In February, I enjoyed watching the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics and was surprised and pleased to see a fellow alum from the University of Florida, Steve Mesler, competing in the 4-man bobsleigh team. Even cooler is that I discovered we had actually graduated from the same program, Exercise and Sports Science, and in the same year (2000). It was awesome to watch Steve and his teammates go on to win a gold medal in the bobsleigh event, and I went to Steve’s website to read up on how he became involved with bobsledding. What I read was so interesting, and so applicable to what a lot of you who are getting ready to graduate from college and start a new chapter in your lives are preparing for. I saw many actions that Steve took to realize his Olympic dream that would also work for a student preparing to start his or her career following graduation.
I took a shot at reaching out to Steve to see if he would talk with me a little about how he got to the Olympics, and I was pleasantly surprised at his rapid response and enthusiasm to share with me. (There’s lesson #1 to you, students: you’ll never know what is possible until you ask.) We spoke on the phone for about 30 minutes and I got to know a man who is quite dedicated to his work as well as very determined to pay it forward and do a lot of good with what he has accomplished. But he didn’t get to where he is by sheer luck… he was focused, he worked hard, and he was very proactive about getting to where he wanted to be.
Whether you are getting ready to graduate from college or you still have a year or two left before you need to start thinking about post-graduation plans, there are some key points to keep in mind as you look toward your future. Chances are any number of the following questions have been racing through your mind:
- What’s next? I have no idea what I want to do…
- Will I be able to find a job that fits what I’ve studied in school?
- Who to I need to contact to find a job?
- What do I need to say or do to make myself stand out from the crowd?
Much of Steve’s history deals with these very questions, and as an Olympic gold medalist as well as a 2009 World Champion, Steve is certainly someone from whom you can learn a great deal about hard work, determination, and focus. For example, Steve actually spent most of his early athletic career as a decathlete. Only toward the end of his senior year in college did he contemplate bobsledding. This was a result of multiple injuries during his college career. Steve realized that if he wanted to continue to live his dream of becoming a professional athlete, he would have to make a change in direction in order to do so.
Lesson: You may not end up working in a position that is completely aligned with what you studied. Be flexible and willing to bend with the winds of change.
Steve referenced the book Good To Great by Jim Collins – to succeed you have to be able to move on, make changes, and have confidence in your abilities… but you also need to look at your current realities and accept what needs to be changed.
Steve began doing research on bobsledding before he graduated. In fact, he knew long before graduation that he wanted to continue to pursue professional athletics as a career. He started figuring out what he would need to do to make this happen the summer of his senior year. In the meantime, he worked internships and continued to workout and improve his strength and conditioning in preparation for his desired career path.
Lesson: Don’t wait until the last minute to start scheduling interviews, and keep up with your studies while you’re figuring out your post-graduation plans.
When Steve set his mind on joining the Olympic bobsleigh team, he knew he had something of value to offer, but he didn’t know whom he would need to speak with in order to prove it. He began doing some research to find the correct channels. Since this was in 2000, Internet search was not what it is today so he had to work hard to find the right people to connect with. Once he found the right people with whom to connect, he wrote to the Olympic committee and shared his attributes, strengths, and testing numbers, and he ended his email with, “If this is something I can do, please let me know…if this is something that I have no chance with, just let me know and you’ll never hear from me again.” While recognizing and showcasing his value, he did so without a sense of entitlement and with a request for an answer, even if it wasn’t one he wanted to hear.
Lesson: Do due diligence in researching the companies in which you are interested, and make sure you are reaching out to the right person/people. Personalize your outreach.
Lesson: Be confident in your abilities without coming across as entitled. Be receptive to whatever response you may receive from potential employers. Learn from their feedback and make appropriate adjustments in your search.
While Steve did receive a positive response from the Olympic committee, he was told that he had some areas that needed improvement first. It was almost a year before he qualified and was invited to compete on the national level – June 2001 was his first invite to a national event. In the meantime, he was working part-time at the university and coaching high school athletes. He had to figure out his own training regiment to prepare to compete as a bobsledder. He sought out a strength coach and together they sat down and determined what goals he would need to achieve in order to make the team.
Lesson: be proactive about your own career development. Don’t expect everything to be handed to you. Seek out a mentor or coach. Working hard toward a goal makes achieving it much more satisfying.
With a World Championship and an Olympic gold medal in his possession, Steve now has a huge platform from which to speak. He has chosen to take his fame and use it to pay it forward by starting the Back To School Project. This project helps to personalize the Olympic experience for young students by giving them a direct connection to Steve and his travels and competitions. As a young athlete, Steve remembers getting to go watch the Atlanta 1996 Summer Games in person and the experience that he had doing so. He remembers coming back from the Games pumped up about the experience and wondering, “What’s next?” With the Back To School Project, along with his sister, they invite teachers to sign up and send videos, letters, etc. and he in turn sends messages back to the classrooms taking them through his own competition experiences, helping them to feel more involved and connected. Steve says it is a neat feeling for him to receive a letter from a seven-year-old telling him to ‘eat his vegetables and be safe’. His desire with the project is to get better technology into the classrooms that he is working with and to encourage more athletes to do the same and bring their own experiences into the classrooms for kids to enjoy.
Lesson: Remember where you came from, and always reach back.
A final thought from Steve: “Being an Olympic athlete is a selfish endeavor that not many people will pursue. You can’t lead a normal life. But what you’re training for is so worth it. Many times I’ve thought about how my life might have been without pursuing this. But over the last year, winning world championships and all, I wouldn’t give those up in a million years.”
Lesson: Pursue your dreams. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do. Know that it will take hard work, focus, and determination to achieve anything worthwhile. Be flexible to change along the way. But always enjoy the journey and learn from every experience.
You can follow Steve on Twitter at @SteveMesler and learn more about what he is doing with the Back To School Project.