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I was used to making plans, setting goals, persisting … triumphing! I had won the world championships in whitewater slalom kayaking, and then the Olympic gold medal. With my wife Gilda, an Olympic paddler from Costa Rica, we traveled the rivers of the world before landing in Nottingham, England, where I was put in charge of the British Olympic whitewater team. It was high profile, high pressure, and we achieved. We won two medals in my first Olympics as coach, the most the country had won up to that point. I came back from the Games victorious, ready to do even better next time.
So, imagine my surprise when Gilda announced: “No more British winters for me! I’m moving to Hawaii. You are welcome to join me, but I am not staying here for another four years!”
“But honey, I have everything here: success, recognition, support, long-term prospects...”
“Good for you! But I can’t even legally work in the UK. Meanwhile, you’re traveling overseas 130 days of the year.”
“But, love, there is no whitewater in Hawaii. None. What are we going to do? I do not want to flip burgers!”
I ended up folding towels instead.
Once we got to Hawaii, I attempted to start my own business and wasn’t able to make ends meet. We had just had a baby, too, so the pressure was on. I remember it was getting close to Christmas when I finally had to give up on fancy ideas. I went to a temp agency, which booked me at a spa for the busy holiday season. It paid minimum wage. My coworker Kalani, fresh out of high school, did the exact same work as me but made more money because he was directly employed by the spa. I can still feel the desperation I felt back then, the shame and the bewilderment.
Those terrible feelings eventually led me to a Hawaiian teacher named Auntie Mahealani Henry, and a simple practice called Ho'oponopono Ke Ala, which translates to “Make the path that is right more right.” Auntie Mahealani insisted, “Nothing is wrong—all is in right place, right time, right being—what Hawaiians call pono.”
Unlike whitewater slalom, there was nothing about her instructions or the practice itself that was difficult. Nothing at all. “But,” I said, “what about the kid getting paid more? Me needing to support a baby? What about the bad people and bad events in the world?”
“Stop resisting what is,” she replied. “Blame, shame, resentment is all just drama, or pilikia! Completely useless. If you find yourself in pilikia, don’t take more than three seconds to let it go! Whatever seems to be going on does not mean anything bad about you nor for you!”
“Everything is pono—as it is—be grateful. Mahalo for what is going well already, for what is good and right.”
“Yes, all of that is exactly as it is. Accept it.”
At the time, all that seemed utterly impossible. But I was out of options. I thought of my own coach from age 15 to the Olympics, Helmut Handschuh, who had one overriding judgment: “The moment you lose your ability to learn, you lose your ability to succeed.” (As he was German, it would have sounded something like: “For success to achieve, learning able you must stay!”)
Handschuh was extremely good at evaluating athletes not so much by their performance but by their level of experimentation. I remember him looking at people I thought were great athletes, and he would shake his head and say, “No, they have stopped learning.” And he would be right. So, I looked at myself. Had I stopped learning?
One challenge with learning that I knew from my own days of coaching whitewater athletes—a place where many get stuck—is the emotional challenge that results from being confronted with not knowing. Being wrong and even being miserable is typically more comfortable than not knowing, which is why we have to learn to let go. In whitewater kayaking, that may mean literally dropping into something very scary in an entirely new way—and remaining open to that experience. Curiosity, I knew, can be more powerful and certainly more useful than fear. But could I drop into a world of gratitude for what is right, right now, when life sucked? I had no idea.
But I committed myself to finding what is right just now, whenever and wherever. Oxygen to breathe, a smile from the baby, a moment of calm, a sense of peace at sunrise, a bite of food. And I started to feel better—and better opportunities came my way. I didn’t make them happen the way I pursued the Olympics. Better and better things seemed to emerge through my experiences, and it directly correlated with how I felt.
I learned that my feelings are primary. And I do not need to experience something good to allow myself to feel good. When I choose to feel good, good experiences follow.
Oliver Fix and Gilda left Hawaii for Southern Oregon, where they helped paddle Grandma Aggie to the famed Story Chair at Ti’lomikh Falls (see our featured story “The Source of the Declaration of Independence”) and Oliver helped design the white-water slalom course that may be used for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. They currently live in Framingham, Massachusetts, where he is a Performance Coach and Achievement Consultant, and she is a consultant in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Oliver’s last article for S+H was “Winning When It Counts: The ‘Non-Competitive’ Practice of Continuous Learning.”
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