Incredible Women

6 Incredible Athletes On Strength, Success And Setbacks

Clockwise from top left: Pandelela Rinong; Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce; Brittni Mason; Danusia Francis; Deja Young-Craddock; Janja Garnbret

To mark the start of the Tokyo Games, we asked six inspirational Olympians and Paralympians to share the most pivotal moment of their career so far – and reflect on how it has shaped their understanding of success. As told to KATIE BERRINGTON

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, track and field sprinter, Jamaica

“When I was finally able to run the 100-meter in under 10.7 seconds, I couldn’t believe what had happened. I did it! My mouth hit the floor. I had dreamed about this for so long, and so to have done it felt amazing. Breaking this record was proof that I could do anything. When I put my mind to something, nobody can tell me no. It’s the grit, determination and commitment that sets you apart from the rest. I’m now being more mindful about my legacy and what that means for my family, my fans and the people around me. When I hang up my [running] spikes, I want to know that I inspired other women and girls to go after their dreams. It’s not too late. You’re not too old. It doesn’t matter what people say you can or cannot do, or even where you come from – keep your eye on the prize.”

Janja Garnbret, climber, Slovenia

“A really formative part of my life as a professional climber was the time around my first big competition, which was the 2013 European Athletics Junior Championships. I was 14 years old. I remember that it didn’t bother me much that it was my first championship; I just went and climbed for fun and I ended up winning. I’ve done my best to hold on to that same approach ever since – trying not to worry about being successful and focusing on having fun instead.”

Pandelela Rinong, diver, Malaysia

“I didn’t choose diving – it chose me! And I am grateful and feel extremely blessed by this fateful encounter, as it totally changed my life. I enjoyed the sport initially, as it was challenging and fun, but eventually I really fell in love with it. Diving and being a sportsperson really suited me. The challenge in perfecting a dive drives the competitiveness in me and getting it right motivates me. The discipline and commitment required for an athlete tames my wandering spirit and gives me focus. Winning the bronze medal at the London Summer Olympics in 2012 was my most memorable and treasured moment. It made me feel like I had finally achieved something that I, my family and my country could be proud of. Winning has also taught me the importance of balance – to be humble with my successes, to be graceful in the face of defeat and to persevere and enjoy the journey.”

Brittni Mason, track and field sprinter, USA

“With three weeks’ notice and absolutely no international race experience, I was able to accomplish my professional debut in 2019. I became a world champion and world-record holder, clocking a time of 11.89 in the T46/T47 100-meter world championship. Going into it, my original mindset was that I had nothing to lose, so I just put myself out there. I had no idea where this journey would take me, but I am so glad I took the opportunity. The rush and adrenaline I had standing on the starting line, as well as the strength of God, is what allowed me to have the performance that I had. Physically, I didn’t feel prepared, but mentally, I knew that I was up for the challenge.

“Not only did taking this opportunity allow me to make a mark on the world, but it also gave me confidence to know that I can continue to run and to inspire others, which has always been my goal when competing. Nothing compares to that world-record feeling that I had after my race and realizing that no one has run faster than the time I’ve now set. This debut taught me that, with determination and a positive mind, I can accomplish anything and the only thing standing in the way of my success is me.”

Danusia Francis, artistic gymnast, Jamaica

“A particularly memorable time for me in gymnastics was definitely during my NCAA career. I went to UCLA unaware of how collegiate gymnastics worked. However, the immediate sense of team was so empowering and each day I felt like I had a duty to my teammates, the wider team of support staff and the entire UCLA Bruin community to be my best. There is, of course, pressure, but I felt like it uplifted me, because there was the support and intention behind it to help me become the best competitor I could be. There are a lot of memories from my time at college that I will treasure forever. But the overall win for me was the shift in my mindset. I began my college journey immediately after the heartbreak of not competing at the 2012 Olympic Games. I had no intention of competing in elite anymore, but the joy and motivation I felt from being a Bruin inspired me to reach for my goal once again. Now, here I am just about to head to the Tokyo Olympics, having made it a reality. My gymnastics journey has taught me not to put an expiry date on my dreams.”

Deja Young-Craddock, track and field sprinter, USA

“After the 2016 Games, I was in a really bad car accident and it left me feeling like I was done and I couldn’t handle another ‘test of life’. I had the option to quit and walk away, but something in me told me to keep going (these are my favorite two words – I have them tattooed on my wrist as a reminder). I started training again and I struggled with body-image issues, performance anxiety and depression. I competed at nationals in 2017 with no expectations, [but joined] my second world team. I went to London, again, with no expectations. That meet, I came out with two more gold medals to my name. After that track meet, I took a moment to think. I realized that it was never about being first or winning – it was bigger than that. It has taught me that my weaknesses are my strengths and I am forever grateful for that. It taught me that success isn’t measured by what you receive; it is measured by how you persevered.”

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