
Why failure is good
Why should someone get into BMX when it looks so dangerous?
Walker: BMX is preparing me so well for life beyond sport. Because I learned to accept failure on a whole other level.
Failing is not just ‘I wasn’t good enough’. It’s broken bones. There’s some big consequences for failing. But being able to accept failure - and truly accept failure as an outcome – allows me to give even more.
In the future, whatever I do, failure is an option but, to me, when I fail it’s proof that I have given everything. Sometimes it’s that I gave too much… but if I don’t fail then was I actually giving my best?
Every time I fail, I see it as a good thing - Sarah Walker
Failure is one of these words that gets thrown around and it’s wrongly defined, I think.
Especially in sport – but in general society as well – failure is such a bad word. It’s so negative and this horrible thing that you need to avoid.
But, to me, I have got to the point and had all these experiences in my life where, failing isn’t a bad thing. I see it as a good thing. If I fail, then without any doubt, that was my best.
The gym is probably the easiest place to fail because it’s a controlled environment. But it will quite often be my goal every week in the gym to fail… Could I have done a little bit more weight? Was it 99 percent? Whereas if I fail – I know – yep – that was my maximum. So, I aim to fail every week.
But it feels so horrible to fail…
It does. But it’s like everything. If you practise, you get more comfortable with it. So the more I fail – if I fail every week. Then, if I have a bigger failure – I have practised that feeling – and I am more comfortable with it and I am more accepting of the outcome.
From missing out to winning a medal
You finished fourth at Beijing 2008. How long did it take you to watch this back?
It took me six months to watch it back… because I didn’t want to see something that I could have done differently
I was really nervous to watch it back the first time… But I couldn’t have done anything differently. So, it really gave me peace with the result.
What it helped in addressing was, not the race itself, but the bigger picture… and believing in my ability more. (Just) believing I was good enough… I wanted to avoid being cocky.
So, I didn’t get to the point where I was confident. I wanted to avoid it that bad. It was more about allowing myself to be confident and know that there is a line between believing in yourself and being arrogant or cocky.
Once I learnt that it was OK to be confident and it’s OK to believe in yourself, that’s when I went to the next level with my riding as well.
At London 2012, you finished second. Is the negative aspect to this confidence that you can’t be happy with second?
For me, that was something that I really worked towards being OK with. So, going in, I worked towards knowing that if I did my absolute best, whatever I finish, I can be proud. So, to be honest, winning the silver felt like gold.
You say ‘winning’. The journalist in me says you can’t say that with a silver medal.
It was amazing. I still remember standing on the start hill before the final… and being like, "This is really cool".
You get asked, “When do you think it will sink in?” after you receive the medal or after you receive the result. But, to be honest, it sunk in that morning what was about to happen. So, when I crossed the finish line and I had won the medal. I was able to fully able to fully take on everything of that moment.
Anne-Caroline Chausson wins the Women's BMX gold medal | Beijing 2008
Anne-Caroline Chausson wins the Women's BMX gold medal | Beijing 2008Chausson added a BMX medal to her mountain bike silverware collection.
You suffered many injury setbacks in the run-up to Rio 2016. How low were you when you missed out on the Olympics completely?
I look back at Rio (and I have) the same emotions as I did in London where I won a medal. (Laughs) Your face is saying ‘What?!’
I had the same mindset: I am going to do the best every day in training and I am going to do my absolute best in every race. The outcome will be what it will be.
For Rio – it was not even qualifying for the Olympics. And for London - it was winning a silver medal. But I look back at both situations and I am proud.
I gave it everything I had in both situations and sometimes when you do that it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. And that’s OK.
For real. I am really proud.
Surely you still want to win a gold medal though, right?
That would be cool, and I still believe that I can get faster. But I can’t control what anyone else does.
I know that I still love it. And I know that I can still get faster. I will do my best every single day in training and, if I win gold, (that’s) amazing. If I get last – I did my best. And that’s OK.
The result and the outcome is something I can’t control. Doing my best every day I can control, so I just worry about that.
So, the big takeaway is?
Fail more. I know it is a crazy thought and it did take me some time to get to that point where I really believe it is a good thing.
It sucks sometimes to fail but the more I fail the more I learn and the more I know that I can’t be giving any more because you can’t do more than fail.
Pajon's gold medal run in women's cycling BMX | London 2012
Pajon's gold medal run in women's cycling BMX | London 2012Colombia's Mariana Pajon maintains a comfortable lead then celebrates her cycling BMX win in London 2012.
Sarah Walker was this week's guest on the Olympic Channel Podcast. Each Wednesday we talk out the biggest talking points around the Olympics with athletes, coaches and more.
The interview and questions were edited to make them easier to read. Olympic Channel reporter Ed Knowles conducted the interview.