My Journey to a Champion’s Mindset

My introduction to paddling was with my high school team, Lowell. Like many other paddlers, the extent to which I knew about the sport was, “I joined because my friend joined.” But that one simple decision to join a team changed the course of my life. Many important lessons from my first team have shaped and defined my life. However this one stood out above the rest:

Results do not make champions. Champions make results.

When I joined the Lowell dragon boat team, they were a powerhouse and won all of their races that year. I looked up to my seniors and thought they were exceptional humans, natural champions and winners. The thing that separated us and the other teams was fate. Although I knew nothing about the other teams, I knew that mine had the best coach, the best environment, the best athletes, the best everything. And because I joined this team, I was destined to be the best as well. 

My outlook that greatness is fate quickly changed when it no longer fit my personal agenda. On the first race of my senior year, we had the lost handed to us on a silver platter by the same Lincoln High School team that we defeated the year before. They were bigger, badder, and more intense; it was no wonder they had the commanding victory. Now, they seemed to be the ones fated to be the champions. So I ditched the naive idea that success is fate. I decided that even though I wasn’t as talented as my opponents, I will work harder. I will create my own success with hard work.

So I ditched the naive idea that success is fate. I will create my own success with hard work.

What came next is your typical fairy tale story. Cue Rocky training montage. We got bigger; we got stronger; we trained our butts off. We went into the next race seeking bloody, bloody revenge. We were ready to be David, slaying Goliath against all odds. When we crossed the finish line and saw the Lincoln crew slightly behind us, we cheered to the idea that the universe works, that hard work does pay off. But… We came up short and lost the race by hundredths of a second. Although we did not win the race that day, I began to learn how to have a champion’s heart.

The heart and mindset of a champion I found came in three layers, each more nuanced and difficult to learn. The first layer has to do with something that became immediately apparent to me and that I hold deep in my heart to this day: Hard work pays off. Even though we didn’t win that race, we were all proud of how far we’ve come. From being dominated earlier in the year, we grew stronger and gave one hell of a fight, and ultimately earned the respect of our opponent. Although the results were important, what was more important was the pride and dignity that came with knowing we gave it our all. The first layer to becoming a champion for me was pride. For a champion, hard work and pride comes hand in hand. Going into a race, my pride is fueled by my practice. But on a daily basis, my practice is fueled by my pride. As someone who has respect for myself and my craft, I hold a standard of excellence for myself and the people around me. I hold myself and my teammates accountable for winning at practice every day, not just in one heat on race day.

Going into a race, my pride is fueled by my practice. On a daily basis, my practice is fueled by my pride.

If we had won that race against Lincoln, the learning would have stopped there. But because we lost, I learned so much more. The second thing I learned was this: Putting in hard work does not necessarily mean that you deserve to win. Training and effort can only prepare you to win. Whether you win or not will depend on how you stack up against your opponent. You need to work harder and smarter than your opponent. A champion understands this uncertainty, and respects it. The second layer to becoming a champion for me was humility. When your hard work does not pay off, know that someone else worked harder than you. Go back to the drawing board and work harder. Be proud of what you’ve done, but also pay respect to those that have worked harder. In my loss to Lincoln, I realized that my team did not work hard or smart enough. But, I did not simply accept that they beat us because they worked harder. I asked why were they able to do it, how did they do it, how can I do it? Humility and respect aren’t about defeat; it’s about agency. A champion has humility to learn from other, so that they can keep getting better.

Humility and respect aren’t about defeat; it’s about agency.

It took me some time to learn the third layer and finally feel like I get what it means to be a champion. At the heart of the lesson is the question, “Does winning matter?” Each person will have his own answer to that question, but here’s mine: Winning is the destination, but it is not the goal. There are different ways to get to the destination: being smarter, being stronger, being more efficient, being faster, etc. But, it’s not about where you’re going, or how you get there; it’s not even about whether you get there or not; it’s about you. Through your journey to win, who have you become? You don’t become a champion by getting to the destination. You don’t become a champion by simply going on the journey, either. You become a champion when you are a champion. Through my career, I have been triumphant, from competing on the world stage with my youth peers, to having an undefeated season in my third year in college. I have also been humbled many times, from losing by hundredths of a second in my senior year of high school, to losing 7 seconds to UCSD in my freshmen year of college. Now, I live with the pride and belief in myself through good times and bad, but also with the humility and respect for anyone who is also masters of their crafts. Through the tough times of DW, I have stuck with this project even in the brinks of destruction, because I have strong faith in my own abilities. But also through these tough years, I have learned that it’s not always so easy, that it takes the right pieces, and I have learned to appreciate it when those right pieces do come by. I am not a champion because I’ve won. I’ve won because I am a champion.
The third and final layer to becoming a champion for me was: The ability to live simultaneously with both pride and humility.

– Shou Leung

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