Navigating Change with a Champion’s Mindset: Apolo Ohno on Transformation and Growth

Published on February 13, 2024

Change: we all go through it. Leaving a career, for whatever reason, is always followed by the big question – ”What now?

For most of us, we all too often answer the question by falling into a similar version of what we were doing before the change. For Apolo Anton Ohno, once a record-breaking eight-time speed skating medalist in the Winter Olympics, the change – he calls it the Great Divorce – wasn’t so straightforward. 

“When I looked into the mirror, I knew it was time for a change,” Ohno recalls in his most recent bestselling novel, aptly named Hard Pivot (Sounds True, 160 pp., 4.5 out of five). For fourteen years, Ohno was the “fastest man on ice.” Athletic superstar. Sports Hall-of-Famer. His Olympic career was a feat that, realistically, the vast majority of athletes achieve only in their dreams. 

Hard Pivot provides an account of the thought processes and philosophies present in Ohno’s decision to hang up the skates at twenty-seven years old and does a great job of offering some solid advice to the reader in the process. Through anecdotes and “pivot points” — suggestions for how to navigate change in our own lives — the Olympian-turned-businessman’s musings on his unique personal journey invite the reader to reflect on their own potential as a champion, in whatever form that may take. 

Self-acceptance, reinvention, and prioritizing mental health are all key themes in the novel, and Ohno navigates these subjects with a fresh perspective while sidestepping clichés. The book sits at the crossroads of a biography and a self-help novel. It’s inherently a relatable, human story. Ohno himself describes his Great Divorce in a way in which many of us can relate: frightening, exciting, and the cause of many sleepless nights. For him, the insomnia wasn’t wasted; following his choice to leave the Olympic spotlight, he soon found his footing in the entertainment industry, appearing in the wildly popular Dancing with the Stars — and proceeded to win at that competition, too.

But the novel makes it clear that Ohno is so much more than an extraordinarily good competitor. Leaving the limelight behind, he writes, felt much like being “an alien in a new land.” Sitting with that feeling led to gratitude for the people and factors that contributed to his successes, no matter how distanced he’s become from those earlier chapters of his life, and holds great advice for the rest of us. “My path forward includes a lot of things that made me such a successful competitor, but I’ve also uncovered new attributes that are more applicable to who I want to be today…If I can overcome my challenges, others can too.”

Ohno’s recollection of his own career, despite the challenges, gives the reader insight into the positive effects of strong decision-making skills in the face of change. Now an advisor at the venture capital firm Tribe Capital, an entrepreneur, a bestselling author, and a keynote speaker, Ohno’s work gives organizations and their teams the resources to better manage stress, improve mental health, and lean into their purpose with his Five Golden Principles: Gratitude, Giving, Grit, Gearing Up, and Go. 

A Finish Line That’s Never Crossed

Oddly enough, there’s something intrinsically relatable in how Ohno transitioned from a career as the most decorated American Winter Olympian in history into a businessman. His process of adapting to this change in such a public and meaningful way — and the consistent success he’s since enjoyed — is as inspirational as it is educational.

“Reinvention is a process,” Ohno states. “There’s no magic pill or shortcut and very few straight lines.” Hard Pivot almost reads as a journal of sorts – a practice of which Ohno is a big fan – and is full of ideas the reader can apply to their own lives. Admirably, Ohno admits that he’s not a mental health professional but rather a person with a unique perspective to share on a challenge – change – all of us face at some point in our lives. “I came up with the [Five Golden Principles] to help keep me going in the right direction when the road starts to zigzag,” he writes, drawing on his experiences as an athlete in previous years. “My hope is that these five principles…will help you get across the finish line and bring about the positive changes you yearn to make in life.”

On the ice, Ohno recounts, “a fraction of a second can mean the difference between winning a gold medal and finishing out of the medals entirely.” In business, we see a similar level of change and decision-making come in the form of shifting strategies, entering new markets, or even overhauling approaches in response to unforeseen circumstances. More personally, change could be marked by decisions to let go of (or enter into) a relationship, have children, or invest in real estate. The notion of a “hard pivot” is one that’s familiar to anyone who’s encountered the opportunity for a transformation, whether personally or professionally. Once we start making changes, more and more things tend to crop up that need to be “fixed” (an ever-moving finish line, so to speak). 

According to Ohno, overcoming the anxiety associated with hard changes all comes down to mindset, which he explains through his Five Principles. Gratitude and Giving are perhaps the most important and selfless (which is why, he writes, they come first in his novel). 

“I think [gratitude is] hands down the most effective way to recondition our minds away from habitual negativity and mental defeat.” Reflecting next on the importance of generosity, he writes, “Becoming a more grateful person primes you to be more generous with yourself and others. If you train your mind to focus on abundance, it’s easier to feel like you have the energy and resources to help others.” 

Cultivating a spirit of gratitude and generosity goes beyond developing basic good manners. In business especially, Ohno emphasizes the importance of creating a culture of appreciation that enhances relationships and offers opportunities for strategic partnerships. In doing so, we empower ourselves to be more generous, not only with others but also with ourselves and thereby lay the groundwork for meaningful connections – an invaluable lesson for the challenges faced in today’s workplaces. 

Perhaps this is where the third and fourth principles, Grit and Gearing Up, become most relevant in the story of reinvention. When a change is needed – in a lackluster career, in a new business strategy, in deciding to go to the gym for the first time in years – a certain level of mental fortitude has to be practiced. 

“Grit is mental stamina, resilience, and toughness for when the path gets strange and difficult,” Ohno proposes. “It’s easy to keep on the path when the journey’s easy; grit is what keeps us going when it’s not.” He shares the anecdote of his father’s Tchaikovsky-fueled clean-out of his barber salon when a renter was ready to take over the space sooner than expected. Lacking the funds for help, his father worked fourteen consecutive hours overnight to move out the equipment, staying motivated by blasting Tchaikovsky. “Sometimes that’s what it takes,” Ohno sums up, “and you have to summon up a warrior-like mentality to meet the challenges in front of you.”

Gearing up requires holding on to that grit and preparing for any and all challenges ahead. To Ohno, this involves “learning to think of yourself (and present yourself) in new ways. For me to become a confident and more-than-just-competent public speaker, I had to learn new skills, practice them a lot, and put myself in front of audiences, but I also had to start thinking of myself as a confident presenter.” 

Ohno, by his own admission, doesn’t have much more to say about the subject of the final principle, “Go,” despite it being the capstone of his framework. “In fact, the less said at this point, the better,” he muses. “When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. When I’m at the go point in life, it signifies so much that’s come before: I’ve practiced gratitude and self-love, I’ve devoted my time and resources to the cause and to others, I’ve applied grit through various challenges, and I’ve geared up to face whatever’s coming next. The only thing left to do is to do it.”

The Hardest Pivot: Radical Self-Acceptance

All of that being said, Ohno’s Five Principles outlined in Hard Pivot offer a personal, almost therapeutic amount of perspective on how to navigate change in our lives. Success in business, the Olympics, and even the mundanity of day-to-day life requires simple human empathy, focus, motivation, and willpower – powers all of us possess, and of which Ohno simply seeks to remind his readers. 

But on the opposite side of making a successful change, we all too often criticize ourselves for what can’t be changed. For this, Ohno offers some comforting words of wisdom that we all know but tend to forget: self-acceptance is absolutely necessary. “Harshly criticizing yourself all the time just leads to more misery and extra obstacles between you and your goals.” Loathing that there’s a starting line won’t help you get to the finish.

Curiosity plays perhaps the largest role in positive transformation and self-acceptance. Behind every superstar is a human navigating the complexities of life, and remaining curious about “how it all plays out” instills a mindset that setbacks, or even outright failure, are part of the process. “Once you set out on your journey to reinvention, there’s no way of knowing where the road is going to take you,” Ohno writes. “Everybody’s rabbit hole is different, but if you can remain curious when you get to the next turn in the tunnel, it will help keep you from getting bogged down when things are less than ideal.”

As adults, we could all use a bit more joy and play in our lives. Ohno’s outline of his career is a happy reminder that these could be the deciding factors in our success. Tapping into curiosity, play, and joy is what led Ohno to win Olympic gold in the 500-meter race in the 2006 Winter Olympics held in Turin, Italy. He recounts starting the day with a jog in spite of the Olympic officials’ security concerns, and recalls, “I remember thinking, this is why I do it. I committed to the highest level of athletic competition for this routine, this challenge, this game, and this playful experience. I think it took that moment of scoffing at authority and escaping outside to tap into that youthful attitude. Not that I endorse rule-breaking, but in some cases, it can have a positive effect that doesn’t lead to any harm.”

Turning “What Now?” Into “Why Not?”

Navigating change – no matter how large or small – all comes down to seeking joy, adopting play, and doing everything with love. It also requires reframing our thought processes about failure. A great example of this comes from the story of Ohno’s first Olympic medal win: a silver. Obviously, gold was the goal, even the expectation. But the joy of winning, to Ohno, ultimately came down to being satisfied with the effort he expended to place at all, which makes his response to a questioning reporter so satisfying: “I didn’t lose the gold. I won the silver.”

The lesson: why not be satisfied with our successes instead of brooding over the what nows and what ifs?

His career shows that purpose and meaning (in business, personal relationships, and life in general) are found by being curious, motivated, and resilient enough to reframe our failures and take action in spite of our challenges. “When you look back at your life and all the things you accomplished, your purpose will be that which provided an undying source of meaning for you,” he writes, and urges us to consider finding meaning in focusing on the well-being of others. “We’re biologically wired to care about and act on the behalf of other people. Reminding yourself of this healthy connection can bring more enjoyment or satisfaction to what you do, even if you’re in the middle of looking for another job or life path.” 

Why not help a struggling coworker? Why not make a risky but socially compassionate business move? The end result could be the change you’ve been looking for or your Ikigai – your reason for getting up in the morning.

Ohno dives into the Japanese concept of Ikigai through an anecdote from the 2020 Summer Olympics, in admiring Simone Biles’s decision to drop out of four out of five finalist events to focus on her own well-being. Many of us criticized her decision, desiring the dazzling performance we knew she could give us. Ohno’s perspective is enlightening. “Instead of performing for others exclusively — and doing so at her own expense — Biles chose to prioritize herself, the bigger picture, and the impact she knew she could make in the coming years,” he writes. “To have an Olympic superstar…focus on her own well-being is a much wider hard pivot that I hope will change the competitive community for years to come.” 

Biles’s decision to prioritize herself, in Ohno’s eyes, was ironically a profoundly others-centered move. He continues, “Does it matter if Simone Biles got to the podium? Or is it more important that she demonstrate to sports fans and young athletes around the world what they should expect from champions when they face very human challenges?” With her decision, Biles effectively said, “Why not?” and set the precedent that self-care is allowed and necessary for even the greatest among us. In doing so, she became an exemplary role model for other aspiring athletes and created change in an otherwise demanding and singular-goal-focused industry. It was ultimately an inspiring decision, and Ohno’s reframing of an event that was widely criticized provides an eye-opening reflection on what we should consider to be most important in life. 

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, And Try, And Try…

With his goal set on growing his entrepreneurial endeavors, keynote speaking opportunities, and venture capital activities in the days ahead, Ohno continues to adhere to his five principles. But he’s nothing if not self-aware. ​​“I’m not always on the ball with these practices,” he writes, “but I always right myself at some point and get back at it.” 

And that’s the key and the point Ohno tries to make in his novel’s summary “pivot points” and in his work today: challenges aren’t obstacles but opportunities to find the right track. His work in delivering keynote speeches always comes back to the penultimate line of his novel: “That hard pivot is always within reach.” Embracing this mindset transforms every setback into a stepping stone and educates the reader on how to discover strengths they may not have realized that they possessed prior to reading. Ohno’s story is a reminder that, in the face of change, adopting an Olympic champion’s mindset is not just about winning; it’s about growing, learning, and thriving in every aspect of business, relationships, and our lives.

Tyler Giroud is a contributor at Grit Daily and the Head of Growth at Pressmate.ai. He is also an insightful contributor for other publications, including USA Today. Specializing in Business, Entrepreneurship, Leadership, and Technology, Tyler brings a fresh perspective and deep industry knowledge to his readers.

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