Friday Jan. 3, 2014 10:55 ET

Pain, suffering key to an Olympian's success

Athletes discuss how they handle the suffering associated with their sport

Charles Hamelin (L) falls during the men's 500m short-track semifinal at the 2010 World Short Track Speed Skating Championships in Sofia in March 2010 (NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Pain, fear, stress. In public, athletes rarely talk about some of the hard feelings that they experience through their journey.

In a series of three reports, Marie Malchelosse uncovers the secrets of the athletes who are training for Sochi. This one takes an in-depth look at pain.

On their way toward their ultimate goal, Olympic athletes are condemned to pain.

  • "Ah, pain! I know that word very well. For me, it means the bad times, like those mornings when you don’t feel like practicing. The long months of training, of rehab. For me, that’s what pain is." – Erik Guay, alpine ski
  •  “I live with pain every day. I must adore it. I must love to hurt myself every day in order to push myself further and further.” – Valérie Maltais, short track speed skating
  • “It’s a matter of pushing that pain a little further, and then tolerating it a little more all the time.” – François Hamelin, short track speed skating

Pain is at the same time a requirement and a necessity in an Olympic athlete’s journey. The ability to overcome a state of suffering helps athletes soar among the best in the world. Their trainers push them along this gruelling path.

Charles Castonguay plays that role for snowboarder Dominique Maltais and cross-country skier Alex Harvey, among others. He’s a witness to this love-hate relationship between the athlete and the pain. 

“For them, it’s not necessarily a good practice if they haven’t suffered,” said Castonguay. “The relationship that they have with their body borders on masochism.”

  • “I want to be at it every day and really get messed up. I want to suffer, a lot. I don’t know if it’s due to the biology behind my hormones, but it is what really turns me on. I really need to experience that feeling as often as possible.” – Mathieu Giroux, long track speed skating

As a matter of fact, a physical effort produces endorphins, the hormone that gives us that sense of well-being after physical exercise. But at an Olympic athlete’s level, the endorphin-induced high is no longer enough, as Charles Castonguay outlines. 

“At the point where they are at, the only satisfaction, the only feeling of exultation that they can get is on the podium, with a golden medal around their neck. That’s what they are looking for. So no amount of pain is too much until they get to that place,” he said.

The pain tortures the athlete, both physically and mentally. 

As soon as an athlete feels the beginning of it, he finds himself in front of a choice. That’s what Fabien Abejean, specialist in mental preparation for high-level athletes, comes in with some guidance. 

“The sooner you focus on the signs and symptoms of pain, the sooner you are going to abandon or be less efficient in your training,” he said. 

“The more we have worked the physical, tactical and mental elements that are going to allow us to deal with that pain in the present moment, the more we are going to be able to perform despite the pain, to abstract ourselves from the pain.”

And sometimes, despite having pushed through all the pain in the world, there is failure. 

“The mental state during pain causes more fatigue, despair and also doubts about your own physical capabilities after a competition that you haven’t been able to win,” added Castonguay. 

  • “It reminds you of what your core values are. It makes you realize what it is that you really want from yourself. Plus, I think that if you don’t go through pain, you cannot grow internally.” –Dominique Maltais, snowboard cross

Throughout his work with athletes, Fabien Abejean has come to a certainty: the bad performances that happen are important and crucial steps in the path of an athlete to become, later on, a better one.

By their ability to always push further the threshold of their pain, Olympic athletes distinguish themselves from the general population. Castonguay sees them as outsiders. 

“I think that the Olympic athletes have a fundamental predisposition to better cope with pain, to accept it more and to integrate it into their lives as an ally,” he said.

  • “I think it was Muhammad Ali who said: ‘I hate every single minute of training. But suffer now, and live the rest of your life as a champion.’ That sounds right to me.” – Erik Guay, alpine skiing


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