SE: K-State Olympians Give Insight Into Their Success

Fear was the focal point of Thursday’s Olympic panel discussion with four former K-State track and field athletes, but the rare insight included went well beyond its title, “Being Fearless.” 

The panel, hosted by K-State’s Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies on campus, brought four Olympians — Erik Kynard, Jr., Thane Baker, Akela Jones and Ed Broxterman — together to share their stories, their struggles and their secrets to success. 

“It was fun,” Baker said after the event. “I just hope that I could plant a few seeds that grow and they can be encouraged to be the best that they can be.”

It was the first of two lead-up events for GWSS Annual Lecture on March 16, 2017, when six-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee will speak at K-State. Another Olympic panel is scheduled for February 3, 2017. 

Jill Montgomery, a former K-State track and field athlete and current ESPN analyst, moderated Thursday’s event, asking insightful questions that prompted a variety of answers from the former Wildcats who have won a combined five Olympic medals. 

“I think that being fearless, it touches everybody at some point in their life,” said Montgomery, before describing a story in which K-State head coach Cliff Rovelto made her jump off the pit plug to pole vault. “I had fear because pole vaulting with no plug, if you don’t commit, you’re going to break your neck. He would give us those types of things throughout our careers and we had to become fearless.”

K-State Sports Extra was on hand for the event and will highlight a few of its moments and responses below. To hear even more from these Olympians, watch the full panel discussion online at this link

Panel Question: What were the biggest fears you had to overcome to achieve success? 

Akela Jones (heptathlete from Barbados): Coming from a different country, being separated from my family and sacrificing that for time and training here at K-State was definitely my biggest fear. Leaving my brothers, sisters and an environment I know so well and coming here, that definitely was my biggest fear. 

Ed Broxterman (1996 U.S. Olympic Team, high jump): Being fearless, that’s kind of how we got to where we are. The first time I ever felt fear was my freshman year and it was the first day of practice. This was back before Coach (Rovelto) really knew how to coach high jumpers. He decided that it would be a good idea for us to go run four- to five-mile fartlek (workouts) with the middle-distance runners. I died. Anything over 50 meters was too far for me, so four to five miles of seeing middle-distance people sprint around you while you’re back there dying… fear set in pretty heavy that first day of practice. 

Panel Question: How did your failures help you to become successful? 

Erik Kynard, Jr. (silver medalist, two-time Olympian in 2012, 2016): For me, essentially, the greatest attribute for my success is the ability for me to ask myself, ‘What would I attempt to do if I knew I could not fail?’ because failure is guaranteed, always, and success is merely a pending transaction. So if you ask yourself what you would do if failure was not an option, if it couldn’t happen, if it did not exist, I think that’s how you increase your capacity in terms of your work, dreams and passions. In order to be great at anything, you have to be disciplined enough to evaluate your own characteristics, attributes and increase your capacity mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally, because you’re essentially a builder. You’re trying to build the foundation for your life, whether it is personally, in athletics or in your career, and in order to do that you have to evaluate a multitude of things.

Akela Jones: My failures have helped me to refocus. After injuries or after not running well or not jumping well, you go back to the drawing board and say, ‘Hey, what can I improve in training? How can improve my running? How can I improve my strength?’ So after being injured or after the Olympics this year when I didn’t finish as well as I wanted, I came back with a new personality, I came out with a new focus for training. Failures definitely bring happiness sometimes. 

Panel Question: How do you define success? 

Thane Baker (four-time Olympic medalist at 1952, 1956 Games): Being married 62 years, I guess that’s a success. A quick secret on that, before my wife and I got married, we made an agreement: she would make all of the little decisions and I would make all of the big ones, and that worked for 62 years. Of course, we haven’t had any big ones yet. She said she would tell me when we had a big one. 

Ed Broxterman: Success for me is making the world a little better place. I’m really thankful I made an Olympic team, that’s awesome, but I think I want that to be a small part of who I am. I want to make sure when I leave this place it’s a little bit better than when I found it. Then making sure with your family that you’re always there for your kids and that you don’t allow your business ambitions to drive who you are. 

Panel Question: If you could give people one piece of advice on how to be fearless, what would it be? 

Erik Kynard, Jr.: My advice would be to change your perspective and view things differently. Don’t limit yourself to viewing a glass as only half empty or half full, but be able to step away from the table and change your perspective. Evaluate the level of acceptance you have for yourself in every instance and circumstance, because if you’re able to do those things then you won’t be limited to any habits or behaviors that you currently have and you’ll be able to make adjustments and progress through your process. 

Thane Baker (from Elkhart): Don’t let a perceived handicap limit your dreams. Glenn Cunningham (a two-time Olympian also from Elkhart) burned his leg at an early age. He couldn’t walk very well. The doctor told him he would always have enough burned muscle on his leg, there would be so much scar tissue there that he probably wouldn’t be able to function normally with running. The rest of the story is history. He set the world prep record while he was a senior in high school in the one-mile run. When I was 14 years old, I got a piece of steel stuck in my knee. For two years, I couldn’t participate in athletics or anything else. The steel is still in my knee and my left leg is still smaller than my right leg. That wasn’t a handicap to me, it was just another challenge to put more effort in my right leg to drag my left leg. You might have a handicap you might think can limit what you do, but it won’t. I try to encourage kids to do their best. Don’t let a handicap be a problem, be an obstacle. Overcome it.