Former Olympian offers advice to athletes during Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic

Melinda Harrison is a professional coach, former Olympian and author. (Photo: Facebook)

TORONTO — Melinda Copp was born in London, Ontario, Canada. She attended the University of Michigan and was named captain of the Michigan Wolverines Swimming and Diving Team. Then, she was the first U-M varsity swimmer to compete in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

After getting married, she changed her name to Melinda Harrison. She recently finished a book titled “Personal Next: What We Can Learn from Elite Athletes Navigating Career Transition.” Currently, Harrison serves as a professional coach for teams and one-on-one clients.

I did an exclusive interview with Harrison on the phone. We discussed a variety of topics including the Coronavirus pandemic, her new book and the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games, which were just postponed to 2021.

How do you think athletes are coping during this Coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic?

“It affects all athletes. It doesn’t just affect the pros or the Olympians or the March Madness. It affects the high school athletes just as much. What happens when something is pulled away from you, without your control, it’s not an injury that happened to you, it’s not you deciding it’s the end of your athletic career. The individual is going to feel like the rug has been pulled out underneath them and have an immense amount of anxiety. What does this mean for me? That’s all individuals right now. Specifically to the athlete, they are dealing with an immense amount of loss. The loss of the structure for as long as they’ve participated in organized sport. Loss of daily recognition. Loss of physical endorphins they get when they get to work out. When you make the sports team, you are compared to all of the other people who are trying to make the sports team. You are constantly being compared to other people. It’s very challenging for these athletes.”

It’s especially a difficult time for seniors in high school or college. Student athletes were hoping to finish the year strong and go out on top. Now, most of them will not have that opportunity.

“That’s absolutely correct. There are some cases where in college, the latest that I’ve read, is they are trying to work out how those seniors might have a fifth year or another opportunity. That’s going to be few and far between. A lot of these individuals that are graduating from college, that’s been their life. But they need to move on to making money and getting paid. We make the assumption that athletes are very well reimbursed. A very, very small percentage of them can live off what they make and certainly retire off of what they make. All of these other athletes that have been pulled along on this system now have to get off the system and figure out what’s next. And that’s going to be challenging.”

With most of the gyms and fitness centers temporarily closed, what should these student athletes be doing right now?

“My recommendation is to try and figure out what you can control. Think about your day from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep. I’ll tell you a little story. In 1980, I was training in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at a school called Pinecrest. The Olympic Games were canceled due to the war in Afghanistan and the things that Russia was doing. The United States and Canada decided not to go. I thought to myself, I had done nothing but train for many years as I’ve been involved in swimming. It was going to be now time for me to have fun and meet other people. That was a mistake. They still held Olympic trials and still named a team. I didn’t make that team. Four years later, having learned that lesson, I didn’t give up and I made the 1984 team.

“So what I would say to our athletes, that still want to compete, is don’t give up and figure out what you can control. You can control how much time you spend on social media. You can control what you are eating. You can control doing workouts or doing something outside in a backyard. There are lots of things you can control. You can also report those things that you are doing to your coach. As you’ve been in the system and had somebody guide you through the pathways. There’s no reason why a coach can’t continue to guide you. Send your workouts to your coach, send the time you are getting up, send your food log to make sure you are eating properly. If you want to do some meditation training. Those will also benefit you as an athlete. Don’t give up. Secondly, write a win journal everyday. With so much negative stuff coming at you. I make all of my clients write a win journal. Every time I meet with them, they have to tell me three or four wins before I meet with them. Things that you are doing positive to keep you going.”

Melinda Harrison represented Canada at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. (Photo: Facebook)

Since you competed in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, what advice do you have for athletes thinking about competing in the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games?

“From what I know and I have no inside knowledge, it’s not going to be canceled. It’s going to be just postponed. Hopefully, it will be postponed so that athletes will have the appropriate amount of time to try and make the time. There’s two issues here other than the bigger issue of the world. For me, I am always concerned about the athlete. The first issue is health and safety. The second issue is fairness. Both of those things are pillars of an Olympic game. That we let our athletes compete safely and that it’s fair competition. If people aren’t able to train right now, we want to recognize that. If other countries are finding places for their athletes to train, it wouldn’t be an equal playing field. The second is the safety of the athletes, fans, the officials, the coaches, everyone is involved. At this time, I just don’t see how that can happen.”

What are your thoughts on the Tokyo Olympic Games being pushed back to 2021?

“This is a good decision. I believe that allowing athletes to have a full cycle training. After the conclusion of the 2016 games, there are many athletes that determine whether they want to compete or don’t want to compete. Those that want to compete then start another cycle. It’s a four-year cycle. It’s not all of the sudden, I think I’ll go to the Olympics. It’s a four-year, all-in, all-absorbed, committed, spending thousands and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to increase your chances and put yourself ready for the Olympic trials. Athletes need time to prepare. Whatever the recommendation that the IOC gives to Tokyo, I’m sure they are taking into consideration the fact that athletes need to prepare.”

Please tell me a little bit about your book titled “Personal Next: What We Can Learn from Elite Athletes Navigating Career Transition.”

“It’s being released on April 21. It really looks at the path to a personal best and what goes into that. It then looks at what I call the messy medal–the period after the athlete or the higher performer finishes the one pinnacle and are starting to search for another. It goes into how do you create a personal next. It was written after out of a very difficult time in my life when my dad died in 2012. My youngest daughter went off to college in July so we were empty nesters. In 2013, a neighbor of mine, who was a fellow Olympian, died by suicide. I was trying to figure out what was my meaning in my life at that point. About eight months later, the thought came to me that, if I could interview 100 people that have positively transitioned through that messy medal, what would I learn? The book is really the stories of these individuals and the pathways they were able to contribute to show us different ways of getting through that messy medal transition period.”

Who are some of the athletes that you’ve included in the book?

“I interviewed pretty much 50-50 American and Canadian. They came from 24 different sports. I tried to do a wide variety of sports. Just because I wanted to understand…was it different in hockey than in baseball? It was a mixture of male and female athletes–slightly more male than female. The interesting thing was the stories were different but the pathway was the same. I had three or four of the U.S. women’s soccer team: Cindy Cone, Brandi Chastain, Shannon MacMillan. They were great representations of a really positive experience in sport. In hockey, I was fortunate enough to have Jim Peplinski who was with the Calgary Flames when they won the Stanley Cup. I had some football players such as Corey Holliday. In basketball, I had Tim McCormick and Eric Montrose as an example of elite basketball players. I had some unbelievable swimmers. I had Sue Walsh, who does fundraising gifts for the University of North Carolina. She connected me to Ricky Berens, who won several gold medals with Michael Phelps. She was just an unbelievable champion.”

Wow! It must have taken a long time to get 100 interviews completed.

“When I set this goal, I had no idea how I was going to find 100 people that had successfully done it. I was terrified to call those first few people. I thought, why are they going to talk to me? You know, I’m an Olympian, but I’m 30 years out. I got one rejection out of every person. They said, yes, this is a topic we need to talk about and yes, I’d be delighted to contribute. They are not just quick little interviews. They are between the shortest was about 45 minutes and the longest was an hour and a half. I taped each one and transcribed each one. I sent the transcripts back to the individual. It was done with the highest on integrity. They shared so much and were so willing to contribute.”

Will you be going on a book tour on this COVID-19 pandemic is over?

“I’d love to go on a book tour. It’s just a question of… people need to buy the book. If they buy the book, book companies will promote your book tour. It was built as a resource. This was a gift from me to the high performance world–directed at athletes first, but applicable to anybody. It’s there to help you understand what the high performance world is. It’s there for athletes that are struggling after their post-sport career. It’s there for coaches. The coaches said ‘Wow, I never considered what this was. You’ve given me so many tools for my athletes as they leave the sport.'”

I’ve got to ask you… Los Angeles is going to host the Olympics once again in 2028. Are you planning on attending?

“I would love to be out there to see it. It would be a real wonderful experience. We have a vacation home in California not far from L.A. 2028 is a little ways away but that would be a goal of mine. A new goal of mine to get out there and be involved somehow. Lots of venues that they used in 1984, I’m hoping that they repurposed them for the use. There’s great facilities in L.A. I think the idea is to be able to build on those facilities that they had in 1984. They certainly know what an Olympic Games is like. Peter Ueberroth who ran the Olympic Games in 1984…he really changed how we looked at the Olympics from an event to a mass media, mass marketing celebration of human performance. I think it’s wonderful that it will head back to L.A.”

Melinda Harrison’s new book “Personal Next: What We Can Learn From Elite Athletes Navigating Career Transition” will be available on April 21, 2020. It is available for pre-orders on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indigo.

For more information about Melinda Harrison, visit her website at: Follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Video by Jason Rzucidlo / AmericaJR

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