Jungle Jim Hunter was one of the original Crazy Canucks as a member of the Canadian alpine ski team in the early to mid seventies. These days, besides being both a coach and mentor of young athletes he has a radio talk show that airs in Calgary every Saturday that you can also get on the station’s website at any time (http://www.fan960.com/). It’s one of the very few programs that focuses on amateur sport and how to become both a better athlete and person and I’ve always found it to be very interesting and very valuable.
A few months ago now, Jim invited me on to the program to talk about skeleton and to discuss the upcoming Olympics that were only a few weeks away at the time. We talked about a variety of topics, one of which was earning your performances. Jim made the observation that too many young athletes these days “want to win by default.” What he meant by that was there is a difference between deserving to win and winning because the competition had a bad day or was unlucky or perhaps had inferior conditions or equipment to work with.
Of course these factors are often beyond our control but the point is that the level of competition contributes to the level of satisfaction. Very seasoned and very successful athletes often appreciate this relationship and want their competitors to be at their best to make it more meaningful and more satisfying should they prevail (2. Emulating Gregor Staehli). Jim’s point was that too many young athletes don’t yet appreciate this relationship and would feel happy to win, even in the absence of the top competitors, hence the expression, “winning by default.”
To illustrate the other end of the spectrum, and what he feels athletes should aspire to, he told a story from when he was a teenager and just beginning his international career as a skier. Because he wanted to be the best, he sought out the best to learn from and at the time that meant such iconic skiers as Franz Klammer, Jean-Claude Killy and Ingemar Stenmark to name a few.
The next part was what I found particularly extraordinary and at the time I asked him to clarify more than once. What he did was actually go to their home towns in the off season, and literally show up at their front door unannounced. I asked him what he would say as some unknown teenager on the front door step of one of these giants of his sport. He told me he would explain who he was and that he wanted to be a great skier and he asked them if he could interview them and try to learn from them what it takes.
Now apparently he did this on a number of occasions with many of the top skiers of his generation and incredibly he was welcomed in and given valuable information in almost every case. I made him stick around after the radio program for a good 45 minutes so he could tell me more stories about these incredible unannounced visits. The one that sums up his point the best, at least in my opinion, was when he came to knock on Ingemar Stenmark’s door. I gather the man himself answered and after hearing Jim’s explanation as to why he was there, he asked him if he had his workout clothing with him. After indicating that he did, he was told to come around back for a workout they were just beginning.
Jim was able to participate in the session and learned several training techniques the great Swedish champion was utilizing including intervals riding unicycles of various lengths uphill through pylons to build both strength and coordination at the same time. At the end of the training, Jim asked Stenmark very simply, “why did you help me?” His answer, which offers great insight into the way a champion of his stature thinks and is the antithesis of ‘winning by default’, was this:
“I want you to be your best so that if I win I can say I was the best.”