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Gold!

What was Dawn’s advice worth? It was invaluable. We had done a lot of work in the last four years, but to be surrounded by so many wonderful people who wanted us to win and were prepared to unselfishly give so much of their time and advice was absolutely priceless. It’s amazing how different, mentally, many of the great champions, or great achievers, are. They all have something valuable to say—even the quietest of them, if you press them.

This gives me something else to aspire to—not just their sporting achievements, but the great wisdom they’ve accumulated along the way, and the mentality that separates the best from the rest. More and more, I’m finding that this is the key to the attainment of anything in life.

“Great minds have purposes, others have wishes. Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune; but great minds rise above them.” – Washington Irving

As I wrote earlier, there was no shortage of inspiration in Sydney. The day before our final, the Aussie water polo girls won gold over the Americans in the last hundredth of a second, with an inspiring goal from Yvette Higgins. The USA were probably ‘supposed’ to win that match. They thought the game would go into overtime (that’s the power of assumptions), and then bang! All of a sudden the ball was in the back of their net! Our girls never ever gave up. It reinforced my thinking about self-belief. It was so good to see someone put it all into practice on the eve of the biggest game of my life.

When I awoke to 25 September, the day I’d been waiting for since 27 July 1996, I felt relaxed and focused. I believed in and valued the work I had done individually and with Kerri. There were no doubts, just some nerves and anxiety. This was our day and I had seen it unfold so many times that it was now a matter of enjoying the ride. In fact, I was so relaxed that before we entered the arena for the final, I was on the phone to America —to a friend of mine, Liz Mazakayan. Liz didn’t qualify for the 2000 Olympics (the second time in a row that she failed to qualify), yet she’s one of the greatest beach volleyball players ever. I wanted to share this moment with someone who had been a great friend and a huge inspiration through all the lead-up. Before she snapped her kneecap in half prior to Atlanta, she was, with Karolyn Kirby, the world champion. The team split up then came back together for the Atlanta Olympic trials, but sadly she didn’t make it. She was on the number one team in America six months before Sydney, but missed out again. I know how disappointing it was for her not to be able to represent her country in Sydney and wanted to allow her to share a small part of it.

“The greater the obstacle the more glory in overcoming it.” – Moliere

Some people might think I was rubbing salt into her wounds, but I knew she wouldn’t see it that way. I held out the phone and said “I’m in the stadium. We’re about an hour away from the first whistle. Listen to this!” The crowd was deafening. They had just finished the bronze medal playoff, and ‘Bondi Dave’ (the Olympic beach volleyball MC) was geeing them up. I said to her “I’m about to get ready to play now, and I just wanted to share it with you. Can I call you after we win?” I stopped and realised what I had said. I didn’t say, “If I win, can I call you?” I thought to myself “In my mind, I’ve already won”. Of course I still had all the hard work in front of me, but I’d never been more ready for anything in my life. Before I went into the stadium I had made the decision that I was going to win. The most important work on my part was done: I’d made that decision, with no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’.

On paper, we probably weren’t supposed to beat this Brazilian team. But nobody else had seen our piece of paper! Still, the comparative records were there for all to see. Them: 44 World Tour events, Goodwill Games champions (1998), World Champions (1999), 20 titles, 40 final-four appearances, 37 podium finishes. Us: 41 World Tour events, Atlanta bronze medallists, Silver medallist in World Championships (1996), one title, 11 final-four appearances, 9 podium finishes. By all accounts we should have been acting as if we faced an uphill battle. But we placed ourselves on top of the hill and prepared for a rapid descent—to victory. There was a calm silence between Kerri and me as we warmed up on the sand. We both seemed assured that no matter what happened, the other would put everything on the line. We also felt that we were not alone. Steve, Phil, Kurek, Kez and I were all out there together. The Dreamachine was one inseparable unit, and it was our combined efforts that had driven us this far.

I’m going to say something anti-climactic now. I can’t remember much of the Olympic beach volleyball final. It was six months before I finally sat down and revisited the match on video. I want to hold it in my mind as something perfect—a new level for us, which is really only a foundation for something even better! I knew that if I had watched it before then, I would have picked on every little thing that wasn’t perfect. But I’ll tell you some of the things I do remember, even to this day.

Before the match, Steve, our coach said two important things to us: “It might take a set; it might take a set and a half, but they’ll start to feel the weight of Brazil on their shoulders and they’ll crumble”. That is precisely what happened. He also said “Everything you do out there is right”.

At one stage in the first set, we were 11–8 down and all of a sudden we were serving for the first set. I remembered the water polo girls: never, ever give up! Back in Atlanta, which seemed not only another time but another dimension, I would have said “Oh well, it’s 11–8, they’ll get 12, we’ll give them the first set, and start again with the second. Why waste energy?”

At 11–all, I stood back with the ball and kissed it. Then I said to myself “I may never get this opportunity again. If we lose this point, they could get the ball back, and they might win the first set”. Talk about putting pressure on yourself! I told myself to go for it; take a risk. The willingness to risk is what creates the opportunity for success. Steve Anderson had drummed this into me for years, and it was at that moment that I truly understood its meaning. My serve hit the net. In any other situation in the past, that ball had always rolled back over to my side. This time, it dropped over their side! My Grandad died only weeks before the Games. Sometimes I like to think that he’s the one who popped it over for us. That was a psychological turning point for us in the match. We knew that that it wouldn’t matter if, in the second set, we were down again. We had no reason to fear or doubt.

I’ve got a picture of Susie O’Neill in my bedroom, with the caption: “Victory: when ten thousand hours of preparation meet with one moment of opportunity”. The sentiment expressed in that poster really came alive for me at that moment. That’s exactly what had happened. It was like a chemical reaction. The Brazilians started to make mistakes, and with every mistake they made we gathered momentum. We had built our emotional state to such an extent that when they challenged us, we braced ourselves and faced them head on. What’s more, we enjoyed the challenge. Even when we missed the ball, we enjoyed the fact that we were in a fight. We weren’t going to stop a great team—one of the greatest ever to play the game—from doing great things. Four years earlier, we would have been frustrated; we would have been upset about their points; we would have searched in vain for reasons.

Remember Dawn’s words about enjoyment? It has often been said that we spent a lot of time smiling during that final. When we were beaten by balls, we were happy and excited about the challenge. I had come to the understanding that the way you interpret things affects your entire physiology.

“There is no moment like the present.” Maria Edgeworth

Imagine there is a bank that credits your account each morning with $86,400. It carries over no balance from day to day. Every evening it deletes whatever part of the balance you failed to use during the day. What would you do? Draw out every cent, of course!!!

Each of us has such a bank. Its name is TIME. Every morning, it credits you with 86,400 seconds. Every night it writes off, as lost, whatever of this you have failed to invest to good purpose. It carries over no balance. It allows no overdraft. Each day opens a new account for you. Each night it burns the remains of the day. If you fail to use the day’s deposits, the loss is yours. There is no going back. There is no drawing against tomorrow.

You must live in the present on today’s deposits. Invest it so as to get from it the utmost in health, happiness, and success! The clock is running. Make the most of each moment. There was one passage of play that people continually talk about. I mentioned it in the first section of this book, Bondi Gold. In the first set, I dug that ball. People are saying it will never, ever be dug again. One of the most famous beach volleyballers, Mike Dodd, was commentating, and he said it was “the single most extraordinary volleyball play” he’d ever seen. It was a ball that hit the net, and dribbled straight down toward the sand. Everyone in the stadium thought I wasn’t going to get it. Later, when that serve of mine dribbled over the net, the Brazilians had the opportunity to do exactly the same thing, and Shelda had a reputation as one of the best “diggers” in the world. Same ball. I’d served it, it dribbled over the net, and Shelda just stood there. And that’s how Kerri and I won the first set. The difference between the two sides, the difference between Sydney and Atlanta, the difference in my life, my outlook, my approach, was all in the mind, and it was the only difference that mattered.

It’s hard to explain how I felt when I dug that ball early in the match. Remember The Matrix? To dodge those bullets, Keanu Reeves’s character, Neo, had to be in slow motion. I felt as though I was in slow motion that day. I felt as though I could have stood there for half an hour and I still would have got the ball. When friends ask about that moment I tell them to go and watch The Matrix. They usually come back and say “What the bloody hell are you talking about?” And I tell them to go and watch it again until they get it. It’s easier than trying to explain it.

At that moment we knew, and the Brazilians knew, that the momentum was with us, no matter what the score was. The look on Shelda’s face said it all. The Brazilians went out there with a fear of losing. How familiar it looked! It looked just like me, four years earlier. This time I was going to be the one taking advantage. So Kerri and I just kept chipping away at them. They led again early in the second set, but the rest of the match is a blur. The next thing I remember is the moment Adriana’s final poke went out and the match—and the gold medal—was ours!

Kerri and I fell to the sand. Kerri was crying and repeating over and over “I can’t believe it!” Every emotion I had felt over the last four years was condensed into that one moment. People have said that they can’t believe how calm and controlled I seemed when I grabbed the microphone and spoke to the crowd. I wasn’t that calm, believe me. I was excited. But I was also well rehearsed. The night before the final was the first time I hadn’t dreamed and visualised volleyball for years. Instead, I’d dreamed and visualised that speech, word for word. After all, Kurek had advised us to prepare for our new life beyond the gold medal. I dug my ditches in anticipation of the rain. Instead of sleeping I thought about how I was going to thank all the right people.

When I say we thought and believed we would win, I want to stress that this has nothing to do with being overconfident or arrogant. Winning was like déjà vu. It was all a game and we had played the game perfectly. Thanks to our preparation, every piece of the puzzle was in place that day. The last piece in the playing relationship between Kerri and me clicked into place in that game, and we were on exactly the same wavelength. Each of us knew what the other was thinking; we didn’t have to use words. I stood on the dais, looked around, and thought “Yeah…this is exactly how I pictured it!”

Reflecting on things and trying to gain some wisdom from them I now realise that the Sydney experience told me just how much things had changed for me in four years, as a result of my efforts.

In Atlanta, most of our opponents served to me. In Sydney, in the lead up to the final, everybody served Kerri. It slowly just switched around. Towards the end of the tournament, our opponents were realising they couldn’t win on Kerri either, so they reverted to trying to make me crack. But I was not the same as I was back in Atlanta. My heart and soul had bought into the experience, and nothing was going to stop me reaching my destiny. By the time the final came around, our opponents didn’t know what to do. Frustratingly for them, they had to switch back and forth between tactics.

In this way our opponents conferred power on us. It was a powerful feeling to see them undecided as to what our weaknesses were. When they targeted Kerri I would think “That’ll do you no good”. When they directed their tactics back to me I was just as determined to make them pay for it by forcing them to serve Kerri again. This has been an aim of ours as a team for years; to keep our opponents guessing; to have them confused as to who to serve.

Kerri and I want the standard we set that day in Bondi to be our minimum standard from now on.We want to go further. That gold-medal performance was not the best we can ever produce. But at that moment, we sure felt the best we had ever felt! It’s a magical day when a mission is accomplished.

Remember this

We can choose the way we react to an event.

If you seek inspiration and advice from those who have already been where you are going, the territory becomes familiar and less scary.

We all get frustrated when things aren’t ‘working’ for us. But there’s always something working, and there’s always something to learn from it.

Congratulate yourself, and give yourself credit for what you have done, even if it’s only a small step.

Ask: Am I moving away from the pain, or toward the pleasure? Try to spend your life moving toward what you want, not away from what you no longer want.

‘Reframing’ an event in our mind is a powerful tool. We can then make it mean something else; something more favourable.

Never, ever give up! When in doubt, fight!

NAT COOK HAS EXPERIENCED THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF REACHING FOR HER DREAMS AND SHE BELIEVES WE ALL HAVE A GOLD MEDAL JOURNEY WITHIN US. BOOK NAT AS A MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER FOR YOUR NEXT EVENT.

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