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Outside The Norm (8/27/13)

BY SHANI DAVIS 


As the weather begins to cool in the valley of Great Salt Lake, it doesn't seem that long ago that I was competing in Sochi at the World Single Distance Championships, adding a bronze and silver to my collection of world championship medals. Semi-satisfied with the results, I eagerly awaited the opportunity to strengthen and develop myself in the areas I was weak during the season. Summer couldn’t come soon enough for me, along with biking canyons, lifting weights, and of course skating 4-6 hours daily! Unlike in previous years, when summer always seemed long and drawn out, this summer seemed shorter than usual. The Olympic Games tend to make this happen.

Olympic year also puts us in the public spotlight more than usual, giving us a rare opportunity to promote ourselves and our sport. Millions of people are starting to become united in support of U.S. winter Olympic athletes as we pursue our dreams of achieving greatness in Russia this February. Capitalizing on these opportunities always take a bit of luck, dependent on the timing and ‘buzz’ of an athlete. I have waited for a long time, and I am now one of the forerunners that will be leading my sport and Team USA in Sochi.

Following the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, I was chosen to participate in a program hosted by Deloitte, a prominent U.S. Olympic sponsor. Deloitte’s “Roadshow” program features Olympic and Paralympic athletes sharing personal experiences of perseverance.  The Roadshow happens all over the country at universities where Deloitte recruits students interested in employment with the company. As a Chicago native who found success in Vancouver, I was selected to participate in the Roadshow when it came to Northwestern University, which is near my home on Lake Michigan. I was proud of being selected and honored by the chance to speak to young people, especially since my childhood speedskating club was practically down the street from the Northwestern campus.

I envisioned the speech being flawless, with highly engaged listeners drawn to my every word and my story. But let’s just say my dream was far from reality. I left the Roadshow frustrated that I was unable to deliver my message. I felt that I didn't make any connection to the listeners and even panicked at times in the delivery.

That day I felt defeated, head down, as I listened to the other Roadshow speakers, such as Paralympic Games track & field champion April Holmes, who seemed to own the moment. I took notes, but I thought it might be irrelevant since that would be the last time Deloitte would invite me to participate in a program. How could I drop that ball of opportunity that Deloitte threw my way, like a wide-open receiver in the end zone, fourth quarter down by three? Regardless of the situation, whether a veteran or rookie, I always want to display my best. I don't ever want to waste anyone's time. I mean, let’s get real: I am a speedskater, not a public speaker! But of course I told myself if the situation ever granted itself again that I would be better prepared.

Deloitte must believe in second chances because recently they were holding an event at Deloitte University in Dallas and they needed an Olympian to kick off the festivities, and they chose me. All week leading up to the event I prepped, practicing my talk (about setting and accomplishing goals) and even rehearsing in the mirror. I also watched the movie “8 Mile” for some last-minute inspiration. This time I was confident and ready!

When I arrived at Deloitte University, I had time to check out the campus. They had state-of-the-art everything, from conference rooms to study centers, with a superb cafeteria and even a world-class workout facility and — last but not least — a 400-foot touch screen interactive wall (imagine playing FIFA on that)! Everything seemed possible there...until I saw the auditorium where I would be speaking. It was huge. I saw countless amounts of circular tables filled with chairs, and in the middle of this gigantic room was a huge elevated circular stage, where a speaker could stand and look over (and be looked over by) all the people attending the Deloitte National Leadership Conference. There were going to be roughly 400+ students and Deloitte employees from all across the country. These students were top of the class, hand picked among the thousands of others who wanted to be in the program.

It took me all day to prepare myself mentally. I was terrified of the thought of failing to inspire the audience and this time the other Roadshow speakers would not be there to pick up my slack. I was a surprise guest, too, so none of the participants knew of my presence. The room grew quiet in anticipation and the lights grew dim and my 2010 Olympic race played as they introduced me as speaker. The room graciously welcomed me. People seemed genuinely into my message, and my 25-minute window was over before I knew it, followed by 20 minutes of Q&A. It was nothing like the last time. An enormous weight was lifted off my shoulders and it was inspiring to have made a connection with the attendees.

Seeing that Olympic clip of me skating had settled any nerves or fear I had before the speech. I was instantly reminded of the steps I took over my career — all the hard work, the sacrifice, everything that I had done to get to where I was on that screen and to that moment before the speech. I simply had to step up, face the challenge in front of me and conquer it. Thinking back, it was really no different than the approach I take before any of my races. All I can do is try my best and if I don't get out of it what I worked for, hopefully, there is another chance to do so. This was one of those chances. Thanks, Deloitte!