Why I Am More Proud Of The Olympics I Failed Than The One I Succeeded

Olympic rower Sara Hendershot didn't make the 2016 U.S. Women's team, but what she learned in the process of trying was far more valuable.

Go ahead, tell me that I failed.

It's been a week since the rowing team has been named, and my heart sinks every time I hear the word Olympics. I dedicated four years of incredibly hard work, but still came up short.


Go ahead, tell me that I failed.

It's been a week since the rowing team has been named, and my heart sinks every time I hear the word Olympics. I dedicated four years of incredibly hard work, but still came up short.

You might say that the decisions I made this Olympic cycle were bad ones, because ultimately they ended in failure. And as far as my Olympic campaign goes, that's true. But in my eyes, this cycle was a greater success than the one in which I actually made the team. In my second Olympic effort, I chose to forge my own path—a training journey that was unconventional and disapproved of by many, including the head coach of the U.S. Women's Olympic team. But the experiences that came with it have prepared me to give back more to the world than just my rowing performance, and I'm incredibly proud of where I am now.

Taking Control

The beginning of this Olympic cycle was frustrating. I returned home from London hungry for another chance and ready to put in the work. I saw early success in my fitness and on the world stage, but I was quickly deflated by injury. I struggled with a nasty injury cycle for over 12 months before I realized it was time to make a change or retire.

What followed was an uncharted path toward rowing fitness, health and an Olympic bid, all while training outside of our structured national rowing program. While this unfamiliar territory was completely terrifying, it also allowed me to build a training program that fit my individual needs. And it required a lot of scary decision making.

When I compare my first and second Olympic cycles, I realize that I've trained in two completely different environments—one where every single decision was made for me, and another where none of them were. I quickly learned that making decisions, and good ones at that, is a skill—a skill I had to practice to get better at, but once I got the hang of, I didn't want to give it up. Making strategic decisions, and then having to live with my choices, gave me a huge sense of empowerment and ownership over the process. I felt myself grow from an order-following soldier into an independent, confident athlete, with assurance that spilled over into many other areas of my life. Doing it my way was terrifying—and addicting.


Nailing Down Our Team

With the ability to make choices came the responsibility of building my own team. If there's one big lesson I learned, it is that we are strongly influenced by the company we keep, for better or for worse. If you want to improve in your sport, surround yourself with people who are better than you, who know more, who perform better, who push you. If you want to be a better person, why not approach it the same way? Surround yourself with those who value the same things, who push you, who change you. I want to be a thinker, a fighter, a challenger, so I chose to be around people who brought me closer to those goals. My husband and coach, Mike, and my rowing partner, Sarah, are the rocks of my squad, and I feel lucky to have shared so much of my journey with them.

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The 90/90 Rule

Over the last four years, many people have come in and out of my life—teammates, coaches, business partners and friends have come and gone. I realized that some will be with me forever, and some relationships weren't meant to last. I've learned to appreciate people for who they are, what makes them unique, and how we can positively influence each other right now. A sport psychologist I worked with taught me the 90/90 rule: if you're not 90% sure that a partnership will work after 90 days of testing it out, you're better off parting ways. At its core, this is a beautiful principle. Accepting that a person might not be right for you in the long run doesn't mean you can't appreciate them in the moment.

Getting Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

Most people have a hard time taking criticism, even if it's constructive. When you've reached the pinnacle of your sport and someone tells you that you're doing something wrong, it's easy to say, "No thanks, I'm all good." When one of my coaches told me I needed to start over and completely relearn how to move, I wasn't sure what to think. Looking back, I'm glad something made me listen and I let myself be vulnerable. I was put into incredibly uncomfortable situations, in training, in racing, and in life. The mental and physical discomfort wasn't easy to embrace, but it's where the magic happened. The more comfortable I became with being uncomfortable, the easier it became to make positive change.

I Really Don't Need Sh*t

Over the course of the Olympic year, we lived in seven different cities. Mike and I got rid of almost everything we owned, put the rest in storage and traveled around with two suitcases. Newport Beach, California —> Boston —> Sarasota, —> Chula Vista, California —> Cambridge, New Zealand —> Sacramento —> Chula Vista —> Princeton, New Jersey. Phew, I'm tired. One year later, I barely remember what was in our storage unit, and I don't think we need much of it anymore. This was another incredibly important lesson we learned: the company we kept and the experiences we had were so special that it became pretty obvious that "stuff" wasn't all that important. In a weird way, we established a new minimalist hierarchy of needs. For us, that looks like love, shelter, food, and fitness. This might sound ridiculous, but for us to thrive and be our most productive selves, we needed those four needs to be met. So I guess the journey either taught me to live simply, or it's an awesome excuse for a brand new wardrobe.


Trusting My Gut 

Many people along the way told us this wouldn't work. You won't be able to support yourself without a USOC stipend. You won't have access to the necessary equipment. You won't find quality coaching. Your mental game will get weak. You can't be fast and train outside of the Training Center. You can't get fit without volume training.

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Although our results didn't end in an Olympic bid, we did solve all of those problems, and then some. We sought out and signed with an incredibly generous and supportive sponsor, West Coast University. Their support allowed us to purchase top of the line equipment and hire coaches. Our flexibility outside the Training Center allowed us to work with several world class coaches who helped us improve not just our rowing, but also our general movement patterns, strength, and mental game. We trained alongside world champions and Olympians from other countries who taught us big lessons and pushed our limits daily. We achieved huge personal best times by following a training plan with about 50% of the typical rowing volume—and we prioritized our health and skill. Ultimately, we showed our speed at the National Selection Regatta, where we finished ahead of many of the women who will be racing in Rio this summer.

The only reason any of this was achievable is because the voices in our heads were louder than the voices of the haters.

Now I Know What I Want

Without a doubt, this is what I'm most thankful for: Now I know what I want. Simply put, it's the desire to pass it on. The improvement I've seen in myself has been so rewarding that I hope I can help others do the same. Using rowing (and fitness in general) as a vehicle for self-improvement is what I've enjoyed the most about this whole process, and I'm excited to work with people who are ready to change their own lives.

So is the result of this quadrennial a disappointment? Hell yeah. I wanted to be in Rio this summer. But I'll tell you this: I am far more proud of myself for the things I accomplished and the lessons I learned over the last four years than I was when I made the Olympic team in 2012. Sometimes you set out to achieve a goal and fail, but what you gain along the way is far greater than what you originally hoped to accomplish.

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