Back to Blog

How An Olympic Medalist Comes Back From Being Told He Was Done – Twice

Author

 

Paul Wylie circle

Surviving by the narrowest of margins has been a big part of Paul Wylie’s life and has ultimately led to his greatest successes.

He had never placed higher than 9th in three previous trips to the world championships, and people had begun to doubt his chances of even making the 1992 olympic figure skating team, much less finding his way onto the podium in  Albertville, France.

And then something happened to change his path a mere 35 days before the biggest competition of his life.

Twenty-three years later, Paul survived an even bigger challenge by the narrowest of margins – sudden cardiac arrest. Over 450 chest compressions and five minutes of CPR didn’t work. Paramedics and a defibrillator didn’t work. It took an injection and therapeutic hypothermia to revive him.

Paul Wylie in the hospital
In the hospital with his friend Billy Griggs, who performed CPR until the ambulance came.

Today, Paul combines a passion for high performance and wellness with a background in coaching and mentoring athletes and business leaders toward peak performance. He trains people all over the world to help them transform their productivity, fitness and overall health, instilling the benefits of physical movement, nutrition, positive psychology, perseverance, motivation, innovation and creativity.

Paul Wylie coaching young skaters

Beginning with his legendary 35-Day turnaround before the Olympics, his narrative underlines the key factors behind transformative Olympic performances that turned him from dark horse to silver medalist.  A survivor of sudden cardiac arrest, he also eloquently describes re-focusing on life’s greater purposes after being revived by two workout buddies performing CPR on him in 2015.

Paul previews his UX Fest talk in this podcast and recalls:

  • Being told he wasn’t good enough to be on the team much less compete for a medal at the 1992 winter olympic games
  • Being called “a very dangerous man” by the head coach of the Russian Olympic skating team
  • Ironically, as a lifelong ice skater, being freezing cold for days after being brought back to life

Come to UX Fest to meet Paul and hear his riveting message of resilience, hope, humor and health.

Register now

Listen to the show:

Show Notes:

Transcript

Heath: Our guest today is Paul Wylie. Paul, thanks for joining us.

Paul: Thank you.

Heath: We’re having you on the show today because you have agreed to join us for UX Fest, which I’m really excited about, on June 4. We want to talk a little bit about what you’re gonna be talking about there, but first, I’m gonna take a giant step back and talk a little bit about your background. Most people, I think, will know you from your Olympics, fair to say? Talk to me a little bit about-

Paul: Right. If they were even born then.

Heath: No. Hey, now. We’re basically the same age, I think. You’re a little older, but not a lot.

Paul: Yeah.

Heath: But tell me about that experience. What you learned from it, but how you even got started. When did you get started in that?

Paul: I started skating when I was three and a half years old. I mean, we did it as a family, actually. We lived in Texas at the time, in Dallas, and Dallas was kind of like the third world of figure skating at that point. We skated club sessions, and it was basically eight months a year, and I started to compete when I was nine, but we moved to Colorado when I was 11, and that kind of started the snowball rolling, and I started to train with one of the best coaches in the world. His environment was really very international, lots of amazing skaters. He had four Olympic champions, and so it’s that sort of “better caught than taught.”

 

In terms of an experience, I think that that got things going for me. Between ages 11 and 16, I was just going up the ranks of sort of the different levels, and became Junior World Champion when I was 16. Then it was a bit of a roller coaster between that time and when I made my first Olympic team when I was 23, and then the second one, which is where I won my medal, when I was 27. That was a lot of trial and error, and a difficult struggle to try to learn how to do the jumps, and at the same time, be an artistic skater, which I think is … That combining the aesthetic with the athletic, which is one of those things about skating that makes it great, but also really hard.

Heath: Was it the move to Colorado, that’s when you knew, “This is what I’m gonna do”?

Paul: You know, it all happened somewhat accidentally. My dad was transferred there, and I started to … I mean, I had no idea that I would be accepted into this program. Carlo Fassi, who was the coach there at the time, he’s this amazing coach, he had a lot of different skaters, and he took me on. Yeah. I think that just being a part of, even just watching the lunchtime freestyle sessions that some of these performers would be practicing, you’d see folks from England, and Japan, and all over the United States, Canada, champions from all over Europe training, and kind of one-upping each other, but it’s that sense of a hothouse for great talent and just watching what they were doing. It really helped me just to formulate where I wanted to go, and then you’re thinking, “Okay, well maybe I could make the Junior World Team.” Or, “Maybe I could make the world team, or the Olympic team someday.” Yeah. I think it, in a way, was an infection more than anything else.

Heath: Yeah. Surrounding yourself with great athletes who were pushing one another kind of pushes you.

Paul: Right. Exactly. I mean, in a way, that was the genius behind this rink in Colorado where we were all training, and I think Carlo knew that. He had judges also coming in all the time to look at your skating, so I mean, I was getting attention from international judges from the time I was 12 years old. People that would be like, “Okay. You might want to work on this, or that,” or they’d be excited, and I don’t know. I think it was a lucky and unusual experience to have at such a young age.

Heath: To say that I am not a skating expert or aficionado is a vast understatement, but I do fancy myself somewhat of a confirmed Olympaholic, so I’ll watch summer, winter, I don’t care about the event. I will admit that I struggle with watching curling, but other than that, I can watch just about anything. You mentioned the combining of the artistic with the athletic. Am I right? In your … I say “your prime,” although it feels like your prime lasted longer than most last these days, and maybe started a little later than others.

Paul: Yes.

Heath: But am I right in that your prime sort of coincided with the struggle between the two, but it seemed to become more about the athletic and less about the artistic? Is that right?

Paul: Yes. I think that’s true. I think that when we were … I would say the mid-70s to the early 80s, it was definitely the artistic. I mean, people would have to do two or three triple jumps in a program, you know? I think four triple jumps won the Olympics in 1980. Then after that, though, it started to be … You had to do the triple Lutz. Then in my years, you had to have the triple axel and the combination, and then people started to do the quads. I think that definitely there was a growing emphasis on the athletic, and that wasn’t necessarily my strength, although you have to develop something, and then you push towards a goal, and then all of a sudden you discover that, “Wow. I can do these harder jumps.” But it took me a lot longer to pull all of that together and to gain the confidence to actually do the performance where there was both the attention to the music, but also where I landed the jumps.

Once I did that, once I sort of overcame the obstacles at the Olympics in Albertville, 1992, then I went … I almost had reached a new plateau, and so I had a lot more confidence when I was competing and performing as a professional. Then the next six years, I had much more success in what I was doing, because I felt like, “Okay, I understand how I prepare the best, and how I’m going to set myself up for success in these experiences.”

Heath: Do you think it was more about the repetition, or about the mental repetition to get you over it? Because I mean, clearly you’re doing a lot of the physical repetition.

Paul: Well, I think that it’s hand and glove, really. I think that that was one thing that I didn’t understand. I had shorted maybe the mental aspect, and at one point, I sat down with a sports psychologist, and I was like, “I really am struggling seeing the repetition successfully mentally.” He said, “Well, that’s really important. We’ve got to get there.” I really focused on that, and then it was easier to do the physical repetitions. It’s interesting how you earn confidence by having the repetitions physically, and then we’ll do a run-through of our program, and depending on how that goes, I think you start to feel either better or worse about your skating. I mean, if you’re missing two and three jumps in practice, it’s not boding well for the competition. As you kind of get the elements together, if you can have successful run-throughs and repetitions, then it just feels so much easier, and you come to the competition with a lot more confidence.

Heath: You started 11 years old doing this for real, like seriously?

Paul: Yeah.

Heath: I wasn’t thinking even that young, when I was looking into your background. I mean, I know you from your postgraduate days.

Paul: Yeah.

Heath: When I look at your resume, I think, “Jeez, how did he manage Olympic-level skating load with Harvard undergrad, and then later in life, Harvard Business School?” But it goes back to 11. How did you balance the school, the training, the travel, in every step along the way?

Paul: Yeah. I mean, I think I was very fortunate to have a high school that bought into the idea that this was going to help me become fully actualized, you know? They were thinking about this as a good thing for me from the beginning, and so they enabled me to leave school. I mean, it was like the training day started about 2:00 in the afternoon, which was very helpful. I think it was more the travel part of it that became difficult, and definitely in college, because there was a lot of athletes and a lot of musicians, and people devoting time to clubs and other extracurricular activities in high school, and especially at Harvard, who are just completely over-committed, but they’re not necessarily leaving town for eight and 10 days at a time to go somewhere. I think that was the hard part.

I remember one competition, I was gone for 10 days, and I was in calculus, and I came back, and I was lost. Thank goodness there was a Westinghouse scholar that was right next to my room, and who actually really helped me out. I just kind of sat down with him. I mean, it was probably like two plus two for him, but anyway, I think the answer is that I don’t know that I ever struck the balance in college the way I wanted to, and you know what, I think that given the demands of that sort of world-level skating, it was almost impossible to have the best results that I was gonna get. Luckily I was graduated by the time I got to the Olympics in 1992, and then I was able to focus that energy.

I will say that the oscillation between skating and school really was a very positive flow for me on a regular basis, because I think you get to this certain point where you’re like, “Okay. I gotta get out and do something.” And then, “Wow. I really have something to do right now.” Then just as I was getting exhausted from that, it would be flipping back to school. I think the hard part for me was that there was always this transition time that was really long, because I would be commuting, and I was jealous of the athletes that were just walking across the Charles River to the gym, you know?

Heath: Yeah. I always found that for me, I made better grades in season, because I was forced to be organized and have my shit together.

Paul: Yeah.

Heath: I’d say that fell apart a little bit in college when traveling for weekday baseball games locally within the state, but still traveling. As a freshman, it was like, “Cool. I get to miss class.” As a sophomore, it was like, “Oh. I have to miss class.”

Paul: Yes.

Heath: It became a little difficult and more a job than I had expected, I think, at that age, but I think there’s definitely a balance between pushing you to be organized and efficient, and becoming a barrier to success. Although again, back to the mental, it can be in how you approach that challenge to overcome it. You can either let it be an excuse to not perform on both the athletic and the academic, or you can say, “Well, no. I’m gonna figure out how to rise above this and excel at both.”

Paul: Right. Yeah, and I-

Heath: Which is a lot for someone that’s college-aged.

Paul: Yeah. I agree with that totally, and I think that there were only a couple of real dead-end moments for me, one of which happened the year before the Olympics at the World Championship, and it was … I was trying to cram everything into my last semester in college, and I decided to take a midterm that I really didn’t even need to take before I left for the World Championships, and so I stayed up late studying for it, took the midterm, and then rushed around and got myself over to Munich, Germany to compete, and it was two days before I was to get there, while my competitors were, they were there five days before, or six days before, getting used to the jet lag and all of that stuff. I had a pretty miserable performance, and it almost ended my career.

It was kind of like, I think I made some decisions that were based on expedience, that were probably unwise, but again, you do what you can in that moment, and you think, “I’ve gotta get through this, and I’m almost done.” But what I didn’t really calculate was, “What happens if I really blow the Worlds the year before the Olympics?” Anyway-

Heath: Yeah. I remember, that reminds me of … You mentioned the jet lag. With the whole release of “I, Tonya”, which I’m sure you’re probably sick of, I remember listening to … I don’t remember if it was a movie critic, or I think it was more than that. It was someone who knew the skating world, and the impression I get is that the movie, the more you learn about it, the more you start to feel a little bit of sympathy for Tonya Harding. This woman was basically saying, “Look, don’t shed any tears here. She made her own way by making some mistakes.” She brought up- this is where it gets back to jet lag- the fact that for her first Olympics, she shows up like a day or two maybe before her first performance.

Paul: Yeah. It was-

Heath: Whereas all the rest of the athletes were there many more days before.

Paul: Yeah.

Heath: That’s an aspect, an important aspect of that you can’t just push aside.

Paul: Right. No, that was in Albertville, France in ’92, and she flew over at the last minute-

Heath: And you know that Olympiad.

Paul: Yeah. She proclaimed to everyone, “I don’t struggle with jet lag.” It was like, “You know …” By that point, I had figured out that, yes, jet lag was real, and I struggled with it, and so I got there early, and luckily I learned my lesson, but yeah. Fascinating.

Heath: “I do not follow biology or the tenants of circadian rhythms.”

Paul: Right, exactly. You know, the thing is that you show up, and you have to rotate in the air, and so dizziness is one of those symptoms of being jet lagged, and you’re not having your haptic sense in that. It really is, I think it does affect figure skaters a lot when they’re jet lagged, and so they have to have a good strategy for it.

Heath: Yeah. I didn’t even talk about that. I’ll go lightly on this part of it, because we’re obviously gonna talk more about this at UX Fest, but you were a heavy favorite going into Albertville, right?

Paul: No. Not at all.

Heath: I’m just kidding. I think if I could say a general theme, it’s really a general theme for UX Fest, but certainly as it relates specifically to your talk, which is this notion of, “Experiences shape a lot of who we are and how we approach our work, our home, our life,” et cetera, and obviously one of the two experiences that you’re going to talk about is your Olympic experience, and you went into it being told by anyone that cared to voice their opinion that you maybe shouldn’t even be going, let alone had a shot. Am I right?

Paul: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I was the dark horse. There was almost a sense of incredulity or anger even that I was even trying. Why did I bother? Again, coming back to that disastrous performance at the Worlds the year before, and the fact that I kept making mistakes at Worlds in the short program, “Why not send somebody who’s gonna do something with this shot that they’ve been given?” Luckily for me, one-tenth of a point was a suitable margin.

Heath: Yeah.

Paul: I think that they deliberated for an hour, and they decided to split the assignment. What they usually do is they send the same people to the Worlds and to the Olympics, so they decided to send me to the Olympics, and then my competitor to the Worlds. At any rate, I had a very short window, and I had a real fork in the road to … I had to decide, I mean, in terms of that, what was I going to make out of the next 35 days? How was I going to deal with this goal that had been a goal for my entire life? Was I going to just kind of rest on the fact that I had made the team, knowing that I would be a two-time Olympian, which is pretty good? Or was there a possibility to make changes that would actually really impact my performance, and maybe shoot for a higher goal than just showing up?

Heath: How much time is there between, “Congratulations. You’ve made the team,” and, “Next up on the ice, from the United States of America-“

Paul: Yeah. It’s 35 days, about, you know? You’re really talking enough time to get home, make a few tweaks … I can remember between the Nationals and Olympics in ’88, I was inundated with press, and there was all sorts of stuff to do in between, because they hadn’t expected me to make that team either, and so there’s a lot of busyness that goes on in between, so it’s not exactly … For some athletes, they really struggle to be productive in between, but I knew having experienced that before, that I needed to make certain things happen if I was gonna improve my placement. It was more personal than anything else. I just wanted to leave the sport happily, having had a great experience, and I started to skate well enough during the training that my coach took me aside and said, “Hey, how do you think you’re gonna do at this Olympics?” I said, “Huh. I don’t know. I feel like I’m skating well. I could maybe even make the top five.” That was the reach, stretch, crazy out there goal, and he said, “Top five?” He’s like, “You could win.” I was like, “Right.” I was like, “Well, clearly Evy’s gone crazy.”

Heath: Well, that could either embolden you or freak you out, one way or the other.

Paul: Right. Well, and you know, it’s funny, because I’m there at the Olympics, and yeah, I noticed that I was skating well compared to the other Americans, and this famous Russian coach, he comes up to me and he says, “You’re a very dangerous man.” I was like, “That’s interesting.”

Heath: “Thank you.”

Paul: Alexei Mishin. Alexei Mishin, who’s coaching Alexei Urmanov here, and he went on to become the ’94 Olympic Gold Medalist, is calling me dangerous, and it’s like, “I don’t get it.” I mean, I analyzed that conversation many times. Whether he was trying to psych me out, I don’t think so. They have a lot of inter-squad competition between … I mean, it would have been the Former Soviet Union even then, so but it was the unified team at that point, but so I’m sure that he wanted me very badly to beat Viktor Petrenko.

Heath: That’s interesting. I would have thought for sure he was trying to play with you, but you don’t think so?

Paul: Well, maybe he was, you know? He could have had it both ways, you know?

Heath: Yeah.

Paul: The truth is, I took it as a, “Wow. I’m dangerous. Yeah. That’s awesome.”

Heath: They do seem, even to this day, to thrive on internal competition, especially if you just consider the women this year, right? I mean-

Paul: Oh my word. Yes. I mean, they wouldn’t even look at each other in the press conference. It was almost … I felt a little bit bad for Medvedeva, because here she had a little injury, and then all of a sudden the upstart in the rink who’s 15, Alina Zagitova comes along and says, “You know what? It’s my turn.” They couldn’t even look at each other in the press conferences, but there was a sense of offense, actually, that Medvedeva gave off to this young upstart, but anyway, I think that’s just part … That is part of the way that they handle it.

Paul: I mean, hey, skating is a very competitive sport, and everybody takes their turn, so it’s not like we’re tennis players who are in a five-hour, five-set match. We’re taking our turn and then the judges decide, but there’s always that sense of, “Okay. I think I’m better than you, and I’m gonna show that.”

Heath: Well, and the mental side is what amazes me, too, because just hearing you say, “The 15-year-old.”

Paul: Yeah.

Heath: You were, what, 27?

Paul: Right. Right.

Heath: It amazes me, and it always seems to be even more out there in the open when the Olympics roll around, at the age of these international athletes that are dealing with what they’re dealing with. Maybe ignorance is bliss, but I doubt it. I’m just amazed at how they can handle all of that, but they clearly do.

Paul: Yes. Yeah.

Heath: We won’t go any further into sort of how … To me, that sets it up for me, is, “Okay. You’ve been told you’re on the team. There is pretty significant either backlash or people who are aghast, or just wondering and scratching their head, ‘How could that be?’ And you’ve now got 35 some odd days to figure out, ‘Okay. How do I make something of this.'” Right?

Paul: Yeah. Right. Yes.

Heath: The other thing that you’ll talk about, this other significant life experience, I think it’s safe to say, and something that perhaps fewer people might associate with you, and that is your run-in with a little thing called sudden cardiac arrest.

Paul: Yeah. Yup.

Heath: When did that happen?

Paul: It’s almost three years ago to the day. It was in April of 2015, and I was training for the stage run, and it was really not far into my training at all. I had done this stage run one other time, and it’s called the Blue Ridge Relay. I decided to go and dare myself to show up at the running workout, amongst these workouts that we have here in Charlotte called F3, which stands for Fitness, Faith, and Fellowship. It’s a little bit like your October, or is it November Project?

Heath: November Project. Yup.

Paul: November Project. Right. Anyway, I got out there. It was 5:15 in the morning, and the guy who’s the running guru is running the workout, and he’s like, “You know, someone’s gonna puke in our workout today. I have a feeling.” That was sort of the beginning. Of course, I don’t remember any of this.

Heath: You decided to one-up him. Puking is not enough.

Paul: Right. “I’ll show you.” I don’t know what I decided, because I don’t remember anything. I could tell you what the workout is, or was, based on what people have told me, but we basically did a timed mile, and a series of sprints. We started with the 200 sprints, and then 400 sprints, then 600 sprints. It was those that I did not make it through. That experience, which I’m not going to go all the way into right now, was absolutely life-changing, as you can imagine, because of the way that it forced me to think about, “What’s my life about? What is the purpose of me being here?” That’s a giant question.

Heath: Yeah. That’s a big question.

Paul: A lot of people struggle with depression after they come out from sudden cardiac arrest.

Heath: Really?

Paul: Yeah. It’s true. I mean, I know. You’d think that this would be the best thing ever.

Heath: I know.

Paul: But I think that … I don’t know why it is, but my hunch is that people … When you’re that close to death, then it kind of makes life seem in a way like the life and death line has already been crossed, so there’s a sense of, “Wow. What is life?” I think that that causes this series of questions around … I mean, it’s sort of the ultimate mid-life crisis.

Heath: It’s overwhelming to them, I guess.

Paul: Yeah. Right? I mean, it becomes this giant mid-life crisis around, “Wow. I haven’t …” Not just, “I haven’t done what I wanted to do, or hoped I would do,” but, “I’ve really gotten to the point where that was it.” Anyway, luckily I feel like I had a fortunate experience coming out of it, and I feel like the experience deepened my sense of purpose and gratitude for living.

Heath: I can imagine. Well, I can’t imagine, but I would imagine. Obviously there were a ton of things I thought about when I was reading up on this experience, and when I saw the picture of you with one of your running buddies, and you’re in the hospital gown, and standing there the next … Well, actually, it wasn’t. It was the next morning? It was a couple days, wasn’t it?

Paul: No. I mean, I was standing there, it was probably five or six days later, but I’ve got that big welt over my eye, right?

Heath: Right. That’s what I was gonna get at. It looked like somebody punched you in the face or something.

Paul: Yeah.

Heath: I immediately thought, “How sore must you have been from that?”

Paul: Well, it was-

Heath: Because you’re not a terribly large guy. I can say that, because I’m not on the tall side, either. I gotta figure, I have fortunately not had the need to try out my aging CPR skills, but if someone … If you’re giving CPR to someone, you’re probably beating the shit out of them, trying to-

Paul: Right.

Heath: Part of it is because you’re freaking out, and part of it is like, “Come on. Come on.”

Paul: Right.

Heath: That’s a lot of chest compressions on someone of your size, from someone of his size.

Paul: Yeah. There were broken bones for sure in my ribs, and it was very painful to breathe. I can remember there was one test that I had to go in for, and they made me hold my breath, and it was painful to do that. That was almost the scariest thing, because it was so painful to do that. You know what? It’s funny how you don’t remember those things, right? Now I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t remember anything.”

Heath: Well, you know, you’re happy to feel pain-

Paul: Right. Yup. I remember feeling-

Heath: … because the alternative-

Paul: Yes. Right. I remember being freezing, because what they do after you have cardiac arrest and you’ve been out a certain amount of time, is they do this thing called therapeutic hypothermia, where they put you … They were a “code cool,” is what they also call it. They put ice packs on you, and cool your core body temperature down to about 90 degrees, and put you in a coma, because I guess they learned from studying people who had fallen in the ice after a CA, that they fared better. This became sort of a protocol that they do at the top hospitals. Coming out of that, I mean, it was hard to be warm for days.

Heath: Interesting.

Paul: I remember that was the biggest thing, was it was just like, “Oh my gosh. It is freezing.” As a skater, you get used to this, right?

Heath: Yeah. I would imagine that the core temperature drop is a strategy to decrease the oxygen requirements on the brain, but what the heck do I know?

Paul: Yeah. I don’t know what it does, but I think it enables things to sort of settle down, is how they told me. It sure gets your attention, though.

Heath: Yeah. I would have never … It wouldn’t occur to me that it took so long to return the core temperature.

Paul: Yeah.

Heath: But you are talking about the core, and you’re probably talking about everything from the temperature of the blood to organs and everything, so it makes sense.

Paul: Yeah.

Heath: All right, well-

Paul: Maybe it felt like it was longer than it was, but I just felt freezing for a while.

Heath: Yeah.

Paul: Which is why I didn’t think about my ribs, or my head, or anything else that hurt.

Heath: Yeah. You had enough to think about.

Paul: Yeah.

Heath: All right. Well, I guess sort of happy anniversary. Three years. That’s pretty impressive, to say the least.

Paul: Yeah. Oh, no. I’m very happy.

Heath: Excited to have you at UX Fest, and-

Paul: I am, too. I can’t wait.

Heath: … thanks for taking the time to speak with us today.

Paul: I’m really excited to … You know what, I’m excited that I go first, and then that I get to … I’m done, and I get to listen to everybody.

Heath: Yeah.

Paul: I am fascinated to hear what everyone has to say, and it’s funny, ever since I put down that my AirPods were my favorite user experience, sometimes they aren’t, like today.

Heath: That’s right. You shouldn’t have said that. Yeah. I have fun hearing what people say for that. You get some interesting, an interesting mix of products.

Paul: Yeah.

Heath: You know, lipstick, to technology, to things that help us get around during the day. I’ve even learned to try out a few products based on those recommendations. Cool. All right.

Paul: Awesome. Thank you.

Heath: Well, thanks so much.

Author Heath Umbach

Heath is an avid cyclist and runner who brings athletic rigor to everything he touches. With over 15 years of experience building and marketing digital products, he has a deep passion for solving our clients’ greatest challenges.

More posts from this author

Sign up to receive updates from our blog

What we do Expertise

From concept to design, we'll partner with your team to deliver amazing product and website experiences.

Recent Projects Work

See the results of our most recent digital product and website engagements.