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How I Blew Out My Knee and Came Back to Win a National Championship

Jason Shen
Jason Shen
24 min read
How I Blew Out My Knee and Came Back to Win a National Championship

On January 19th, 2007, while competing for Stanford Men’s Gymnastics at the UC Berkeley, I suffered a total knee dislocation while performing a double-twisting Yurchenko. My ACL, PCL, MCL, LCL and meniscus were instantly torn. It hurt a lot.

I underwent multiple surgeries, required the use of crutches for months and spent a couple hundred hour in physical therapy. One year later, I was back in the arena as an active competitor. In my final season, I was elected a team captain and helped lead our team to win the 2009 NCAA Team Championship – our first victory in over 14 years.

It was at once the worst thing, and the best thing to ever happen to me. The permanent damage has kept me from enjoying many normal physical activities – but the experience overall has helped me develop an inner strength that cannot be measured.

This story is for every anyone (athlete or not) who’s struggled with an injury – yeah it sucks big time, but do ALL your physical therapy and be unreasonably optimistic. Things can and will get better.

1. You gotta start young

Hanging out with some of my gymnastics summer campers.

You really need to start doing gymnastics at a young age in order to train your body and your mind properly so I’m glad I started classes early. I was about six years old.

My mom is a gymnastics coach so I was in the gym all the time, but she didn’t want me involved in the sport at first. Her training in China was grueling and tough – she didn’t want such a hard life for her only son. Before my injury I would laugh when she expressed this sentiment. Here in America, we do sports for fun!

Now I just nod and say “it was worth it”.

I sucked as a kid and in the off chance I placed at a meet, it was 5th or 6th. But I loved it and worked it. When I turned 10, something happened and I started improving a lot faster. I jumped a level, and participated in the Future Stars program, which was created by USA Gymnastics to identify young talent.

I ended up earning a place on the “Junior Development Team” which meant I got to go to a camp in Colorado Springs. I trained with other “Future Stars” like Jonathan Horton (2008 Beijing Olympic team member) and got to see how US National team members trained. It was at this time that I realized “Man, not only is gymnastics a lot of fun, but I could actually become really good someday!”

On a side note – if you can provide children opportunities to legitimately experience that feeling, you are doing them a huge favor.

Of course it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

2. Getting hurt isn’t necessarily a bad thing

I think injuries are a healthy part of participation in sports. I think it’s important for kids to suffer some kind of minor injury when they are young. Break arm, twist an ankle, sprain a shoulder. Kids recover quickly and it teaches them about enduring pain, understanding safety and valuing their health and mobility.

Gymnastics is a sport that lends itself to injury. You are engaged in a ton of flipping and twisting and putting your body into positions that are quite unnatural. (This gymnastics blooper reel is illustrative of what can go wrong). You make sure to take as many precautions as you can and prepare yourself physically and mentally as much as possible – but at some point, you’ve just got to freaking go for it.

Over 16 years of gymnastics, I’ve personally:

  • broken an ankle
  • dislocated multiple fingers
  • landed directly on my neck multiple times (including after a botched one-and-a-half flipping dismount off the high bar)
  • straddled the parallel bars right onto my you-know-whats
  • split my forehead skin open with my shin (got a Harry Potter-esque scar out of it!)
  • endured countless bruises, scrapes, blisters and rips

I think gymnasts have a very special relationship with pain because we experience such a high amount of it on a day to day basis.

For example, I knew guys that would pop 4-6 ibuprofen pills *everyday* just to manage normal training pain. My shins looked like a battlefield from all the times I had smashed them into the wood on the pommel. It was not uncommon for me to step into the shower and wince at some part of my body that I had scraped during practice and was not even aware of until it started burning from the water. (“Oh! I guess I must have scraped myself over there).

But all of that was just a warmup for what was to come.

3. The year of the double twisting Yurchenko

When I was preparing to graduate high school, a teammate gave me a clock that counted down to 2008. It was to remind me of the time left until the next Olympics – which was a goal of mine. I had done fairly well my freshman year and had even reached a number 9 ranking in the all-around at one point for the entire NCAA. Pretty cool. Sophomore year was also a good year – I had gotten stronger, more consistent and learned some new skills. But I was worried about plateauing. I needed to take it to the next level.

Junior year was supposed to be my blow out year. Well … I certainy blew out something.

The summer between my sophomore and junior year I was training a new vault. For several years, I had been competing a Yurchenko 1.5 Twist (this is a round off onto the board, back handspring onto the horse into about one and a half flips … with one and a half twists). Something clicked that summer and after a lot of drills and a lot of false starts, I was finally able to add another half twist – making it a Double Twisting Yurchenko.

This was a big deal to me because I’ve never been considered an “explosive” athlete and I felt like I had made a breakthrough. This was one of the many signs for me that 2007 would be a big year for me and I was excited to compete the Yurchenko.

Little did I know I’d only do it twice in competition, ever.

4. “Felt good in warmups – I should be fine”

I remember being annoyed because my coach wouldn’t let me spike my hair into a faux-hawk. He thought it looked unprofessional – but of course I thought I looked stupid with my hair down and ungelled. You can see my hair in this video of my pommel horse routine (the vaulting horse is in the background).

Warm ups went fine. I think I completed one double twisting Yurchenko and it felt alright. Not great but good enough.

The thing about vault is that you typically train onto lower and softer landing surfaces than the actual competition. We practice our vaults on mats that are stacked on a big soft “resi-pit” or “whale mat” as we sometimes called it. We’d try to made the landing harder when doing mock-competitions, but it is still worlds away from having two 8-inch mats ontop of basketball floor as your landing surface.

This was our first official meet of the season and I wanted to perform well and of course BEAT CAL. (Incidentally, the Cal team has always been a bunch of outstanding guys – very cool people who are fun to hang out with outside of the competition floor).

Pommels came first, then floor then vault. I remember feeling the sweat evaporating off my hands. Unlike on other events, pre-meet jitters were a good thing for vault – they gave you the additional oomph you needed to go big.

The moment comes. I salute the judge.

The run down the runway felt fine. It was only after the round off and punch did I feel a little concerned. My “block” off the horse wasn’t as strong as I would have liked. I remember thinking “Ooh, this one is going to be a little rough on the landing”.

There was never any question in the air about finishing the skill though. Gymnasts are taught early on to never “balk” on a skill, especially if it’s in a meet. You’re more likely to be injured if you freak out in the middle than if you stay with a skill even if you’re not feeling great about it. No backing out – I was all in.

And like in poker, sometimes going all in doesn’t work out for the best.

5. And here comes the snap

Not everyone feels comfortable watching the video. I’ve watched it at least 50 times at this point but it’s still pretty intense.

It happened really fast. I landed and my left knee gave in. It simply collapsed. I instantly start screaming at the top of my lungs from the massive pain that came on instantly. When I ran out of breath, I inhaled quickly and let loose another gut-wrenching scream.

The pain dialed back from 11 to like an 8. After dispelling all that air, I was able to get a bit of handle on myself, and just rolled around on the mat swearing. Coaches and trainers from both my team and the Cal team come rushing over. I grab a hold of the Cal team trainer’s meaty hand and act like I’m trying to crush it like putty. I knew then that my season was probably over.

As noted earlier, I’ve dislocated several fingers. Your joint feels really tight when it’s dislocated – and while painful, popping the joint back into place feels much better (for obvious, anatomical reasons). I remember wanting to kick my leg straight to “relocate” my knee, but then also thinking this would probably be a bad idea. What ended up happening was since everything was torn, my knee kind of just sagged back into place since nothing was really holding it together besides my hamstring, my patellar tendon and some skin.

Eventually, I hobble off on a pair of crutches, my knee wrapped in tons of ice bags. I make a point of staying to watch the rest of the meet and even eating pizza with the guys before going home. It turned out my vault score still beat every one of the Cal guys who all fall / botch their landings (though without the horrific injuries to boot).

6. Going under

You usually feel pretty lousy after surgery. The best part is that you get breakfast, lunch AND dinner in bed. The worst part is struggling to accurately pee into a container.

You usually feel pretty lousy after surgery. The best part is that you get breakfast, lunch AND dinner in bed. The worst part is struggling to accurately pee into a container.

Our team physician, Dr. Garza, was typically the jokester. While a busy man, he always has time to make fun of your haircut or your non-rigorous major. So when he walked in with a somber look, I knew things were bad.
“We’re going to have to do two different surgeries to repair your knee. There has been major damage to all four ligaments. You see all this dark space here? That’s where your ligaments are supposed to be. Instead there’s nothing.”

Of course the clincher: “We’ll likely need multiple surgeries to repair the damage. You should seriously consider if you want to be doing gymnastics when this is over.

Sometimes people ask if I regret doing gymnastics, or regret learning the double-twisting Yurchenko. My answer of course is never. I knew my injury was a fluke – my coach had done his best to prepare me but sometimes things just happen. I had worked hard to prepare myself and sure, having stronger leg muscles could have helped – but I blame no one for what happened. My focus was not on the past, but on the future.

For whatever reason – am overly optimistic, read too many comeback stories, thought Dr. Garza was talking about worst-case scenarios – I never seriously doubted that I would come back to gymnastics. It felt like life had just bashed me in the face: all I wanted to do was spit my bloody tooth out and say, “That the best you got? Watch this.” To be honest, the millions of little inconveniences was the worst part of the injury – never the big stuff.

Going into surgery is kind of scary. The worst part is the waiting. You get there super early in the morning (or at least I did because they wanted to do my surgeries first), change into that stupid gown and just lie there forever. It’s chilly, you’re sleep deprived, hungry and pretty much alone.

Eventually the anesthesiologist comes over, sets up your IV, and starts you off with some “warmup” stuff. It feels funky going into your bloodstream and your body starts to feel a little tingly. As everyone finally gets ready, they wheel your gurney over to the operating room. You’re feeling decently woozy at this point but you still recognize your surgeon, even with his mask on. He says some nondescript upbeat words to you and goes back to preparing. You’re moved off the gurney and onto the operating table.

For a brief moment, you are just lying there, listening to all the beeping noises, watching all kinds of surgical assistants buzz around you. Then the anethesiologist adds something to your drip and your head starts to feel heavy.

It’s hard not to make comparisons between going under for an operation, and death. I knew that I had a very high likelihood of coming out fine on the other side, but there’s always that nagging concern in the back of your mind. I always tried to make the most of those final moments and ask myself: “If I never woke up from this, can I be satisfied with what I’ve accomplished? Have I made the world a better place? Will my friends and family know that I cared about them and tried to do right by them?”

Fortunately (or perhaps, through deliberate decisions I’ve made on how to live), the answers to those questions was always “Yes.” But there was never much time to ponder as an oxygen mask would soon come over my mouth and I’d breathe in its cold, weird-tasting air. By the second breath I’d be out.

When I woke up, the real work would begin.

7. Try to make me go to rehab

My 21st birthday. Got quite inebriated and still managed to make it all the way home and up a flight of stairs on crutches without stumbling even once.

I ended up having three knee surgeries just from the knee dislocation:

I had a great knee surgeon (professional soccer players would ask for him by name) but anyone who’s had surgery knows that physical therapy makes an ENORMOUS difference in your recovery. I was lucky enough to have an amazing physical therapist, Melissa was knowledgeable, compassionate and tough. I worked with her 3x a week for 90-120 mins at a time, for over 2 years – and it made a big difference in my outcome.

It’s amazing how fast your leg muscles atrophy after you stop walking. At first, I couldn’t even fire the quad muscle – so my sessions would focus on leg raises and using electrical stimulation to force muscle contractions. I pushed myself HARD and more often then not, would break a sweat with all the physical exertion. Melissa put me through a vast battery of exercises, from manual resistance to elastic band work to light weight resistance. And always TONS of icing.

SIDE NOTE: Being on crutches sucks – they are awkward and slow you down big time. I hated the limitations they placed on my day to day life and this intense hatred manifested in my becoming pretty much the fastest guy you’ve ever met on crutches. I modified my I could run short distances on crutches, crutch up stairs faster than most people walk stairs – I even crutched over 5 miles in a 24 hr period doing Relay for Life. (This turned out to be a bad idea and led to an infection and eventually a third surgery where they cleaned out my knee. But my point remains – I’m a very competent crutcher.)

At a young age, gymnasts are taught to visualize – to help them learn new skills and prepare themselves for competition. This technique has been shown to be almost as effective as actually training the skill because it drives cortical output signals which causes stronger muscle activation levels.

Knowing this, I visualized myself doing routine on every event, every day. Not just my old sets either, but the routines I wanted to do when I returned to competition – which included skills I had never even done before. Each day I would rehearse a mental meet in my head and feel myself performing new skills in sequences and in routines – at least twice all the way through.

Slowly but surely I made progress. With the help from Melissa, my family, my girlfriend Olivia (who went above & beyond the call of duty) and my teammates, I began to get better. I started walking. Then leg pressing. Then light jogging. Then jumping and landing. Eight months later, it looked like I might return to the gymnastics floor…

8. Back in the game

Snapped by a Stanford Daily photographer. My parents were so proud to see me in the paper =)

During the whole rehab process, I made sure to go into the gym everyday – even on days when I had two or more hours of physical therapy. I did as much strength conditioning as I could – pushups, pullups, weights when possible and lots of core (back, abs and obliques). I also spent time coaching the young guys, acting as a second pair of eyes. Why do all this? Simple:

1) I didn’t want my teammates thinking I was giving up, or even slacking just because I got hurt.
2) I didn’t want to get fat and out of shape.

This set up me up well when I was finally ready to start training again. First event to come back was the pommel horse. We’d slide big soft mats in every time I went and I had to either come off the horse in a controlled manner, or force myself to land on my back or stomach. I was able to get a lot of my skills back pretty quickly and my first meet post injury was exactly one year later – returning to the UC Berkeley arena to do pommels.

Eventually I started doing parallel bars again too, which was always my strongest event. Landings were scary but continued to do lots of leg conditioning to strengthen my knees. That season we had ranked number one in the preseason and held that number one ranking for the majority of the year. We trained very hard. We were very excited because the past two seasons we had gotten 3rd and we felt like this year we were going to make it all the way. In addition, NCAA Championships were to be held at Stanford University.

Winning was at the top of everyone’s minds. After every routine, after every meet, more often than not, someone would comment about NCAAs. “Make sure you stick it at NCAAs.”  “You better catch that release in Finals.” We were all very aware whatever happened during the season, we would have to nail it in finals to win the title.

As you might guess, this isn’t necessary the best approach to take.

9. Big men on campus

April of 2008: it was the beginning of Spring Quarter at Stanford. The weather was warming up, seniors were cruising towards their diplomas, girls were out in their skirts and sundresses – it was a wonderful time. Excitement was in the air. Every teammate had been cajoling their friends to come to NCAAs – which were held at Maples Pavillion – the arena where the Stanford Men’s Basketball team plays. We were going prime-time!

Stanford alumni from many class years had flown in to watch this meet. This WAS the year that Stanford would reclaim the championship. Since the glory years (’92, ’93, ’95) Stanford Men’s Gymnastics had come up empty handed and wasn’t really even close to winning at all until recently. Our class of five guys were very proud of ourselves – we came in, changed the game and were going to close the deal, right here on our home turf, and graduate as ultimate champions.

SIDE NOTE: In a typical meet, each team will have six guys doing routines on each event and get to “count” the score of four routines (the other two are discarded). The competition order is arranged in ascending order so that the guy who typically scores the highest goes last. However, the first person who goes first has a big responsibility to set the tone for the event. When a team nails the first routine in their line up – everyone else is emboldened to hit their sets too. I believe clutch performances build on each other (as do chokes).

The preliminaries on Day One went great. I was chosen to be the lead off guy on parallel bars. I nail it big time. The rest of the parallel bar line up does great. We take that momentum into the rest of the competition and eventually win our session. You can see my routine in the video above – one of my best performances ever.

Unfortunately it wouldn’t be enough.

10. Forty-five hundredths of a point

(A fan’s highlight of the competition. The last 10 seconds really shows how amped up the arena was. We could taste that victory!)

We won our session in Day 1 of NCAA’s by 4.55 points – a wide margin. But it was “New Life” scoring and tomorrow was a whole new meet. Day 2 would decide it all.

In mentally preparing myself for Day 2,I spent a lot of time saying- “Don’t do anything different. Just do it exactly as you did yesterday.” This is, in hindsight, terrible self talk. I had been having some issues with my Diamodov (which is the 2nd move in my routine, the one where I’m out on one arm) and you can see that it was a little bit off on the first day.

Again we started on the parallel bars and again I was first up. Instead of being aggressive and going for it on Day 2, I tried too hard to replicate the past. On my Diamodov, I was a little too far out on one arm. I couldn’t pull it back and ultimately fell off the bars.

Instant one point deduction.

Needless to say, this was not the start we were looking for. I was frustrated with myself, but tried not to let it show – instead, focusing on cheering for our next guy. The team performed decently throughout the rest of the meet, but there were a few more uncharacteristic falls by some of our best athletes (you can see one of them toward the beginning of the youtube video). We just weren’t getting after it.

We ended on vault – a very high scoring event. Our biggest opponent – Oklahoma – was on the rings – which is also a strong event for them. Oklahoma is in the lead, but we think we can catch them. We post a solid final score: 362.750 that puts us at the top of the leaderboard (again, watch the end of the video to see how exciting this all was).

The only thing left to do was to sit and wait as Oklahoma finished up their ring routines. Slowly their final score crept up – still, we held on to the lead. We watch in silence as Jonathan Horton (the same one I mentioned earlier) closed the meet with a killer ring routine.

The score was announced: 16.1 – the highest scoring ring routine of the entire meet. The leaderboard flickers and BAM – the names swap. The final score:

  • Oklahoma: 363.200
  • Stanford: 362.750

It was a surreal moment.

We walked in the number one ranked team in the nation to the biggest, loudest, most supportive crowd most of us have ever, or will ever, face. We walked out devastated, having forfeited the NCAA title for lack of 0.45 pts.

But it was in this moment of pain that we forged the strength to finally take the title.

11. Channeling the pain

When you’re going for gold, getting silver really does feel like being the first loser.

I kept this picture of me in a Diamodov mid-fall above my desk for an entire year to remind myself of what I owed my teammates.

Waiting in the backroom in preparation for the award ceremonies with my team was probably the most depressing thing I’ve ever done. Some guys were walking around, muttering underneath their breath, others sat on the floor with their knees against their chest. It was hard to make eye contact with anyone.

It was especially hard for me because I felt like I had screwed it up.

In my mind, my fall didn’t just cost our team a precious few tenths of a point, it actually set us on the trajectory towards failure. I got thrown off my game and it threw my team off theirs. And that sucked.

But pain of this loss was not all a bad thing. After the award ceremony we got into a team huddle and someone, I think it was David Sender (a captain and a World Championship team member) spoke to us as a group and said something like:

“You all feel like shit right now? Yeah, you should. We didn’t deliver and we got beat. We let Oklahoma take it from us. I’m done here – it’s over for me. But I want all of you to remember this feeling. Remember how terrible this feels and make sure that when you go back next season, to never forget the pain you’re feeling now. Keep it. Use it.”

And we would.

12. Culture change is hard

VIDEO: The promo video I made for the beginning of the season: “Call on Cardinal”

Our team captains are selected by a vote of the team and approval by our coach. I was honored to be selected as one of the captains for my fifth and final season, along with Bryant Hadden and Sho Nakamori. During the Spring of 2008 I remember meeting a few times to talk about how we could shape our team’s culture to prepare for success.

Post NCAA’s it seemed like our team had lost their spirit. Guys weren’t working that hard and sometimes cut out early from practice. It just felt weak. I think psychologically, we were trying to protect ourselves from the pain of defeat by sandbagging ourselves. “If we tried so hard last time and had everything going for us but we still lost, then why try? That was our one and only chance.”

So as captains, we decided to take off the focus on NCAAs.

Our motto going forward, we decided, was all about training and competing to our potential. I remember Bryant saying – “We’ve got incredible talent on this team. We’ve got what it takes to blow the rest of the country away – but only if we compete to our potential. And that’s what we’ll focus on doing, each and every day.”

Remembering the pain was still important – but it was there to drive us to do our best each and every turn – instead of “saving it” for the one big meet.

It sounded like a good plan, but could we make a change in the culture?

13. A slow start

hIDEO: One of my final parallel bar performances ever. I added a number of new skills. Wish I had stuck the dismount! =P

Summer was slow. Several people did internships while training, others (including myself) spent some time traveling or otherwise out of the gym. But once September rolled around, we put our plan into action. We started changing the language in the gym:

  • “Ryan, I know your Diamodov is better than that. Show me one that kicks ass.”
  • “Hey Josh, you need to get a stronger block off the horse. I know you know how.”

In conjunction with this focus on personal capacity and the here and now, our coach also decided to really kick up the difficulty of our routines. Every one had super ambitious plans for big skills they would learn and compete that year – to the point of being overextended. But the idea would be to build as much capacity as possible, wow everyone with these big routines, and potentially drop a skill here or there before NCAAs, which would make the routine feel down right easy.

This fit well with our “compete to your potential” program because it meant instead of focusing on being perfect, our routines were packed with so many points that we just needed to score a solid hit and we’d still do very well. The demo reel of the video really show cases the crazy-hard skills we were doing.

We started off the season a little rough and actually lost our first few meets. This was almost better because we were no longer trying to defend a number one ranking, but instead focused on climbing back up from the bottom.

It looked like everything was on track…

14. Not everything is on track

Stanford Men’s Gymnastics – Conference Championships 2009 from Jason Shen on Vimeo.

This is the part of the story that’s kind of lame.

During warmups, we would do jumps off a block to practice “sticking” the landing. One of my teammates, Bryant, started doing some with a full twist just for fun. I tried some, knowing full well that ACLs are particularly vulnerable to twisting/cutting motions. And in an effort to stick one, I felt a snap. I stood up and there was a sharp pain in my knee.

I didn’t want anyone to see that I had hurt myself, so I slowly took my shirt off (we typically practice with no shirts) and made my “Fuck this hurts” face while my face was covered up. Then I walked calmly over to my assistant coach and told him I didn’t think I could finish practice that day.

  • The bad news was: I had retorn my ACL.
  • The good news was: I could keep going if I wanted to.

It was a serious decision and something I thought about. Ultimately I chose to keep going – I had come this far and I wanted to see it completion.

Because I had already damaged my knee before, this ACL didn’t affect me as dramatically. I took a few weeks off, continued doing lots of PT, and slowly resumed training and competition. To secure my knee, my trainer would tape everything up and then I’d put my giant knee brace on.

It was unwieldy and a lot of work but I was going to make it.

15. “Just another day in the office”

As the season progressed, our team really started coming together. Practices were tough but energetic. We really started nailing this high scoring sets in competition. And it felt like people were responding to the “compete to your potential” mindset.

In fact, we even had a saying that started with Sho. Whenever we would do an amazing routine or skill, instead of getting super high-fivey about it, we would just shrug our shoulders and say “Just another day in the office.”Because we were professionals and outstanding performance was just what. we. did.

One of the highlights of the season was winning against Oklahoma at Maples Pavilion in our conference championships. That was redemption for me. They came to our house and got taken down. It was the first time we had beaten OU at conference championships in the past five years. We hoped it was a good omen.

16. Getting on to that podium … finally!

VIDEO: Technically a promo video for the 2009-10 season, you can see some great clips of us winning around 50 seconds in.

The meet went by in blur. I only remember snippets. Some great routines. A few falls. A lot of sets where we fought and stayed with it. We competed the way we trained – nothing worse and nothing less. And at the end of the night, we were champions.

I ultimately didn’t end up competing in NCAAs.

One the last practice before we flew out to NCAAs, I landed wrong on a parallel bar dismount – something I had been concerned might happen throughout the season but always ended up fine. It was just a sprain – no tears. But it was enough to keep me out of the meet. I was disappointed … and it sucked having to tell my mom that she wouldn’t get to see the last meet of my career.

Outside of the slight bittersweetness of not being able to fully redeem myself for the 2008 failure – it was awesome to win. A number of my teammates from 2008 came out to watch the meet and we all celebrated together – I told them that this victory was as much theirs as it was mine.

We had finally done it – we had closed the deal and won.

A couple pictures…

We could barely fit on the podium!
Yes – we got Super Bowl-esque rings. No – I don’t wear it most of the time because it’s gigantic and I don’t want to lose it.
Pain is temporary. Glory (and tattoos) are forever.

17. Lessons learned

When trying to generalize a story like this, the lessons run the risk of becoming cliche and sounding like the crappy motivational posters you’d find in Dilbert / The Office. That’s partly why I went into so much depth about what happened. There were ups and downs and its not something you can wrap up neatly into a bow. But I do think there are some things I’ve learned that I’ve taken on to other areas of my life and I would like to share them.

  • Visualize your success before it happens. I mean this figuratively and literally. Every year, our team would commit to winning NCAA Championships. We knew what success looked like and that’s what drove us to work hard, even if it took us 14 years achieve our goal. And when I was returning to competition, I focused on imagining myself performing new skills and doing full routines so that when I came back, it felt completely natural. Imagine yourself confidently nailing that sales call, or being more calm with your kids and when the time comes, it’ll feel right.
  • Don’t be perfect, be aggressive. When I tried to do my Diamodov “perfectly”, I psyched myself out. When our team felt like they had to be perfect to win, we lost. When we focused on doing in a meet what we do in practice (which was just solid, aggressive performance) we won. Don’t try to avoid making mistakes. Go for what you want and know that passion and enthusiasm beat tepidness and over-caution nine times out of ten.
  • Savor the journey AND the destination. Winning was awesome. But that one shining moment will not be satisfying if you hated the many years leading up to it. Just coming back to competition for me was a dream come true – and after the injury I was grateful for every day that I could continue to do the sport that I loved. Whether you’re doing a startup or a PhD – remember that journey matters as much as the destination.
  • Winning with others is better. Dan Gill is a Stanford Men’s Gymnastics alumni who cofounded a startup called Huddler. (He’s pretty much my hero.) He’s a 9-Time All American and a 2-time NCAA Vault Champion. He told us he’d give it all up to win one team championship. So while striving for individual success is totally awesome – what’s even better is winning with others.
  • Never give up. I know this is such a cheesy ending but ultimately, that’s what this story is about. If you have a dream and you’re willing to do whatever it takes, and go however long it takes to reach that goal – you dramatically raise the chances that you will find a way to succeed. It’s what Paul Graham talks about in his essay How Not to Die. So believe in yourself, believe in your dreams and as long as they stay compelling to you – never give up on them.
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Jason Shen

Human(e) technologist on a mission to help build resilient teams and organizations. Former NCAA gymnast and three-time startup founder.