You’ll remember her smile and maybe her name. Most of all, you’ll remember her improbable bronze medal. Doctors had told her she wouldn’t be able to attend the Olympics let alone compete and yet the Canadian rower with the German name, ample smile and shattered leg stood proudly on the podium at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Hers was the most compelling story of those Games.
Today, Silken Laumann is a motivational speaker who has written a memoir called “Unsinkable.” She tours Canada sharing her story and promoting her book. I had a chance to attend one of her presentations and interviewed her afterwards.
The tall, blond Laumann strode onto the stage in a blue dress. Her size and strength impressed me. Muscular arms reached for the microphone and she addressed the audience to begin her presentation. Her voice trembled. She was a bit nervous and I liked that – it showed she wanted her presentation to go well.
I was sitting far enough back that I could stare. It was hard not to. The scar from her injury is huge. Ten weeks prior to the ’92 Games, Laumann was warming up for a race when her boat was accidentally rammed by a team of rowers. Their boat struck hers and then severed all the ligaments and tendons below her right calf. Her ankle was broken and hundreds of shards of wood from the other boat were lodged deep in her lower leg.
While Laumann described the accident, her voice became firm yet animated. She walked from one end of the stage to the other without a hint of a limp even though a piece of calf muscle the size of a deck of cards is missing from her leg.
After the crash, she had only 10 weeks to prepare for the Olympics. Doctors were worried about infection because of the gaping wound and all the wood they had to remove. Laumann was more worried about losing her conditioning while recovering. The medical staff said no Olympics, but Laumann had her coach remove the pedals from a stationary bike so she could keep training her upper-body.
She recovered. Laumann adjusted her rowing technique to compensate for the injury. Considering she was the reigning world champion, Laumann had been the favourite to capture gold in Barcelona, but no longer.
To the surprise of many, the defending champ not only travelled to Barcelona; she qualified for the medal race. After the first 1,000 metres of the 2,000-metre final, Laumann was exhausted – more than she had ever felt in a race before. She was in fourth place and the thought of finishing so close to a medal, but to win nothing did not sit well with her.
In the last 40 metres, Laumann heaved on her oars with deep inner strength and moved from fourth to bronze.
The way Laumann told us her story was captivating. She held the audience’s attention surprisingly well considering she didn’t use any visuals. But Laumann’s presentation was more than just the story of her bronze medal. The heart of her talk is about pursuing dreams no matter the obstacles.
“Dreams have so much power,” she said. “Dreams move us beyond what we think is realistic for our lives… [They] are the best possible scenario for our life… It’s time to keep dreaming no matter where you are in your life.”
Laumann spoke candidly about the struggles she overcame in order to reach the pinnacle of her sport and then, later in life, to attain a sense of peace. An eating disorder, depression and a narcissistic mother are some of the barriers she surmounted. Her broken ankle prior to Barcelona seems minor in comparison.
She said that as an Olympian with a public profile, it was initially difficult for her to reveal the issues she needed to resolve. However, she felt a profound need to be authentic and share her story in the hope that doing so helps others. Laumann’s presentations and her book are vehicles for her to do that.
After the presentation, she held a book signing. I approached Laumann and shook her hand. Not surprisingly, she has a strong grip. I passed her a new copy of “Unsinkable” and told her who to make it out to. She looked at me with a smile, “But you don’t look like a woman,” Laumann said.
I laughed. “It’s not for me. It’s a gift for a friend.”
Afterwards, I sat down with the Olympic medalist and we spoke about her book. She said “Unsinkable” took five years to write. Laumann described the experience as difficult, even terrifying, due to her concern of changing the public’s perception of her.
She was a celebrated Olympian instead of a human with talents and flaws. However, Laumann felt she couldn’t truly help people or be truly authentic if she didn’t share her complete story.
I also asked her about the bronze medal she won in Barcelona and she said it’s probably the most scratched medal in Olympic history. Thousands of people have touched it because she feels it’s meant to be shared – just like the truth of who she is as a person.