Imagine that you've made it to the Olympics for the very first time, representing one of the world's best skiing teams. You start out on your very first event. But at the beginning of the race, with all the skiers crowded together, someone steps on your skis, or vice versa, and you do a face plant in the snow. Then two other tripped-up skiers land on top of you.

There's one guy who doesn't have to imagine how this feels because it happened to him--24-year-old Norwegian cross-country skier Simen Hegstad Krueger. "I thought it was going to be the worst day of my life with the start I had, when I was lying on the ground with a broken pole and a ski through my bib number," he told a Norwegian publication. By the time he was back on his feet and had received a new ski pole from one of his coaches, Krueger had lost nearly 40 seconds of race time and he was far behind the other skiers in the event. All 67 of them.

Impressively, he did not do two things a lot of people would have done at that point. First, he didn't give up. A skiathlon is an intensely grueling, 18-mile-plus event that takes more than an hour, and you're skiing uphill for a lot of that time. Having lost all that time and forward momentum, it might have seemed sensible to quietly quit the race, but he chose not to. Second, he didn't focus on the big picture, and the impossibility of performing well in a race where he started out so far behind.

"I had to switch focus."

Instead, he said this: "I was completely last in the group so I had to start the race again and switch focus to catch up with the guys." That's the key to Krueger's success. Instead of fretting over his lost position in the race or the daunting task ahead, he switched focus. All he had to do, at that moment, was find it in himself to catch up to the rest of the pack. 

That would have been a perfectly wonderful result. The fall cost him nearly 40 seconds in an event that is typically won by just a few seconds or less. So if he'd come in in the middle of the group, that would have been a good indicator that next time around he'd be in a good position to do very well.

But then Krueger did catch up to the rest of the pack. Once he was back in contention, he said to himself "OK, take one lap, two laps, three laps, and just get into it again." He worked at staying calm. In a crowded field and a lengthy race, when to pull ahead of the other racers is a key strategic question. Do it too early, and you may tire and be overtaken. Wait too long, and you might never get ahead at all. 

With about three miles left in the race, Krueger made his move and pulled out ahead of the other racers. And there he stayed, with a bigger and bigger lead, until the TV cameras could barely get Krueger and the skiers chasing him into the same shot. He won the race in just over one hour and 16 minutes, after glancing over his shoulder in disbelief at the empty space behind him. His fellow Norwegians Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Hans Christer Holund came in 8 and 10 seconds behind him for the silver and bronze medals. 

Sundby and Holund contributed to Krueger's win. Although the skiathlon is an individual event, the Norwegians' attitude is that a medal for Norway is a win for all. So the two other skiers did what they were trained to do. When Krueger pulled ahead, instead of racing to catch him, they hung back a bit, making things awkward for any other skier who might have tried to overtake him.

Krueger had three things going for him that anyone can learn from. First, when things went horribly wrong, he didn't panic and he didn't give up in frustration. But he also didn't stick stubbornly to his original goal. He switched his focus to something manageable that was a step along the way to success. He thought hard about how to make his move at the right time. And he got help and support from the rest of his team.

Do all that, and you can get over nearly any obstacle. Even if you literally fall flat on your face.

Published on: Feb 12, 2018
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