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How My Olympic Coach Saved My Life

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I am none of these things, and I am all of these things. Because of you, I know this to be true.

olympic gold medalist samantha arsenault livingstone with motivational words around her

Seventeen years ago, I was sent to you. I don’t need help, I told myself. I showed up anyway.

My first semester of college. A new title of Olympic gold medalist. A broken shoulder. Who am I? Who am I supposed to be?

And, there you were. Your firm handshake, bright smile and deep belly laugh. In that corner office, photographs of your former athletes on every shelf. My favorite: Desmond Howard’s Super Bowl XXXI picture, even though he beat my beloved Patriots that year.

And so many books.

There you were. Unafraid to take on my attitude. Unafraid to challenge my edge.

Unafraid to tackle the toxic undercurrents that were slowly killing me.

Unafraid to speak the truth. Unafraid, because you saw me. The real me.

Buried underneath the pain of a broken shoulder. You told me, “Your shoulder is injured; you are not broken.”

Buried underneath the loss of identity — childhood dream realized — now what? You told me, “Swimming is what you do; it’s not who you are.”

When I was forced out of the water — the very thing that carried me to my dreams — I wondered who I was without all this. You told me, “You are not your successes. You are not your failures. You are not your struggles. You are you.”

You saw me retreat inward, trying desperately not to be seen; trying desperately to hide from the booming voice of my inner critic who shouted: “Not athletic enough. Not fit enough. Not strong enough. Never enough.” You told me, “You are not that voice. You are enough.”

And when that voice became too much for the two of us, you brought in help. You taught me that asking for help takes courage and strength. You saw me — all of me — without judgment.

Arm in arm, we walked to a place of healing. We walked to a place of nourishment — mind, body and soul.

We walked to a place of inner peace and joy.

You believed in me.

You called me on my shit, and there was a lot of it. You showed up anyway. You taught me that serving others is one of the most powerful ways to heal because we can’t show up fully for someone else unless we pour into ourselves.

You unapologetically and compassionately told me what I needed to hear — which wasn’t always what I wanted to hear.

Control the controllables, you said — words I live by.

You shared stories of fellow Wolverines who walked through struggles before me. You inspired me and reassured me: I wasn’t alone in this. You empowered me to find my brave voice. You helped me gain clarity on how I wanted to show up in this world. You challenged me. And even though I hated the homework you assigned, I did it anyway:

letter from gold medalist to coach

Because I trusted you.

You taught me that mentors can be found in the pages of powerful books.

You showed me I could do hard things because you made me do hard things. Doing them saved my life.

When I walked into your office at 19 years old, I was battling “injured athlete syndrome,” depression, suicidal thoughts and a full-blown eating disorder.

You saved my life. More than once.

Who knew that the universe would hurl the darkest, hardest, most brutal shit at me a decade after our last meeting? As I watched the entire cardiac floor rush to my 12-month-old daughter’s bedside after her open-heart surgery — alarms beeping and buzzing — the overhead pages pierced my ears and confirmed my worst nightmare. Unable to hold my baby girl, I rocked back and forth a few feet away for 45 grueling minutes as they worked together to save her life.

I knew on the deepest level the only thing I could do was sit and watch. And surrender. And pray.

Control the controllables, you said. Words that have stayed with me.

The trauma left its tracks on my brain.

Because of you, I learned how to ask for help.

Because of you, I knew I was not broken, even though I felt it.

Because of you, I knew I had the strength inside of me to heal, even though I felt weak.

Because of you, I knew I would find joy again.

Because of you, I knew I could do hard things.

Because of you, I rose from the rubble of my life a truer version of myself.

“Prepare like it’s your turn because you never know when your number will be called,” you said. (And, how cool that we got to watch TB12 live this truth in 2001 during our time together.)

I am forever grateful for the skill set I developed in the two years I worked with you. There are no words that could adequately capture the depth of gratitude I have for you as a human being, teacher, mentor, coach.

In the words of Rumi, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.”

You, G., were the light that reignited the one already inside of me. You helped me navigate the darkness. You helped me step into my light. And when the lights went out again, though you were hundreds of miles away, I carried you with me.

Control the controllables. Yes, sir.

You are part of my story. You are part of my why.

You know what’s pretty powerful?

When you look back on a 17-year-old homework assignment:

inspirational letter from gold medalist with mental illness

And, you’re living it.

Thank you, Greg Harden. Forever and always.

olympic coach greg harden

Because of you, I pay it forward.

P.S. Now that cellphones are a thing, we’ll need to grab a picture together when we meet again. xo

Samantha Livingstone is an Olympic gold medalist, transformational speaker, high-performance coach and mama of four. She inspires and empowers others to cultivate the courage, resilience and perseverance needed to let go of perfection and other limiting beliefs so they can live their dream. Samantha candidly shares her battles with her inner critic, depression, perfection, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and parenting as a working mother because she believes in the transformative power of story, and the strength that comes from knowing we are not alone. She is on a mission to pay forward all she’s learned to help others find joy and live free. A mama of a heart warrior and mama of twins, Samantha and her husband Rob live in the Berkshires with their four girls.

You can learn more about Samantha at

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

If you or a loved one is affected by infant loss, you can find grieving resources at The Grief Toolbox.

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Images via contributor

Originally published: October 22, 2017
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