In 2003, Perdita Felicien was on top of the world. She had just won her first world championship for hurdling, becoming the first and only Canadian woman to win a gold in track and field. Expectations were high at the 2004 Olympics, and in 2.25 seconds it was over. She tripped on the very first hurdle.
Shame. Guilt. Regret. That was Perdita’s first Olympic experience. But, that’s also life, she said. One minute you’re on top, the next you get knocked down. It’s how we get back up that matters.
This is the message that Perdita shared with us during our most recent edition of our Virtual Speakers Series. By sharing the ups and downs she experienced while climbing to the top of her sport, the two-time Olympian, 10-time National Champion, and two-time World silver medalist showed us how we’re all hurdlers, we just don’t know it yet.
What’s a Hurdler?
The best “hurdler” Perdita knows isn’t a fellow champion but her own mother, Catherine Felicien Browne, who as a young woman moved from St. Lucia to Canada in the hopes of building a new life of opportunity for her family. They experienced racism, domestic abuse, and even homelessness, but no matter the challenge — or hurdle — in front of them, Catherine’s will always pulled them through.
Perdita said the success she found in her sport went beyond her physical ability. It came down to three traits she learned from her mother. This is why she believes we are all hurdlers and we all have the ability to overcome any obstacle in our way — because the traits of a hurdler are learned. Through each struggle we face, we can learn from it, become stronger from it, and use it as fuel on our way to success.
Three Traits of a World-Class Hurdler
Those at the top of their game have a strong sense of purpose. They know what they want to achieve, and do what they need to do to get there.
Too often, Perdita said, people swerve off track because of what others are saying. They don’t believe in you, they don’t understand what you’re trying to do, or they have a better way of doing it. Put your blinders on and silence that noise.
When Perdita won the 2003 world championship, she was the youngest athlete there. People didn’t expect much, they didn’t even talk about her. But she was dogged. She stayed focused on her goal of being top 5 and ended up beating those odds and taking the win.
We’ve all experienced something, Perdita said, that has knocked us off course. A pulled hamstring, illness, injury, loss of a sponsor, these are all things that she and other athletes face before they’re even at the race, but it’s their ability to persevere through hardship that gets them where they want to be.
We all face these little bumps or struggles day-to-day. If we let them stop us, she said, none of us would be here today. We all know how to persist; it’s about applying that same perseverance when we face those bigger challenges. Put those blinders on again, she said, and persist no matter what’s happening around you.
If this past year has taught us anything, Perdita said, it’s that stuff always hits the fan. When it does, how do you bounce back, she asked.
Resiliency is something that can be developed and sharpened. Without it, she said, you will never reach the top. Resiliency is what turns struggle into the fuel you need to get you where you want to be.
How to Bounce Back When “Stuff” Hits the Fan
When Perdita went to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, she knew exactly what she wanted. She had worked her whole life for this moment and up to that point, she hadn’t lost.
Perdita was at the starting line, the arena went silent — go. And in 2.25 seconds, her Olympic journey was over. She tripped, she fell, she was out of the race. To this day, her body has a visceral reaction to that moment, but she shares it because she doesn’t want to sugarcoat success. Success comes from failure, and as Perdita said, we need to normalize failure.
In a span of a year, she felt the whole breadth of human emotion. You can plan and work hard, face your hurdle, and beat it, Perdita said, and then you can do the exact same thing and lose. That’s the life of a hurdler, she said, and that’s just life.
Perdita let herself feel everything in that moment after her 2004 race. She didn’t act tough, she didn’t act as if she was fine, she struggled and she let herself feel that.
The first hurdle became her nemesis, but to move forward in her career as a hurdler she had to face it. She had to show up and be present. It took her three years of struggling, showing up, and being present to get back on that podium. Three years to banish the demons of Athens and find herself again. But she did it by taking it day by day and showing up.
We all have this strength. Feel the struggle, force yourself to show up, and be present, Perdita said, and you will always finish your race. It may not be pretty, it won’t be easy, but you’ll do it your way and be better set up for success no matter what life throws at you.
During her career as a 100-metre hurdler, Perdita Felicien earned numerous honours, including Canada’s Athlete of the Year and the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal. In her inspiring talks, she explores what it means to chase a dream and overcome the “hurdles” life can put before you.
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