|Sara Renner: Gunning for Gold|
It's the spring of 1998, and Sara Renner is not a happy camper. The joy of narrowly qualifying for the Nagano Olympics with a dazzling team relay performance in December has passed, and now a bitter taste lingers. Her 74th, 64th, 54th and last place in the relay where far from career highlights, and she knows it. Even worse, she knows she is capable of more. Renner did not ski well at the 1998 Olympics, and the finger pointing is aimed squarely at herself. The feelings of her teammates differ very little. The headline news from the women's cross-country team was Beckie Scott's 45th place in the 10km, and that’s more back page than headline.
Fast-forward four years to 2002. This spring the world is brighter, the mountains are whiter and the blue sky is the limit. Renner just came off the most successful winter of her life. Her Olympic results of 9th, 19th, 15th and a relay 8th make her Canada's second most successful cross-country Olympian ever, behind her friend and teammate Beckie Scott. Second to Scott, Canada's first-ever Olympic cross-country medalist, is something to be proud of.
In only four short years Renner went from being near last in Olympic competition to being near the medals. How did she do it? She'll tell you it was a huge increase in her focus and confidence. But it wasn't a change in her alone; it was a change in her whole team. “We realized that it was a sink or swim situation, that it was time to role up our sleeves and really get to work,” says Renner. Sara and her teammates didn't quit, and they didn't decide that the hardest sport in the world was too tough. Instead, they decided they could do it, and then went about doing it.
Despite the poor results in 1998, Renner was never really discouraged. “In general it was a good experience, because we learned from our mistakes and we knew how to fix them,” she says of Nagano. “Racing in one Olympics was a valuable experience for the next time, experience was what made the 2002 results possible.”
Several changes were made to the Canadian women's team after 1998, besides their attitudes. For one, they had a new head coach. Canadian David Wood took over the reigns of the team from Norwegian Steinar Mundal. He turned the team’s frustration into a flawless Olympic preparation for 2002 which saw every athlete improve their results compared to the four years before. Sara points to that planning as a key in their success. “We had a clear plan. We were very familiar with the area, and we went in their with an attitude for success.”
It was clear that the women’s team in 2002 was totally different than in 1998, despite all the members being the same aside from the addition of Amanda Fortier, who was still a junior in 1998. Sara claims that there was no miracle in the transformation of the team. “We did the same things in the past four years as we did before 1998, but we did everything better. The difference was in our attention to small details.” Coach Wood can certainly be thanked for part of this change. “He is one of the best coaches in the world. He is on top of all the advancements in the sport, from technical changes to scientific changes in physiology and nutrition. Most importantly, Dave always believed that we could succeed,” says Sara of her coach.
While being up to date has been a key factor, Renner also points out that increased World Cup opportunities in the past two years were instrumental to her confidence. “More World Cup experience is what gave me the confidence to ski at a high level and prepare me for success at the Olympics”. These are opportunities she has had to fight hard to get, and overcoming hurdles along the way has not made that easy.
Things turned sour for Sara in the fall of 1998, just as she was getting her 2002 preparations underway. Extremely high heart rates and body temperatures finally led doctors to pinpoint the problem as Graves disease, which is caused by an overactive thyroid. “It was a big setback. I had no idea what the problem was and unknown was frightening,” says Renner. She finally solved the problem by taking a thyroid suppressant. That worked temporarily, but it flared up again in the spring of 2001, less than a year before the Olympics. “The second time was not nearly as bad. I recognized the symptoms and knew what the problem was. I dealt with it by not making it a big issue, having faith that I would get through it and still be fast despite hurdles. It’s easier to get through something when you’ve been through it before,” says Sara. Renner finally solved the problem for good when doctors gave her a radioactive treatment that essentially killed the thyroid. She now takes medication that takes the place of her thyroid function.
It was a long road for Renner, and at times she had trouble believing it was even possible. When asked if she truly believed she could do it four years ago, she says “No, I hoped and dreamed, but it was a long way away”. By the time the Olympics were looming on the horizon she was more positive stating that her goals were “top 15 at the Olympics, and I knew that would take the performance of my life, but I knew it was possible.”
Renner now has her sights set on the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy, where a medal is the goal. This time she believes from the start. In 2006 Sara will be 30 years old and in the prime of her career. She’s not worried about spending the next four years of her life at the sport she loves. When asked what the costs of her commitments to the Olympic podium are she answers, “There aren’t any. I’m doing what I love, with people that I enjoy being with. It’s a privilege to be here.” Look for her to be bringing Canada its next cross-country medal in only four short years.
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