Harnessing Resilience II: Katie Foulkes #81

Warwick Fairfax

September 2, 2021

Katie Foulkes had to harness resilience as a member of Australia’s Olympic rowing team in 2004. After one of her teammates stopped rowing during the race, the outrage that erupted (the country’s prime minister called the team “UnAustralian”) rocked her to her core. Now a leadership coach who researches what builds resilience, she’s found it’s about more than just digging deep within yourself. It also requires casting wide outside yourself — calling on the resources around you to help you survive your crucible and thrive beyond it.
To learn more about Katie Foulkes, her research and her leadership coaching practice, visit www.katiefoulkes.org

And don’t miss part 3 of “Harnessing Resilience” with guest Heather Kampf, debuting Sept. 7.

Highlights

  • Her qualifications as a coxswain (2:30)
  • What her dad taught her about resilience (7:41)
  • The teenage start of her rowing career (11:30)
  • Climbing the rowing ladder — and running into her first crucible (14:01)
  • Going to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, then walking away from the sport (20:39)
  • The power of inner confidence in fueling resilience (24:03)
  • The Athens Olympic Crucible heard ’round the world (29:33)
  • Her work researching resilience (45:32)
  • Resilience is not just digging deeper; it’s also reaching wider (48:21)
  • Katie’s final thoughts on resilience (49:20)

Transcript

Warwick F:

Welcome to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Warwick Fairfax, the founder of Crucible Leadership.

Gary S:

Welcome back to our series, Harnessing Resilience. I’m Gary Schneeberger, co-host of the show. We’re dedicating six weeks in all, this is week number two, to this crucial topic, because without resilience, there is no moving beyond our crucibles. We’re featuring guests who found the resilience to overcome their setbacks and failures, as well as experts with practical insights and action steps to help you bolster your own ability to rise up when the bottom falls out. This week Warwick and I speak with Katie Foulkes, a member of Australia’s 2004 Olympic rowing team who found herself and her teammates at the center of a national firestorm when the unimaginable happened in the middle of the race. She not only harnessed resilience to merge from those trials, she studies resilience today to help others do the same.

Warwick F:

So, Katie, tell us a bit about what got you into rowing? I mean, I think you mentioned you grew up in Ballarat, but tell us about family, background, because not everybody does rowing, so it’s not like you’re on the ocean. I don’t know if there’s a river near Ballarat, but so talk about your family and how that all ended up lining up to rowing?

Katie F:

Yeah, absolutely, and great to be here. And I think we have a similar passion. I too love rowing, as much as I’m not so involved these days. So they’re really, a bit of background. I grew up in, mostly in Australia as you can probably tell by the accent, but also was fortunate enough to live overseas. My dad was a pilot and he, and you’ll see probably hear some similarities as we talk today, he was really passionate about learning and trying new things. So where that fades into it is, as I was growing up, dad with his passion for flying and airplanes would go to different companies and different organizations to fly different airplanes. So what that meant for one of the kids is that we moved around the world, which was fantastic.

Katie F:

And where all that fades into rowing is when I was, goodness, I must have been about 11 years old. We were living in a country called Brunei. And in those days I think I was the only person with blonde hair in the country and obviously cut my hair. But the long and short of it is, I was shipped off to boarding school, and I still say I was an angel, they weren’t trying to get rid of me. That’s all right. Shipped off to boarding school to a town that you mentioned, Ballarat, which is about an hour or so out of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. And I was on an academic scholarship there, and I am naturally height-wise quite petite. So I’m just over five foot. So when I joined this school, the PE teacher, physical ed teacher came up to me very, very early on in my first few weeks and said, “I think we need to get you to the boat shed.”

Katie F:

So they had a rowing program at the school. And of course, I didn’t even know what the sport was. The reasoning he said to me is, “You’ve got two things going for you for this role of a coxswain. And that was, you need to be small,” which I was, “and you need to be smart,” and he’d seen the academic scholarship and he said you could do this. So I headed down to my first session at the boat shed and that was it for a couple of years. I was hooked. I was literally thrown in a boat and I can’t remember if I was told what to do, but you know what it’s like, you get to go out on the water. Here I was in year seven and I got to be in boats with year nines, 15, 16 year olds. And then as I got older, I sometimes got to talk to the boys when I was in year eight, they’re hollering me around the school and lots of wonderful experiences. So, that was my entry into the sport.

Warwick F:

Was that a co-ed school, or?

Katie F:

It was, yeah, it was a co-ed school.

Warwick F:

Because in Australia, at least when I was growing up, a lot of the schools were boys schools or girls schools, and maybe it’s changed a bit, but you know, so.

Katie F:

I think yeah, very much still in Sydney it’s like that. Outside of Melbourne, the couple of schools in this area, I’m back in Ballarat now there’s a number of co-ed schools. And the other thing I should mention there, you mentioned about a lake or a river. We just happened to be sitting, our boat club was sitting on a lake and that lake was where the 1956 Olympic rowing event was held. So right through the middle is a proper Olympic rowing course.

Warwick F:

So that was where they had the Melbourne Olympic rowing, wow.

Katie F:

Yeah.

Warwick F:

So it was actually all set up for that? Wow.

Katie F:

Yeah. It’s a little rundown and when I was there-

Warwick F:

I understand.

Katie F:

… it is a straightish line and good water, so.

Warwick F:

Well who knew when you think what are your qualifications, small and smart. I mean, you don’t tend to think, “What does that qualify me?” I mean, in of itself you don’t think those two things correlate to a particular line of work, but that is, boy that is amazing. So, and obviously I’m sure most listeners would know, but the cox is the one who steers the boat, directs it. It’s almost sort of like a coach, maybe a bit. They tell the crew when to row faster, “And hey, we’re gaining on them.” And all of that. You sort of, so you’re not just, so you do a lot of coaching and managing and leading really in a sense?

Katie F:

Absolutely. Yeah, I often describe it as being a coach in the boat and my career post coxing was initially coaching in rowing and then progressed to more broad coaching conversations. But your role, and I’d think about it as I got a little bit better in the role was that if I was to speak, I either needed to make the boat go faster, or maintain boat speed and help the athletes do it more efficiently.

Warwick F:

Because there’s a lot of encouragement that goes on. And yeah, I’m sure you were a smart cox, because here’s an example that I can remember of one that’s, wasn’t quite at your level of motivation, even let’s say in high school. We were racing one time in a regatta. And I think we’re in a four and the cox decided in the middle of the race to tell the crew, “I’m tired.” As a cox you never tell your crew who are rowing and you’re not, “I’m tired.” Because we want to throttle the guy and throw him in the water or probably worse, but yes, you never tell the crew that you’re tired, right?

Katie F:

No. Well, I wouldn’t even use that word about them. I’ve heard some people say, “I know you’re feeling tired.” And I’m like, that’s not really the most inspiring message in there, is it? But I guess maybe it was a strategic trying to make you angry and get some adrenaline in maybe?

Warwick F:

Yeah. I mean, we were like 14, 15. I don’t think he was that smart at that point in his life. So no, it was not a swift move, but I know you’ve got a lot into resilience. Is there anything about your mom, your dad, just siblings, or something that really helped shape who you are, whether it’s a way to spring back from adversity, resilience? Does that come from anything in your background, or examples?

Katie F:

I’m sure it’s come from a lot. The person that comes to mind, and if I’m honest comes to mind on a daily basis is my dad. Dad and I were very, very close. He passed away, oh goodness, about 15 years ago now, I think. But I grew up hearing these stories of, and many of us have these wonderful role models in life, don’t we? But these stories of this man that in his day was sort of breaking the boundaries and shaking off the shackles if you like. From what I understand his dad, my grandfather was experienced. He was a prisoner of war, et cetera, and so he had this very difficult life, and then became a plumber. And so there was an expectation that my dad too would follow in those footsteps and become a plumber.

Katie F:

And dad, from what I understand, in his very early teens rejected this view and ran away to become a pilot. And of course, if you don’t come from, certainly in those days, if you don’t come from a family with wealth that can facilitate that, it’s a pretty difficult career to get into. So I heard stories about him influencing people at the local airfield that in return for him mowing the grass, they might teach him to fly and all of these wonderful stories.

Katie F:

And then it wasn’t just that, just constantly seeing this man that would be looking for an adventure or asking questions somewhere to find out more about something that really curious and, what’s the word I’m looking for? Just came to actually get out there and explore and try things out and get better at what he did. So there were many times in life if I look at through that resilience lens where I think it was modelled that things could have been a challenge, yet what I saw was someone turn towards them and see them as opportunities to do things differently or try something.

Warwick F:

I mean, that’s really a great role model and not everybody has it, but we’re blessed when we do. Because I’m sure in that era, when your dad was growing up it’s easy to think, “Okay, plumbing is a good job. I can get you in. We’ve got contacts. It’s a good life. It can sustain a family. And how are you going to afford all these fees?” And nothing against your grandfather, but it would be easy for him to say, “Look, this is unrealistic.”

Katie F:

Oh, absolutely.

Warwick F:

“Get your head on the ground, stop with all these pipe dreams that probably won’t work. You’re setting yourself up for failure,” and just to have, and you can understand that perspective if that’s how you’ve grown up, but the fact that your dad fought through that, I’m sure respected, loved his dad, but to like, “I hear what you’re saying, but respectfully I want to go for it, and I think I can make it,” and did.

Warwick F:

I mean that takes a lot of courage to go against what’s normal for where you grew up. Not everybody goes against that. So it takes a lot of bravery and courage. So yeah, that was a great example.

Warwick F:

So I know you’ve got a fascinating story. So you obviously coxed in high school, and then tell us about what happened after that? And then the Australian Institute of Sport came up. So what, did you go straight to there, or what happened after high school from there at the Australian Institute of Sport?

Katie F:

Well, I’ll go back a step actually, because in high school, by the time I was, so our equivalent of what we call year nine, so I’m about 15, so I’ve still got a few years left of high school. I made the school top boat and we won the local regatta, the local competition. And when I was 15 and growing up in a smaller town, although, Warwick, you might know the head of the school boys in Sydney is the equivalent of what we had here. It actually feels like it’s the biggest event in the world. So here I am in my rowing career and we won this race, and at the ripe age of 15 I retired from rowing, because I thought I’d reached the pinnacle of the sport. I’ve done it all.

Katie F:

And so I did a little bit of coaching at school after that, and did a lot of other activities. And then it was back when I went to university, went to Melbourne University and went to a college there. And it was kind of expected as part of my, I guess, selection to get into this residential college. I put on my CV that I rowed, and therefore it was expected that you row for your college. And so there I was convinced to get back into a boat and really, really quickly that led me to join the university. And a number of selectors and state bodies were able to listen to what I was doing. And I hit the radar of the Australian Institute of Sport.

Warwick F:

So you started off with a college at University of Melbourne, and then ended up rowing for a crew for the University of Melbourne?

Katie F:

Yes.

Warwick F:

I kind of think, I mean, these days in men’s rowing you sometimes have women who are coxes, or not? I try to remember, it can be-

Katie F:

Well yeah, it’s recently changed, so you can. So that was a bit of a battle in my day, but I was the exception. So even at the college I convinced them that I could cox the men’s boat. It was the faster boat, I wanted to go fast. Who’s going fastest, and how do I get in that boat?

Warwick F:

Fair enough, fair enough. But obviously at a certain point you felt like, “Now I want to be the cox of women’s eights and ultimately Olympics. And you made that, obviously. I don’t know if it’s a choice or just the way it worked out, but?

Katie F:

Yeah, well, it was interesting. So I started getting invited to camps at the Institute of Sport, which is in a city called Canberra. So I fly up and get to attend these camps.

Warwick F:

That’s for U.S. listeners, that’s the capital of Australia. So somewhere in between Sydney and Melbourne, kind of.

Katie F:

Yeah, ish, yeah. And in those days, this is before the Sydney Olympics, if you wanted the, I guess the golden ticket to get to the Sydney Olympics in rowing, then the best way to do that was to be based at the Australian Institute of Sport. And they had one spot there for a female cox. And so there I am going on these camps and been flying back to Melbourne to university and keep these various other aspects of life alive. And I was offered this one spot to the AIS to be their cox. And I think I was 22 at the time, and I decided to turn it down. Now, at the time, my thinking was that I look back and I think, “Well, I was coming up against every camp, I was coming up against other coxes and I would see them come to a camp and they last a few days. And my version of it is they’d be spat out the other side and you never seen them again.”

Katie F:

So I think at the time, only 22, I had the sense that I wasn’t ready, and if I wasn’t ready, I’d just be spat out of the system and that would be it. But you can imagine the head coach’s response when this young, his words, “Arrogant 22-year-old” turns down a V-ticket to the Olympics, basically. And so I was sent back to Melbourne, tail between my legs, and that was it, I think. A lot of people said to me, they thought they’d never hear of me again in the rowing world.

Gary S:

In the vernacular of Beyond the Crucible, that’s your crucible moment, that moment right there. You’re invited to be on the team and you say, “I don’t know that I’m ready.” And they don’t care why you’re not ready. They just sort of put a label on you and you go back, as you said, with your tail between your legs, you realize perhaps later that was a crucible moment for you. How did you handle that? Because your career obviously didn’t end there. So you handled it in a very proactive way, I think.

Katie F:

I did. I did. So I had a couple of months where I had focused on my university and I think was telling myself this story that, “Oh, it’s fine. I’ll find some interesting career whilst I’m studying statistics, at university type of thing.” And it was a couple of months later, I had this real physical, I remember this physical response that it’s time, I’m ready, and I want that spot. So it was a really short timeframe. And I rang the head coach up at the Australian Institute of Sport. And I don’t remember what I said. I have this vision of saying, “Dah, have you waited? I’m here. ”

Gary S:

I’m ready.

Katie F:

I’m ready, have you waited? And not surprisingly, he had no interest. So being told no at that point. So the previous one was my choice, this time someone else was saying no. So my response then I knew that the National Championships were coming up, the rowing nationals. I knew that the Australians tutors for women in their eight were going to be pretty much the Australian team. And I also knew that they had never been beaten at the nationals. So I thought, “Well, I’ll just put a boat together and beat them.” And so I literally cold called these names of these women in Victoria, my state, and introducing myself, most of them didn’t know who I was. And it turned out that a number of us had a common interest, and that was to beat that crew.

Katie F:

And so I was really, really lucky that I was able to pull together this fabulous women’s eight, mixed abilities, but some straight off the Atlanta Olympics, others up and coming, most had felt frustrated, even burnt by the AIS, the Australian Institute of Sport at one time. So there was this desire to beat them. And I bribed my way or influenced my way into borrowing a boat from a school and borrowing oars, and begging my parents for the plane ticket to get to the nationals to race.

Katie F:

Anyway, long story cut short. We got there. We didn’t have a training row. We jumped in the boat on the day to race them, and rowed up to what we call the starting blocks at the start line. Really windy day, really crazy windy day. And when you’re in rowing, as you would know Warwick, you need to back your boat into the starting line. And the Australian Institute of Sport boat were up to their third attempt and they just were not backing it in. And I arrogantly zipped up there, based on my years of rowing in windy Ballarat, zipped it into the starting pontoon. So we already had eyes on us, and then came flying out. And in the end, we beat that crew by about 12 seconds, which in rowing world is-

Warwick F:

Is a lot. I mean, how many, what does that translate into boat length?

Katie F:

About four lengths of a women’s eight. Yes, it’s a…

Warwick F:

Four lengths? I mean, that’s a colossal win. That’s like, that’s, I don’t know what that would be in football, Gary, that would be like 30 nothing or something. It’d be a big score.

Gary S:

I can tell by the look on your face, Warwick, that it was quite astonishing, so.

Warwick F:

Yeah, I mean, four boat lengths is wow. I mean, that’s sort of astonishing. I wonder if part of you was channeling your dad is like, “Ah, so I can’t do this, can’t be a pilot. I don’t have any money. I’ll beg, borrow, kind of barter, kind of.” I don’t know, genetic influence or yourself combination it’s that is stunning.

Katie F:

I kind of beat the system, bit of fun.

Warwick F:

Right. Who doesn’t want to, so who are you, you know? So as you look back, it’s kind of interesting there was a time in which you didn’t row at the end of high school, maybe beginning of college. Do you think in hindsight that was helpful that you just had it, because some people can get burnt out. I mean, you would know, obviously I think of Ash Barty, I think she’s, was anyway, the number one women’s tennis player and she got burnt out playing tennis and then a few years ago she just stopped and played women’s cricket at a fairly elite level. And then she found a love of the game and is back and is doing phenomenally. But do you think there was a sense where you just wanted a break, or?

Katie F:

I think so. And I think again, if I look at that modeling of my dad, as much as he loved being a pilot and he loved airplanes, he had so many other hobbies and interests. And so, these days I’m more strategic about that. In those days I think I listened a bit more to my intuition. And so I certainly had those few years off in my later school years, but even between the two Olympics that I went to, so I went to the Sydney Olympics. Then I walked away from the program again, it’s like, I just needed to repeat this whole be named arrogant. And I went over to the Netherlands for a year and a half and coached rowing over there and then came back onto the system. And even then people were telling me, “What are you doing? You’ve got the top spot. Why would you walk away?” And I had this intuitive feeling that I needed to grow. I needed to do more. And I wasn’t going to get the learning that I needed in the one space.

Warwick F:

Right. And you just followed, so there’s a real lesson I think for people is, don’t ignore that gut instinct that says, “You know what? I think I need to do this.” Obviously you got to make sure it’s your gut instinct, not some strange voice, but I think you know when it’s really you and not channeling some other negative vibe or thought, but just trust your gut. If you’re deep down, you feel like, “You know what, Katie, I need to do something else.” You listen to that, right?

Katie F:

Absolutely. And do you know, I know now that I’m a bit older, I find it harder to do now, because of course there’s more responsibilities now, but I think in those days I did trust it more. And I also acknowledge, I was really fortunate that I had those choices. So, I had backup plans, which a lot of people would potentially dream of. I had a backup plan of going back to a good university and continuing your degree. So I was in a fortunate position to have those kind of choices.

Warwick F:

You wasn’t just jump off a bridge without thinking, but I want to go back to just some of those, that first crucible, because it’s not easy somebody thinking of you at 22 as being arrogant, and how could you possibly say no? Do you look back and say, “Gosh, was I just scared? Or was I wise?” Was I really not ready?” Do you kind of look back and say, “Well, it all worked out.” But was that the right decision? Or I don’t know, as you look back, how do you assess that first decision not to be part of the program?

Katie F:

Yeah, it’s really interesting that I now, 20 plus years later, I actually think about a few points of that in life quite regularly. And I encourage myself now at times to tap into a bit of that. I mentioned now about responsibilities, but the other thing I did back then is I had this, I think this greater, how would I say that, almost this greater inner confidence that there would be options. And I remember thinking to myself, “Okay, I make a choice. I don’t make the Australia team.” I’d feel better about giving it a really red hot go and not making it. I’d feel pretty good walking away from that if I given it a really really red hot go. And the same university I remember thinking, “Well, have I chosen the right degree?” Maybe I haven’t, I’ll find something else. So I had this real, whether it was right or wrong, I had this sense that there were opportunities that I could find. It might not be easy, but I’d find them. And I’d find goals that I wish to strive for, and that that process would make me happy.

Warwick F:

And another really important learning point that I think listeners should pay attention to is, trust your gut and trust the choices. And you make a choice. You never get to play out the what ifs. I’ve certainly had a lot of that with my own whole takeover thing and what if, and if I talked to my family. And you never get to play out the what ifs, but trust your gut, trust the choices you make and then move on accordingly. Spending your life going back and second guessing. But yeah, when you went back to the Institute of Sport and they said no, and forming your own crew. I mean, nobody does that. I’m assuming that probably has never happened since that somebody did what you did, right? At least not in Australia, formed their own crew? I mean, that just takes remarkable courage, confidence, chutzpah, however you want to express it. I mean, where does that come from? Because that’s not normal what you did, and you were what, in your 20s then, where did that come from?

Katie F:

I don’t know if I have a direct answer. I mean, I do attribute a lot of that to watching dad operate, and him making choices and even watching family members disagree with certain choices he made and he was still making the choice and it working out from my perspective really well, and having an enjoyable and great upbringing. And so whether it was that, I do, I have to wonder sometimes whether, and this word can be used quite negatively, but certainly in that era that I was much more selfish. And that could be, I instead could use the word driven, some have positive lenses others don’t. I think about a time when I was in Victoria and I was really frustrated, I was part of the rowing club and they didn’t have women’s boats going to a certain event, and they wouldn’t even give me a tryout for the men’s boats because I wasn’t male. And I horrified everyone then, because I quit the club and negotiated with the other club down the road that if I joined them, they’d let me jump in the men’s boats.

Katie F:

Now, I didn’t even realize at the time that the impact that that had, and all the negative talk that apparently was associated around this arrogant girl.

Warwick F:

Do you think some of it may be, and obviously we’re in a different era, some of it could be sexist, if men stand up for themselves, it’s like, “Look at that guy, guy has self-confidence, yeah, good on him.” But if a woman does that, it’s like, “Oh, she’s driven. She’s just,” there’s probably more colorful words for it, but do you think there was some of that, like if it was a guy, it would have been, “Good on him,” but if it’s Katie, it’s like, “Ah.”

Katie F:

Yeah, absolutely.

Warwick F:

Know your place, who are you to?

Katie F:

Oh goodness. Absolutely.

Warwick F:

But I mean, but good for you if not buckling to the system. And it’s nothing wrong with being driven. It’s one thing if you’re driven and mowing over other people and being successful at other people’s expense, that’s exploitation, that’s not drivenness. But I don’t think that’s, and obviously I don’t know you well, but that’s not you. You’re driven, but you’re not trying to get ahead at the expense of other people.

Katie F:

No. And I think this is where the role that I had is maybe, as you’re saying that I’m thinking the role I had is a little bit different too. So sure it was about me getting to the Olympics. But a lot of the time, the way I would frame my growth, my learning, my drive, was to help the boat go faster. And the boat contained eight other people plus all the surrounding squads.

Warwick F:

Right.

Katie F:

And so there were times as we’re talking, I think, “Yes, some of the choices I made were really, really difficult.” But I’d often step back, and it wasn’t about me. If I really felt strongly that this was for the good of the boat, which ultimately was for the people, my team, then I moved forward and it didn’t matter.

Warwick F:

It was for the good of the team. So I think you deserve to give credit. So I want to get a bit into what you do now, before we get there, you had a second crucible. I think it was, was it the Athens Olympics 2004? So that’s, that was pretty challenging too. So just help the listeners understand what happened with that one?

Katie F:

Yeah, I will. And I will say, of course there were a number of other crucibles in between as many of us face many challenges, and I’m sure you’ll hear in my voice. This is not a topic I talk about often, but I’m turning towards it now. I feel I need to talk about it. So going into Athens second Olympics, we had just an amazing, amazing crew. And I’m talking here about shore boat speed, but I’m talking about people to. And anyway, so what the general public would have seen, and it was all over the Australian media, is they would have seen an Australian women’s eight that I was in, competing in the final of the Athens Olympics. They would have seen the Australian eight come flying out of the start and being up there in medal contention until about halfway through the race.

Katie F:

And then they would have seen, it’s much easier to talk from a third party perspective. They would have seen someone in the boat stop rowing, and lay down as a result of that. And then our boat came sixth in the final, which was last place in the final, because we were rowing for the second half of the race with I think about six people, because one of them was laying down then others around her couldn’t row. So, that was one thing. This is one part of it is this, many of us, eight, 10 years towards this race, and this thing happens, and we’re trying to get our head around all of that is that one piece of this moment. The other piece of this moment, which I had no anticipation of was the media response to this. And our crew were, I’m going to say felt like front page of every newspaper.

Katie F:

I know it was international as well, but from a national perspective in every state for a number of weeks, dishonest stories, narratives around, the girl that stopped rowing was a bad person to the team, are awful people to they’re a bad team, right through to the prime minister of Australia saying that we were un-Australian. I’m not sure why, but we were, I don’t know if that’s because of the result or because of what the media said we did. Anyway, this really enormous moment in life, which as I talk about it, and I can imagine some of the listeners thinking, “So what? A race went wrong.” And it was just a race that went wrong. But the ripple effect of that on so many people was just enormous, including myself.

Warwick F:

Oh, I can imagine. I mean, and again, you don’t need to get into details, but it’s not as simple as, “Oh, there was a physical injury,” and there wasn’t a simple, pre-packaged explanation that the media or the prime minister would say, “Oh, okay, now I understand now we’ll back off.” It wasn’t that simple.

Warwick F:

So that, I mean, when you’re spending years trying to get to the Olympics and you’re in the final, which means that because you probably had to go through the semifinals, there’s probably a couple of different rungs to get there. Not only is that horrendous with media, you’ve probably got team members, potential conflict there. And again, you don’t need to get into those details, but there’s all these dynamics, potential internal conflict, vilification by the media without any easy explanation. And you don’t want to dob somebody in, as they say in Australia, we don’t want to get into the details because that’s their story, and it’s not your story to tell. But I mean, there’s nothing really you could say that would be helpful that you’re able to say, right? So you probably in this box, there’s no win box where this is one event where there’s no way to win this event it would seem, right? The event of public opinion.

Katie F:

Absolutely. And you’ve just articulated that so beautifully, because for so long, and particularly coming from that environment, I just talked about these other examples where I could make choices or I could plan, or I could work harder, it all in some ways felt very controllable. And then all of a sudden, if I speak from my perspective, we’re in this situation where, as you said, there was no win. There was no guideline on how to manage this. And so there was a point where we were told to say certain things to the media, like that they was a breakage in the boat. And in hindsight, would that have been easier? Absolutely. But of course, you’ve got the values kicking in. We weren’t trained in media where you have this group of women who was very passionate about saying, “Look, we don’t know what we should be saying. In fact, we don’t really even want to talk to them. We don’t care about that. But we want to talk to our families right now.” And also not lie.

Warwick F:

But don’t ask us to say something that’s not true, just because it might help other people, because we have to live with that.

Katie F:

That’s right. So we felt really strongly about that as well. And I think the other piece in there that often gets missed when people do still to this day talk about this story is, the media caught wind of this particular teammate of ours had scenarios in the past where she had stopped rowing to varying degrees. And so this became another thing to put out on front covers. The piece of that story that got missed, which I think was the part that I grappled with the most, is no one talked about the fact that we as a team knew that history and still in many ways trusted our teammate, because it was more than just whether you were going to row at full capacity from the start to finish. I mean, there’s much going on here. There’s much more to a person than that. So ultimately I trusted all of my teammates. And as part of that, I knew that we all came with our strengths and we all came with these areas we were working on. And that was the complexity of working in a team. But yeah, the media never showed any interest.

Warwick F:

I’m sure. And I’d love to hear what you learned from that, because it wasn’t something you could control. It wasn’t, not that it matters, it wasn’t “your fault.” I mean, there’s not a whole lot you could do at that point. But one of the things we say in crucible leadership is, you’re not defined by your worst day. I mean, I made as listeners would know, and Australian listeners would know I made a cataclysmic mistake, failure, to launch a $2.25 billion takeover that ended a 150-year-old family business that had, Sydney Morning Herald and Age in Melbourne and et cetera. And yes, there probably was a better path. I’m not quite sure what other paths would have been better, but certainly couldn’t have been worse than the one I took. Okay, so that was a bad day when I launched the take over.

Warwick F:

That was a bad mistake. But should I be defined by that one day, should this poor woman be defined by that one day? And again, we don’t need to know any more details on that. It’s like, well, I don’t think so. Is that fair, irrespective of all the reasoning? So, but people tend to want to define you by, especially in the Olympics. It’s that one day in the Olympics, “Oh, you lost.” If you were a swimmer you lost by two tenths, or two 100ths of a second or something ridiculous. You lost, you fail. Okay, sorry. I tried.

Gary S:

And one of the things that you said, Katie, one of the things that you said when we talked off air was that, and I wrote it down, that you held onto that narrative for a bit, that impacted you. That first time you were like, “Okay, you don’t want me on the team. I’m going to go pull people together and I’m going to beat you.” And you did. The second time a crucible hits that’s kind of a big thing. You say you held onto the narrative. Why do you think they were different? Those two situations were different?

Katie F:

Yeah, I think for me, so as I mentioned, there were a number of other crucible moments between the one I’ve talked about and getting to Athens. And in all of them, I felt like I had a choice. The way I turned up, the way I behaved. So it all felt controllable. The outcome didn’t feel controllable, but it was all about me. Where this one felt different is, I was aware of that things can go wrong on race day. And I had plans for every scenario you could possibly think of, including boat breakages and et cetera. And so that was my controlling component. I never anticipated the level that it could go wrong, so that was one piece. And that shook me, because if you talked about Katie and her performance she, I visualized everything possible.

Katie F:

So I was like, “Oh wow, I missed something.” So there’s a bit of that playing out. But I think the other component for me and, Warwick, you just said it, is I could not, and still can’t work out what the better path would be. So every other scenario in life up until that point, and I say this knowing I’ve had a very fortunate life. I felt like the mistakes I made at times weren’t that big a deal because it’s like, “Well, I look back and I should have just done this instead.” And I can focus on the learning. With this particular scenario I could not work out, what should I have done differently? And I, goodness, trained as an Olympic athlete to reflect and look at yourself. And I hammered myself, as I’m sure many of my crew mates did as well about themselves. Down to the detail, that look I saw that day, that conversation I had, should I have not had it, should I have had a different one?

Katie F:

Should I, everything you can possibly think of. And so I made it all about me because that’s the way I operate best, bring it on me, make the choices, move forward. But for the first time that didn’t work for me, and it became this almost debilitating, “I don’t have the answer. I don’t know what my learning is. How can I not know what my learning is?” It’s like this kind of, I needed this happy ending, “This thing happened, and here’s what I would have done differently, and I’ve lived happily ever after.” I had this sense from somewhere and I couldn’t work it out. A number of things happened around the same time, which, as we know we are complex as beings. So I came back from Athens. I found out that my dad who I have spoken highly of had terminal cancer, he passed away a couple of months later. So even though they were very separate events, it sort of got packaged I think.

Warwick F:

It was like a cataclysmic crucible, if you will, because it happens, here’s your dad, dearly loved, role model and then this is happening and yeah, I mean, you can’t control cancer or your dad’s, there’s nothing you could’ve done to prevent what happened. He, I’m sure he had the best of care. And sometimes there’s a learning, there is sometimes things happen and it’s not easy to know what would have. Like in my case, I can think of what I did was horrendously stupid, but it’s hard for me to think of scenarios that would have been better, at least in terms of made me happy or more fulfilled. That’s a lot more, I’m a strategic planner by nature, so it’s hard for me to think that.

Warwick F:

But in this case, yes, you could say, “Maybe we could have, we knew this person’s history, maybe we could have not said let’s not have that person in the boat.” Probably wasn’t your call I’m guessing, it would have been somebody higher up. But even then it’s like, I mean, how do you know that? You make the best decision and it’s not always your fault. There’s not always an easy alternative.

Katie F:

No. And this is the thing, I mean, lots of people, and I’m no doubt you’ve experienced the same thing, can give you their simplistic answer. And it wasn’t simple. I mean, using that example, I’ve had many people say, “You should have just gone to the media and gone around at the boat.” Like, “Well, hang on, I had 10 years of high performance history that told me that trusting your teammates led to boat speed. So why a couple of months before the Olympics would I just decide to not trust my teammates and go public with it?” And also remembering that everyone in that boat in the lead-up made the boat go as fast as it was going, and it was going really fast. So you can’t just pull a piece out and expect it all just to function.

Warwick F:

You’re not going to know the future. So you can only know what you’re going to know. So just as we sort of round this turn, talk a bit about what you do with resilience, because I love you talk about team synergy and resilience. You’re doing a lot of research on what resilience is and what it isn’t. So you’ve really pivoted from rowing to team performance, which makes sense. You spent your whole life in team performance. And I think one of the things, I believe we haven’t mentioned it yet, but I believe you had a pretty amazing career. It said you were ranked number one in Australia for close to 10 years as a cox, so that is pretty amazing. That says you, at least objectively, you were best of the best from a rowing perspective and that whole strategy, it’s big, a brief aside.

Warwick F:

I don’t follow Oxford, Cambridge sports that much other than rowing and what they call the boat race, which then as of the last few years had men and women on the same course. So more power to both those universities are doing that. And I think it was the men’s race, it was raced on Cambridge local waters that they normally don’t do, but it sure seemed like the Cambridge cox, and you’ve probably followed it more than I, had it all over the Oxford cox. I mean, just the strategy, home waters, he came really close to fouling, but not quite. You push the envelope real close, but it seemed like, okay, they won. So clearly the cox did something right. There’s a lot of strategy there, but I digress. Anyway, getting back to resilience, talk about how you pivoted from rowing to resilience, and talk about how what you do now and really what your passion is. What is your mission with your research and everything you do in team synergy and resilience?

Katie F:

Well, I think, if I’m really honest, my passion post rowing was in high performing teams, yet the narrative I held from that experience of Athens, plastered all over the front pages of the not being good teammates is I turned away from that a little bit. I hid from that, even though, as you said, that one event doesn’t define you, I still let it define me. And so my way around that, and we’re talking now 20 years, 20 plus years later was firstly for the first 15 years, you just worked harder on something else.

Katie F:

Don’t talk about it, keep moving, to more recently going well, “I’ve got these research opportunities. This is really interesting. It’s showing me that something like resilience, as an example, we simplify, show parallels to my rowing experience here, we simplify these complex events. We tell someone just to be more resilient, we sometimes point the finger at people and say they’re not resilient.”

Katie F:

And it was all very simple. And as I started doing this research and thinking about my own experiences when I’m resilient to somethings, not to others, resilient at some times, not at other times, I was fortunate enough to work with a gentleman called Dr. Michael Kavanagh at Sydney Uni who had this new definition of resilience, which is really exploring, what is he now? And I’m going to use dorky language for a second. What’s in our surrounding systems? What’s around us that helps us be resilient? And so the research is showing that if you have access to the resources you need to meet the challenge you’re facing, you’ll be more resilient. It’s kind of obvious, right?

Gary S:

Yep.

Katie F:

So if I look back, all the other challenges, all my other crucible moments leading into Athens, I had the resources around me. I had a state Victoria I could go back to, I could talk to people to find boats and people. And so to meet that challenge, beating a crew, I could find the resources. Post Athens, every one of my good friends, my teammates was feeling enormous stress. So I didn’t have, well none of us had those social connections and resources we may have needed.

Warwick F:

Well, your crew mates, they were in the same crucible you were?

Katie F:

Absolutely, absolutely.

Warwick F:

So, not really resources, because they’re in there with you.

Katie F:

Absolutely. Our family and friends, were also, dealing with this. So we didn’t have them that we could access.

Gary S:

I want to make sure the listeners hear what you just described and pull those balloon strings together here. We think so often that resilience is just personal, right? It’s we have it in us or we don’t, we develop it or we don’t. What you’re describing is a more full throated kind of resilience. And that’s not just from your experience, but also from your research, the idea is

Katie F:

Absolutely.

Gary S:

… you do indeed have to dig deeper, but that’s not all of it. You also have to cast wider. You have to cast your net wider for those assets and relationships that can help you through it. So it’s not just about your “resilience” it’s about the resilience you can muster through reaching out and drawing on the strength of others. True?

Katie F:

Absolutely, absolutely, beautifully said. And the other piece in there, if you don’t mind me adding another layer?

Gary S:

Oh please.

Katie F:

Is when we are using resources for a challenge, as we’ve know for particularly the last few years, we often are not facing one challenge at one time. So then we try and use the same bucket of resources on all of our challenges, and it’s finite. So we have to keep going wider, or make choices. I’m okay to not be resilient on that challenge, because I’m going to focus on this challenge. Does that make sense?

Warwick F:

I mean, what you’re saying is, pick your battles.

Katie F:

Absolutely, absolutely.

Warwick F:

You don’t have to be resilient in every area. I’ve got a book coming out later this year, and it’s been a culmination of years and I have a great team, but there are other areas where I don’t know, I don’t go bungee jumping or ropes courses. And I’ve never been particularly physically brave, but you know what, that’s not a challenge I choose to overcome, at least not in my stage of life. And you know, if I wanted to, and I have a pretty high level of perseverance, I’d probably figure out a way. But you know, you don’t have to face every fear if you choose not to. I mean, it’s like, that’s not being scared, it’s being making choices. Where do you want to be resilient? And it’s not wise to say, “Okay, I’m going to tackle 15 massive challenges at once.” Well, you’ll probably fail, because who can do that? But pick your battles, right? Where do you want to be resilient? Does that make sense?

Katie F:

It does. And the thing is, when we talk about it, it just, if we have lots of expressions around this. So it’s kind of common sense, but I think about myself, I think about a lot of the clients I work with and I am thinking about a number of them right now. And I’ll talk about some of the women I’m working with at the moment through some executive coaching work. They’re very smart women, and they know this in principle, yet in day-to-day they’re trying to face the challenge of raising children, building a career, navigating that particular project, buy a house, wanting the garden clean, putting on the best party. And I can hold the mirror up and say the same about me.

Katie F:

So do you know, we know it in principle, but I don’t see sometimes, including myself, that we are particularly deliberate about it, deliberate about going wide for all of those resources and engaging them for when we need them, and engaging things we don’t even know we need yet, and kind of holding onto them to be ready, nor about making those choices when we have those choices to make.

Gary S:

Now, this is a perfect time. And normally what I say is the captain has turned on the fasten seatbelt sign. It’s getting to the point we have to land the plane. I was going to think of some kind of thing I thought was clever about bringing boats into dock. But I know with you guys, so not only experts in rowing, but for an Olympian in rowing, I was going to make that a terrible analogy. So I’m just going to stick with the captain turned on the fasten seatbelt sign. And we’re getting to the point where we’re going to put the plane on the ground soon. But, Katie, before we do that, I would be remiss if I did not give you the chance to let listeners know how they can find out more about you and the services that you offer to folks to help them build teams, live high performance lives and engage with their and their community’s resilience.

Katie F:

Absolutely. So the best way to find me is probably through my website, and it’s www., all one word, katiefoulkes, do you want me to spell it? Will it be somewhere?

Warwick F:

Yeah.

Gary S:

Yes, please.

Katie F:

K-A-T-I-E-F for French, O-U-L-K-E-S for Sam.org. And always open to have conversations. Love dialogue.

Gary S:

Awesome. Warwick, the last question or questions, your decision is, are yours.

Warwick F:

Wow. I mean, this is such a fascinating story. Just your crucibles are so different, but it sounds like you’ve learned so much. And one of the things I love about what you’re saying is yes, I think, like I’m somebody that I’d say has high perseverance, so I’m not somebody that tends to quit once I start something. So I get where you’re coming from, but yet, you’re right. I think understanding we need to have resources, but the resources that we’ll need may be different, depending on the challenge. It’s not the same team. If it’s a different sport, different challenge.

Warwick F:

So, I mean, maybe this shouldn’t be the last question, but I guess one of the things I’m curious about, knowing what you know now, I mean, can you think of what team you would have assembled to help you get through the post-Athens Olympics? I don’t think, objectively I don’t think there’s anything he could have done once it happened. I mean, you can’t know what would have happened. You’ve got to trust your teammates. Totally makes sense. But in terms of how you handle with the aftermath, is there something, “Gosh, what would have helped me get through that from a resilience perspective?”

Katie F:

That’s a really good question, and it depends how wide we want to go. I mean, if we start with a couple of things, I think, it’s so easy that these things are seen as a ticker box, like bring a psychologist in, tick. But really the resources needed absolutely with some professional skills, but also that space, a way to bring us together with there’s media not around, to feel supported, even if it was just to sit with each other and just be in that space. Then of course there would be resources like whether it’s counselors, psychologists, people that care about us. And then you could go more broadly as we go to helping people. I mean, it’s a whole nother issue with those that have been in high performance environments. How do they transition into the normal world? And that’s challenging enough, never mind when it’s been as high profile. So resources that support in that space.

Warwick F:

Well, and I’m sure it’s a whole nother discussion, but post-Olympians, it’s a challenge. And Michael Phelps, I think, has been pretty open about his mental health challenges and it’s a different subject. But yeah, I think in my case it took years, decades to get over the fact that I ended a 150-year-old media dynasty that has been prominent in Australia and what could I have done differently? And now what am I going to do with my life? And sometimes getting through a crucible experience, it takes more than months, more than a year or two. It can take years and maybe there would have been things I could have done to bounce back quicker, but sometimes it just takes time. Sometimes there’s no easy road back and you just got to in hindsight give yourself a break.

Warwick F:

I know you’re an Olympian. You could say, “Olympians should have Olympic recoveries. It should just take a week, because that’s what Olympians do.” But you’re human, you know? And sometimes the feelings and emotions, it can take time, if not years. And that’s not failure, that’s just reality. We’re human. So maybe just giving yourself a break a bit. Maybe that would be something. You probably have had that self-talk over the years, right? It’s like, “Look, I’m doing my best. I did my best. Quit beating myself up.” You’ve probably had those internal dialogues over the years, I’m guessing.?

Katie F:

Yeah, tell myself to shake it off. But the other component that’s come out in the research, because I did interview a number of Olympians last year with this research on resilience, was talking to people that understood. So, Warwick, I don’t know if it was the same for you, but a lot of people that I speak to that maybe want to ask some questions and they haven’t competed at an Olympic level or equivalent team sport or life, they kind of go along the lines of, I don’t know why you would be bothered, you got to do that, that’s great. Lucky you got to do it. And of course there’s a piece in there. Of course, we’re very fortunate. So, being around the right people that can understand-

Warwick F:

Who can understand.

Katie F:

… and amplifies.

Warwick F:

Like you spent your whole life trying to reach a goal. It’s a big deal. So as we close here, there’s a lot of folks listening. Not many of them will have been rowers or Olympic rowers, but there’ll have been through crucibles, and resilience seems like a pipe dream. They’re just tough to get out of bed every day. What would be a word of hope that you would give people that are struggling now? What’s a word of hope, would you say?

Katie F:

Yeah, I think the word that comes to mind is connection. And this is where I am drawing on my research, as well as my experience. But I really encourage, even if you use the word, looking through my lens and resources, but social connection, it’s almost like a vaccination, dare I use that word, for negative mental health. And so if you can connect with people and even if it’s a Zoom coffee or a walk, if you can. Be with others, that will help you connect with yourself as well.

Gary S:

All right. That is a wrap on part two of our series, Harnessing Resilience. If you thought our first couple of episodes were entertaining and insightful, you will not want to miss our next episode. Warwick and I interview distance runner, Heather Kampf. You will be amazed by how she harnessed resilience when she fell during a race. It was, this is not an overstatement, a miraculous effort that has been seen by tens of millions of people, thanks to a viral video. You’ll hear all about it on the next episode of Beyond the Crucible.

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