Carpe Diem: Entrepreneurial Lessons From Olympian Steven Bradbury
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With the conclusion of the XXXII Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, it pleases me to relive one of the most unexpected upsets in modern sporting history, as an analogy to competition in business.
Apolo Anton Ohno is easily considered the most famous ice skater that ever lived. Ohno became interested in short track speed skating at the tender age of 13 after watching the sport on TV during the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. He began training full-time in 1996 and just a year later at the age of 16, he became the youngest U.S. national champion in history. In December 1999, he became the youngest skater to win a World Cup event title and then became the first American to win a World Cup overall title in 2001, which he won again in 2003 and 2005. Ohno has been the face of short track in the United States since winning his medals at the 2002 Winter Olympics, which is where our story begins.
Across and down under on the other side of the globe, Steven Bradbury had just qualified for his fourth winter Olympics. Born almost a decade before Ohno, Bradbury had never won an Olympic medal, but was part of the legendary Australian quartet that won the 5,000m relay at the World Championships in Sydney- Cool Runnings style. It was the first time Australia had won a World Championship Gold Medal in any winter sport.
Bradbury breaks his neck
In September 2000, Bradbury broke his neck in a training accident when another skater fell in front of him. Bradbury had tried to jump over him, but instead clipped him and tripped head first into the barriers. As a result, the Aussie fractured his C4 and C5 vertebrae and was forced to spend a month and a half in a halo brace, with four pins inserted in his skull and screws and titanium plates bolted into his back and chest. His doctor told him that he would never be able to skate again.
So, the determined champion (in his own words) just decided to find another doctor. Bradbury also decided to manage his own expectations, he decided to (to use an entrepreneurial term) pivot away from his goal of becoming the first ever Winter Olympic Medalist from down under and set himself the goal of qualifying for his fourth Olympic games in Salt Lake City. Bradbury also sought redemption for his crashes at the 1994 and 1998 Olympic games.
And qualify he did. During the heats of the 2002 Men’s 1000 Short Track Speed Skating Event, Bradbury won his race convincingly, posting a time of 1:30.96. It was a decent time, but far away from the world record of 1:07.18. Furthermore, it appeared that Bradbury would soon wake up from his Olympic dream when the draw for the quarter-finals were made. Bradbury was allocated to the same race as Apolo Anton Ohno, the favorite from the host nation, and Marc Gagnon of Canada, the defending world champion. Only the top two finishers from each race would proceed to the semifinals. Bradbury finished third in his race and thought himself to be eliminated, unbelievably, Gagnon was disqualified for obstructing another racer, allowing the Australian to advance to the semi-finals. This was his first (skate) stroke of luck.
Now mind you, Steven Bradbury was no slouch. He had been training consistently for 8 to 10 hours per day for fourteen years. After consulting his national coach Ann Zhang, Bradbury’s strategy from the semi-final onwards was to cruise behind his opponents and hope that they crashed, as he realized he was slower and could not match their raw pace. His reasoning was that risk-taking by the favorites could cause a collision due to a racing incident, and if two or more skaters fell, the remaining three would all get to the next round (or get medals in the final), and that since he was slower than his opponents, trying to challenge them directly would only increase his own chances of falling. Bradbury admitted that he was satisfied with his result and felt that as the second-oldest competitor in the field, he was not able to match his opponents in four races on the same night.
In his semi-final race, Bradbury was in last place, well off the pace of the medal favorites. However, three of the other competitors in the semi-final -defending champion Kim Dong-sung of South Korea, multiple Olympic Medalist Li Jiajun of China, and Mathieu Turcotte of Canada- crashed, paving the way for the Australian to take first place and advancing him through to the final. This was his second stroke of luck.
In the final, Bradbury was again well off the pace when all four of his competitors (Ohno, Ahn Hyun-Soo, Li and Turcotte) crashed out at the final corner while jostling for the gold medal. This allowed the Australian, who was around 15 meters behind with only 50 meters to go, to avoid the pile-up to one of history’s most memorable victories. But wait, there’s more.
As Bradbury raised his arms aloft in complete disbelief and amazement at the unlikely circumstances of his victory. There was a period of delay, as the judges had to convene on whether or not there was any foul play. Gratitude had been delayed a few more agonizing moments. The judges upheld the result and did not order a re-race, confirming Bradbury’s victory. The third stroke of luck was the charm. A shocked Bradbury became the first person from any southern hemisphere country to win a Winter Olympic event.
In an interview after winning his gold, referring to his two career- and life-threatening accidents, Bradbury reflected: “Obviously I wasn’t the fastest skater. I don’t think I’ll take the medal as the minute-and-a-half of the race I actually won. I’ll take it as the last decade of the hard slog I put in.”
Bradbury was acutely aware of the possibility of collisions after his semi-final race. In an interview after the race, he said: “I was the oldest bloke in the field and I knew that, skating four races back to back, I wasn’t going to have any petrol left in the tank. So, there was no point in getting there and mixing it up because I was going to be in last place anyway. So (I figured) I might as well stay out of the way and be in last place and hope that some people get tangled up.”
Bradbury later admitted that he never expected all of his opponents to fall but added that he felt that the other four racers were under extreme pressure and might have over-attacked and taken too many risks (like many of today’s top companies). Bradbury cited the host nation pressure on Ohno, who was expected to win all four of his events. Li, much like Bradbury himself, had won Olympic medals but was yet to take a gold medal, Turcotte only had one individual event, and Ahn had been the form racer at the Olympics so far. Bradbury felt that none would be willing to settle for less than gold and that as a result, they might collide.
Bradbury in business
Today, ‘Doing a Bradbury’ according to Australian Macquarie dictionary, has entered the Aussie lexicon meaning: ‘to become the unlikely winner of a contest.’ My favorite part of the Bradbury legend is how Bradbury stuck to the strategy he and his coach devised. He was patient. He waited. He watched his competition closely. He seized his opportunity when the time was right. It was Blue Ocean strategy at its best.
Corporations, especially those faced with tough red ocean competition, can learn a lot by swimming in the Bradbury Blue Ocean.
As for Apolo, he would go on to win 8 Olympic (2G, 2S, 4B) and 21 World (8G, 7S, 6B) medals and star in top US TV shows such as Dancing with the Stars (2005), Hawaii Five-0 (2010) and Superstore (2015). Today, Bradley is ‘breaking the ice’ as a motivational (comedy) speaker.
In both cases, our heroes have proved the old adage of “the harder you work, the luckier you get.”
Related: Using Sports As A Force For Good