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042 – Seasoned speed skaters savvy strategy

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 23, 2019
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

Steven Bradbury appeared lucky when he won gold for Australia in the short track speed skating final at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The whole story, however, implies that it wasn’t just luck, but hard work and persistence, that led him to win. 

ice skaters

This week, Mark shares the story behind Steven Bradbury’s win. You might think you know the story behind the most unexpected gold medal in history, but Mark’s retelling offers a different perspective. You can watch a video of the race here.  

Unfortunately, Dave Carroll can no longer join us at our Washington D.C. Storytelling for Leaders workshop, but you can read more about his recent work with Shawn here. 

For your storybank

Tags: competition, hard work, persistence, perspective, strategy

In 2002, Steven Bradbury made the short track speed skating final at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. He was among five skaters who made the final. It seemed unlikely he would bring home a medal. His four competitors had all been picked to win.

The race was intense. For most laps, Steven stayed two to three metres behind his competitors from the United States, Canada, China, and Korea.

Then, on the last lap, Lia Jiajun made an over-ambitious attempt to overtake Apollo Ohno. The move sent both Jiajun and Apollo onto the ice, followed by Mathieu Turcotte and Ahn Hyun-soo. The accident left a clear path for Steven to cross the finish line and win Australia’s first medal at the Winter Olympics.

Steven appeared lucky to have won, but he had also played a clear strategy. 

Steven was 28 years old, and it was his third Winter Olympics. He had been a top competitor in his sport for many years but had never won a medal. He had almost lost his life in two different skating accidents.

Before the race, Steven and his coach had sat down to discuss his strategy. The pair predicted a close race. They thought an accident was likely to occur. Steven’s coach instructed, “If there is an accident, stay out of it. Use it to your advantage”. So, that’s what he did.

Podcast Transcript

Shawn:        

Welcome to Anecdotally Speaking- a podcast to help build your business story repertoire. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.

Mark:

And I’m Mark Schenk.

Shawn:        

I had an interesting email last week. I got an email from Dave Carroll. Do you remember Dave Carol who did the whole United breaks guitars?

Mark:          

Absolutely, well that was hilarious. In fact it wasn’t hilarious that his guitar got broken but it was hilarious how his song went viral and caused so many problems for United.

Shawn:

Yeah that’s right, in fact some say it had an impact on their share price, which is probably debateable but he had 100,000s and now millions of people who have watched his video that he did. So the short version of the story is that he’s looking out the window, he’s going on a trip somewhere in the US.

He’s a guitarist, he has a band and he looks out the window and he sees the baggage handlers throwing their guitars around. When he complained and said look you’ve broken my guitar and I need some compensation.                                                            

Mark:          

And it wasn’t an ordinary guitar right, it was actually a really good guitar.

Shawn:

I believe it was what they call a Taylor guitar. Not Taylor made golf clubs, but something like that. I’m not exactly sure where they come from. They might be an Australian one. But I do remember the Taylor company actually sent him a new guitar. It was a brilliant bit of marketing from those guys. ‘Cause United are not budging.

Mark:

Oh no, not our problem.

Shawn:

Exactly, but anyway I’m telling you this because Dave is coming along to your public workshop in Washington DC so you will get to meet him.

Mark:           

I’m so looking forward to it because we also have got Doug Keeley from Toronto who is one of our partners and also CEO of Storage Rule and a really cool guitarist.

Shawn:

If you can only convince them to crack out the guitars that would be pretty good.

Mark:

I was talking to Doug yesterday and said ‘Doug, bring your guitar’.

Shawn:

Yeah, a bit of a sing along, I love it.

Mark:

Well I definitely won’t be singing, we’ll leave that to Doug and Dave.

Shawn:

Leave it to the professionals.

Mark:

That is so cool, Dave Carol coming along to the workshop.

Shawn:

Today we’ve got a story that totally segues here in a very clunky way but over to you. You have the story for today. So I just thought lay it on us.

Mark:

So I’m going to tell you firstly the short version.

So, 2002, Salt Lake City, Winter Olympics right. An Australian called Steven Bradbury has made it into the final of the short course speed racing, 1000 metre final.           

Shawn:

How many laps is that?

Mark:           

It’s about 9 laps.  A tiny course.

Shawn:

I remember seeing it on video.

Mark:

A crazy frenetic sport. He’s made it to the final but has no chance. There’s 5 people in the final. Because the course is so small the maximum people you can have on it is only 5 people.

Shawn:

Right.

Mark:

So it’s absolutely intense, hard racing, jet neck-breaking speeds going round nine laps and there were four skaters that had a chance, and Bradbury wasn’t one of those, he was kind of the 5th player in a 4 player game.

The race went on and the 4 main players were jockeying for position, it was all very intense and they were all changing position and it comes to the last lap and Bradbury is maybe 3 or 4 metres behind the main pack and they are all jockeying for position.

 As they come around the last curve the Chinese Skater, Jiajun Li, he made a move, he upset the front runner who was Apollo Ohno, the American speed skating darling. So Li touched Ohno who kept his feet which was pretty amazing. Li fell and took out the two other skaters. Ohno couldn’t keep his feet, he smashed into the wall and all 4 are down and the last man who comes through is Steven Bradbury, unaffected by the crash, wins the gold medal.

 It’s an amazing thing to see. Bradbury is a few metres behind the main pack, they come round the last corner, there’s this big collision and smash and everyone falls over and then Bradbury just skates through and wins the gold medal.

Shawn:

The amazing thing is when I watch it; Bradbury doesn’t look like he is putting in any effort into it. It almost like I better make sure I don’t fall over, and he just slid in. It wasn’t like he was going bull bore either.

Mark:           

When he crossed the line, the look on his face was like, holy smoke. He went half a lap before he put his hands in the air to go, ‘I won’. Because it was so unexpected, in fact it’s so unexpected and so lucky that it’s become, certainly in Australia part of the Australian lexicon.

You are doing a Bradbury; you’ve won against everyone else. Everyone else has fallen over and you’ve come through in one piece. I remember a politician; he had no chance of winning the seats and just in the days leading up to the election  a number of the politicians were found to have done bad things and then he wins.

Shawn:        

He’s done a Bradbury.

Mark:         

He did the elections and he did a victory speech and this is a Steven Bradbury.

Shawn:        

It’s part of language.

Mark:          

It’s part of a lexicon. Just that thing, ‘luck’, but that is not the story, this is not the story.

Shawn:

Right.

Mark:

Because that is only the story if you only look at that one race. If we zoom back a bit and look at a much longer period of time you realise that this was quite a possible outcome of this race. Because Bradbury, he’s 28 years old, he’s been racing for a very long time and this is his 3rd Winter Olympics. He’s 28 years old, he’s an old man in a young man’s sport.

The oldest other person in it was the Canadian, Turcotte, who was 21 years old. The Korean in the final was 16 years old. The favourite, Apollo Ohno who was sort of the darling of American speed skating, he was 19. So Bradbury was an old man but he has paid his dues.

He has been one of the top competitors in short course speed racing for 12 years. In fact he was kind of the leader of the team that won Australia’s very first Winter Olympic medal, which was a bronze medal in Lillehammer in the relay so he got 3 of his mates from Brisbane in Australia and they trained.  

Shawn:

Of course you are going to be in Brisbane as an ice skater right.

Mark:

Of course you are. So because he was an international speed skater, a few people knew him in the skating world and he talked some of them into joining him and they trained their asses off and they won Australia’s first medal in the 5000 metre speed skating race in Lillehammer in 1994. It was a huge thing, so he’s been around for a long time.

Shawn:

Sure.

Mark: He’s never won an Olympic medal because it’s kind of not surprising because when we look at the sport itself it is a frenetic, accident prone, dangerous sport. People fall all the time and the skaters are wearing razor sharp skates. You could almost shave with them.

Bradbury himself in 1995 almost died in Canada in an event because he had fallen and a competitor’s skate had caught him on the inside of the thigh, and basically cut him open from his hip to his knee and he nearly died on the ice from the loss of blood. He got to hospital and they saved his life, like his parents flew from Australia as it was close.

He’s also broken his neck in an accident.

Shawn:

Oh, Jesus Christ.

Mark:

So he’s nearly died twice in his sport. He’s fallen numerous times when he was in a winning position because this is the sport of speed skating. That’s what it is about.

Shawn:

Dangerous.

Mark:           

And so Bradbury is an old man, he’s in his final Olympics in 2002 in Salt Lake City and he makes the final against the odds. In terms of absolute speed he’s just off the pace of the top guys. There are 5 people in the race, the 4 top ones have got the edge in terms of speed and youth etc.

But he and his coach sat down and looked at the race and noted the Chinese guy Jiajun Li is desperate to win a gold medal and he’s won 4 silver medals and he has never won a gold. He had raced really desperately in the heats in the semi-finals and so they knew he was going to be in the mix and racing desperately. Again wanting to win the gold and so that creates this factor in a short course race where anything can happen.

Bradbury was very happy to make his final and all he wanted to do was skate at his absolute best, which was going to be a little bit less than the absolute best of the other guys but he wanted to do that.

So the strategy was, if there is going to be an accident, don’t be involved in it.

Shawn:

Hang back.

Mark:

Yes, because there would be a chance that he would pick up a medal.

Shawn:

In one of the heats did he more or less do that?

Mark:

Well in the heats two people fell over. He was running 4th in the semi-final and in the final turn two people, desperately racing, fell down in the rough and tumble of the event and he skated through and came second and that gave him the berth in the final. His times had to be good and so he made those and so there he was in the final.

So his strategy was, if there is an accident, do not be involved in it. So you now go back to the story of what happened in the race itself and it plays out very differently then. Because instead of somebody who is just a lucky guy, it’s a guy who has been at an elite level his whole life, in the twilight of his career.

Having made his first final with the intention of doing his absolute best and knowing that accidents are possible and the people in front of you, at least one of them, possibly two are desperate to win.

So given that mix. His strategy was stay in touch, stay out of trouble. And of course when they all fell he skated through and his strategy was successful. It was more successful than he could have possibly imagined.

Shawn:        

Yeah, of course, it was a possibility though.

Mark:           

Absolutely.

Shawn:         

And not a zero possibility, he’d seen it already play out.

Mark:           

And given the nature of that sport what happened is not an amazing thing, it’s an interesting thing. You need to know all that back story to understand that.

So that’s the big version of that story so it’s very different than if you just looked at the race itself.

Shawn:

Exactly. Context right?

Mark:

Absolutely.

Shawn:

So tell me in those two versions why do you think they work as a story? What’s in it that jumps out for you as the teller that really makes the sense that people will lean into?

Mark:

Well if we just look at the original race on its own, the total surprise of everyone falling over and the last man standing going through.       

Shawn:

That in itself is remarkable.

Mark:           

It’s remarkable and everyone falls over and the last guy comes through and wins the gold medal, and the people in front basically scramble across the ice on their hands and knees and throw themselves over the line to get the silver and bronze.

Shawn:

Yes, I love that actually.      

Mark:

Both those guys were injured by the way. Both had to go to hospital. Turcotte, the  Canadian, he had caught someone’s skate on his backside and he had a huge gash and got up from the ice and pulled his hand away and blood was running out. So he was off to hospital and Ohno also off to hospital from a cut in his leg.

Shawn:

In Australia and may be broader, people have heard that first story cause they have a little image in their mind about what happened. I love it when you get a story you think you know and someone says that’s not the full story. There’s another perspective, there’s another way of looking at this and it might give you a totally different perspective.

And as soon as you say that it piques an audience’s interest, doesn’t it. There’s this moment where you go, I think I knew that story, but it’s going to give me another version of it. So I love that type of element in this story.

Mark:

Now as you were saying that I was thinking relevance is also important. Here in Australia that’s a very well-known moment in Australian sport because that’s the first gold medal that Australia had ever won in a Winter Olympics.

So for Australia it is very relevant. So for people in other countries maybe the Steven Bradbury story isn’t so well known because it’s not so relevant. It is important to bear that in mind.

Shawn:        

Yes, you want to know who your audience is for this story because I’m always a little bit worried about sports stories just generally because I feel they appeal potentially more strongly with blokes, then they do with women.

Mark:           

Well if it’s men’s sports, yes.

Shawn:         

Particularly if it’s men’s sports and sports generally especially when people talk about football. Football stories are just going to put half your audience asleep.

Mark:           

There are some great football stories.

Shawn:         

Of course there are.

Mark:           

It doesn’t matter how good they are if it’s only relevant to half the audience.                     

Shawn:         

That’s it.

Mark:           

We regularly see people get up there in front of a mixed audience and tell great sports stories and half the audience thinks it’s fantastic and the other half go, ‘oh not again. Why am I trapped here?’

Shawn:        

That’s right. The other thing about the story is the surprise factor is an obvious one but there is a certain amount of physicality to the story in the sense of people jostling and the potential for real injury, the craziness of how they skate and bumping into each other and obviously trying to get to that front. And not totally legally either, the things that they do as they are pushing people out of the way. So that adds to that story as well.

Mark:           

In the 2nd version when the back story is unpacked that’s a really important part of the story; that is the nature of the game—tough, bustley.

Shawn:         

And accidents happen—that’s the key thing isn’t it?

Mark:           

Accidents happen.

Shawn:        

And if you play your cards right, which Bradbury, did you can actually take advantage of the likelihood of accidents happening.

Mark:

It’s a tough, dangerous sport and if you have a clear strategy and you are good enough you have a chance. And that was his strategy.

Shawn:        

Is there anything we would say around making the story even better? Now you’ve told that story (I don’t know how many times you’ve told that story), what would make that story even better do you think?

Mark:          

That story would be even better if it was relevant to a wider audience. If he had been an American maybe there would have been a bigger audience for that audience.

Shawn:

Darn Americans.

Mark:          

Unless you’re an avid follower of the winter Olympics sports you won’t even know the Steven Bradbury story. One of the things that makes a story work really well is relevance to the audience.

That’s why I raise the point; in Australia pretty much everyone knows the Steven Bradbury story, so fantastic—might not be so effective elsewhere. That’s why I mention the American guy, Apollo Ohno and the Chinese guy, Jiajun Li.

Shawn:

Yeah, it expands the detail. I have a sense that detail could actually be your enemy in this story as well. If you know or tell too much you might lose the audience listening to that story.

I reckon in a 2nd or 3rd telling it would crunch down, especially once you worked out exactly what the point of the story was.

Mark:

I agree. I have read Bradbury’s book called, not surprisingly, Last Man Standing. I read it again just to refresh my memory before the podcast. The threat of having to tell the story is a very real threat.

I got caught in one of the very early podcasts where I did heaps and heaps of research and so the story was so detailed. And I was trying to avoid that with this story because the more you know about this story it’s a really interesting story.

Shawn:

You’ve got all these little sidebars and you can tell a little sidebar. But when you get to the point where you’re in front of a business audience and you want to land some point (and we’ll chat about what some of those points might be) it’ll be interesting to see how this story morphs—what you leave in and what you take out.

So, in terms of telling the story in a business setting, what could be some of the business points that we could make by telling the story?

Mark:           

Well, one of them is around market position. So, if you’re thinking about your organisational strategy do you want to be jostling at the front of the pack for the lead position or do you want to be really dedicated and disciplined and not necessarily at the forefront and looking for the opportunity to take the market leading position should that opportunity arise? So, position yourself for future possibility.

Shawn:

There might be a variation of that. I could imagine a leader standing in front of their team and saying, ‘in our business it’s a turbulent, crazy, dog eat dog business and luck plays a big role but you actually have to position yourself to be lucky’.

Then you tell the Bradbury story because he knew that luck plays a part in those races and he positioned himself so if luck happened he’d be in a position to take advantage of it.

Mark:

There’s a saying about the confluence of preparation and opportunity. So, if you’re well-prepared and the opportunity presents itself you need to be ready. And that’s pretty much the strategy that Bradbury adopted. That’s actually a pretty reasonable business strategy in many markets.

Shawn:

Indeed. It’s a nice story about being ready for luck.

Mark:

Just one more on luck. Bradwell talked in Outliers about how you become fantastic. His ideas was you need to be good enough, you need to do 10,000 hours, and you need to have luck, so three factors for success.

It wasn’t all about being the very best. It was about being good enough, doing the work, and having some luck. And that’s pretty much the Bradbury story.

Shawn:

And very few people who have been successful put it down to the luck that they’ve had. We run those workshops where we ask people to put a red dot if it’s a negative behaviour they show themselves and no one puts any red dots next to themselves for those things.

We don’t like to think that we got here because we’re pretty lucky but it plays a big role.

Mark:

That reminds me of the Deadpool 2 movie; Domino and her superpower.

Shawn:

That’s right, the super power of being lucky.

Mark:

And wasn’t it Deadpool who said, ‘that’s not a superpower’? But man it certainly was—totally awesome character.                       

Shawn:

Anything else?

Mark:           

For me, one of the other uses for this one is persistence.

Shawn:

He keeps sticking it out.

Mark:

Bradbury was not a flash in the pan. He kept going, working, working, working. How hard do you have to work to be at the pinnacle of your sport for three Olympics?

Shawn:

Yeah, it’s absolutely phenomenal isn’t it?

Mark:

So you keep going. If you’re in a situation where people are on the edge of giving up this is a pretty cool story. From the ashes of the end of a career because he kept working he had his finest hour.

Shawn:

Actually, my old man used to tell me the harder you work the luckier you get.

Mark:

That was a Gary Player quote from back in the 80s.

Shawn:        

It’s a classic.

Mark:          

Absolutely true, the harder I work, the luckier I get. That Gary Player story; he was in a bunker on the 17th hole in the final round of one of the major tournaments. And he’d played a bad shot into the bunker and he needed to get up and down to be equal leader.

So he played the bunker shot and he holed the bunker shot. And as he’s walking out of the bunker (it was in America, up against Jack Nicklaus), one of the gallery walked past and said, ‘you lucky so and so’.

And he turned to him and said, ‘yeah, I am lucky but you know what, the more I practise the luckier I get’. It’s that persistence story.

Shawn:

O.k. what about a rating? You told the story so I get to rate. I’m going to give this a 7. I like knowing the bigger story around Steven Bradbury, to be able to tell that and set it in that context of working hard for luck. So, I think I could use that.

Mark:          

I’m going to give it a 7 as well. I really love the story and I give it a 7 because even though I love the story, for me it’s not really nailing useful business points. I think it would be one of those stories I love to tell but it’s a bit difficult to make a great business point with it.   

Shawn:

Fantastic, let’s finish things up. We’ve got our Washington and London events coming up.

Mark:

And soon there’ll be a German workshop announced on our events page.

Shawn:

Whereabouts in Germany are we going?

Mark:           

It’s going to be in Berlin. I’m going to present at a conference in Berlin in September so we’ll run a public workshop storytelling for leaders in Berlin so I’m looking forward to that. I love Berlin.

Shawn:

Whenever I go to Berlin I feel like something’s going on but I don’t have access to it.

Mark:

Exactly, me too.

Shawn:

I’m missing something there so make sure you get some sort of guide, a local who can take you in behind those bleak Berlin walls.

Mark:

So, if there are any podcast listeners who live in Berlin or are familiar with Berlin and know some ways I can have a great time in Berlin and see some interesting things that may be off the beaten track let me know.

Shawn:

Sounds good. O.k. guys, that’s where we’re going to wrap it up for today. I just want to thank everyone for listening to Anecdotally Speaking. And of course, tune in next time when we will have another episode on how to put stories to work.

Bye for now.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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