She trained her entire life for the Olympics, but a storm drowned her dreams of winning gold. Today, this three-time Olympian and two-time world champion is helping women use mindfulness and intention to conquer defeat and achieve their dreams—just like she did.
The icy waves pummelled her canoe, and sprint kayaker Karen Furneaux struggled not to get thrown overboard. Her dreams of gold sank below the whitecaps as her team crossed the Olympic finish line in fifth place. But she learned something invaluable that day about life’s unpredictability and tapping into her true strength.
A childhood goal
Furneaux grew up in Waverley, once the site of one of Nova Scotia’s biggest gold rushes. She jokes that this meant she was predestined to want Olympic gold. As a little girl, Furneaux played backyard Olympics with her friends, and by age 17, she was training to make Nova Scotia’s Canada Games
But in what would be one of many twists and turns in her road to the Olympics, tragedy struck. While training, Furneaux collided with another athlete. “We never found my teeth,” she says. “They’re still on the mountain!” It took more than two years, and countless surgeries, to get her smile back. During that time Furneaux shifted her focus to kayaking.
Dreams down under
Fast-forward nearly a decade. After gruelling training schedules, stunning results at the Canadian trials, and winning her first international medal at the World Cup in the Netherlands, Furneaux earned her right to race in the 2000 Summer Olympics held in Sydney, Australia.
She was filled with pride and hope, but when the day arrived, the incoming storm was so strong that boats were sinking and Olympic officials rescheduled the race multiple times.
“I felt physically, mentally, and emotionally empty,” writes Furneaux in her new book, Strong Beauty: Power Up the Champion Within (I Promise Performance, 2018), about crossing that finish line in fifth place. “Worst of all, I felt that I had let everyone down.”
“It was a big setback and learning moment,” she tells us. “I set myself up for these super high expectations, and it was really nothing like what I expected.”
Why did the storm have to hit right when it did? Why did her first shot at the Olympics fall on this specific day? Why?
These questions ran through Furneaux’s head. The reality was that there was nothing she could have done about the weather. However, she realized there was something she could change.
“We spend a lot of time creating drama around what’s outside of our control,” says Furneaux. “The experience solidified for me that we can only control what’s in our power: our thoughts, our behaviours, and our intentions.”
This was the beginning of a powerful journey for Furneaux. Each race, each setback, each medal won and medal missed strengthened her and helped her explore what it meant to be resilient, powerful, and confident.
“It enlightened me to think about the power of the mind and how we create every situation that we’re in and can empower ourselves through it,” she says.
Today, after a 20-year athletic career, Furneaux is a three-time Olympian, two-time world champion, and winner of numerous world championship medals. And she’s traded the awards podium for a speaker’s podium, coaching thousands on her POWER approach to self-belief and success.
More POWERful than ever
That aha moment from her first Olympics was a building block for her mindfulness acronym: POWER.
Presence: are you staying in the present moment?
Openness: receive what can be learned in the moment, and shift your emotions to more positive feelings.
Wisdom: recognize where you have strength and all that you’ve learned.
Energy: where are you putting your intention and focusing your energy?
Respond: take responsibility for your goals, dreams, and actions.
This forms the basis for her book, as well as the Strong Beauty Tribe—a mentorship community of young women who work with Furneaux to find their “inner winner.”
Furneaux’s message is all about honouring your journey and tapping into your inner strength through mindfulness to get through adversity and achieve success.
“The most common thought pattern that I see in women is questioning ourselves,” she says. “Am I good enough? Strong enough? Know enough?”
Furneaux’s answer: a resounding yes!
In her book, she writes that practising her POWER habits helped her learn to appreciate that “the beauty within is about more than just medals and muscles.” And no matter how bumpy our journeys to our own personal Olympics, if we stay true to our dreams and POWER up our self-belief and mindfulness, we can achieve whatever we’ve set our minds to.
Success and spas
It’s not an indulgence. Furneaux says self-care boosts her performance as a businessperson, athlete, and public speaker. Her top suggestions for recharging include
- taking a relaxing bath
- getting creative through art, poetry, or whatever expresses your own unique brilliance
- practising gratitude
- journalling self-reflections
- sitting in meditation
- getting a massage
- connecting with the earth and with nature
Ready, set, action!
“Every habit or action … is driven by a belief,” writes Furneaux. “If you change your beliefs … then it’s easier to change your habits and actions.”
Joshua Duvauchelle is a regular alive contributor. joshduv.com