Joshua Riker-Fox, Olympic Athlete
I have known Joshua for a few years and we always chat about competing, training, sponsorships, goals, eating, and leadership. He is one of the reasons
I started interviewing people for this part of my website. I was starting to see that perspectives on success come from every possible experience in life, not just successful business. This seems obvious now, but it wasn’t when I started.
Josh is involved in an old Olympic event, but one many people are not familiar with, the Modern Pentathlon. It is five sports combined into four events, competed in the span of one day which includes shooting, swimming, fencing, equestrian, and cross-country running (http://www.pentathloncanada.ca). As you can imagine, this requires a lot of diverse training, something Josh manages to squeeze in with his MBA studies, family, volunteering, and sleep.
As you read this, please remember why it was done; to show that what we think is super-human is accomplished by people who are very human. People like Josh train their bodies exhaustively, but they also work their minds by staying positive, motivated, grateful, and faithful that goals are always in reach. Things everyone was built to do, we just forget this sometimes.
Steve: Pentathlon is a very unique sport, how did you find out about it, what got you interested in it?
Joshua: My career in pentathlon was prefaced by a few lucky opportunities that I decided to follow. I lived on an acreage and was around horses, but wanted to ride in a proper setting. A neighbor and long-time friend/supporter lent this legendary pony to me “Pony” when I was 6. Through riding I later introduced to Tetrathlon which is an adapted Pentathlon that the Canadian Pony Club program uses (no fencing and modified rules). Tetrathlon led to Pentathlon. And further I met Ian Soellner and Laurie Schong who went to 1992 Olympics in pentathlon and it opened my eyes up to where I could go, if I worked hard enough.
Steve: What drew you to competing? There is usually a conscious decision to do this.
Joshua: I think I have a quiet demeanor but competing is this outlet where I am a different person. Working toward a goal, and achieving it through the course of innumerable adjustments and small failures, is fulfilling. I actually get very anxious and often wonder what I have got myself into. But then in the moment of action, the emotion is incredible. It is one true time where I live in the moment.
Steve: How many hours do you train weekly?
Joshua: Roughly but consistently 4 – 6 hours a day, 6 days a week. On top is physio, massage, mental training, and travel. It’s a full time operation to stay on top of your needs.
Steve: Do you feel you have had to give some things up to pursue international sport?
Joshua: I’ve sacrificed a lot. I have no regrets though as the benefits outweighed the costs. Despite a lot of discomfort, failure, and sadness, I’ve exposed myself to layers of life that likely wouldn’t have happened elsewhere. Pretty much every international/Olympic level sport requires one’s life to be oriented around it uncompromisingly.
Steve: Adversity is a huge part of any sport. How have you learned to deal with the ups and downs of competing?
Joshua: I am still learning, and I wouldn’t suggest I have it figured. I still face many lows. I think back on many of the issues that brought me down, that were unfair, limiting, or harmful, and it’s easy to become cynical. I recognize though, that many of those challenges, as awful as they were at times, led me to improving myself in a broader context. One example I am so happy for, but was a terrible source of sadness for me was support from the Federal Government. Despite my athletic resume, I was never supported and I resented “the system” for the financial struggle and the principle that hoards of lesser-qualified athletes were funded ahead of me. BUT, over the years I developed something next to none of those athletes have – an ability to speak to every single prospective sponsor and have a legitimate product to offer in return. I learned about brand management the hard way. Marketing, positioning, messaging and more are topics I’d have far less understanding of if I hadn’t faced this adversity.
In terms of competition, I tend to refer back to my values of hard work and having trust in the pathway. There’s no other way to really approach it. One has to believe in oneself. So through failure, I hope that the lesson will make me a better athlete for the next step. I think managing success is equally important. I am increasingly aware how it changes people, but I am not sure if that helps their future performances.
Steve: How has exposure to all this adversity help you outside of sport?
Joshua: I think I probably opened up on that pretty fully in the previous question. I’ve drawn so many lessons from sport that are applicable elsewhere and I am so fortunate for it. I feel very blessed. Dealing with pressure, recognizing that many situations require nothing more than calm thought, working within a negotiation setting. Even taking a calculated approach in other life challenges, using benchmarks, reflection, and adjustment is a cornerstone of sport. The parallels are many. I wouldn’t be the same person without sport.
Steve: Did your competing escalate to the national and international level as a function of your continued interest in the sport? Or, was it a goal/vision to compete at the highest level that drove you there?
Joshua: It was almost completely a desire to reach the Olympics. This goal was set as a child. The 1988 Olympics [in Calgary] started the fire, and many events kept supporting it.
Steve: At what point did you decide to make Beijing a goal? What was your motivation?
Joshua: I always knew I wanted to reach the Games. My high school year book states it. I was fascinated with the Games as a child. In March 2002, I more specifically declared I wanted it to be Beijing. The motivations are many – challenge mostly. But interestingly it was also failure that led me there. I was playing volleyball for years and thought I’d pursue the university approach and maybe play professionally someday. I had a lot of success in high school but in my first year of university ball, I was terrible. In March of that year, I recognized I needed to evaluate what I wanted. That failure led to a huge shift.
Steve: Does being an 'Olympian' change someone? How?
Joshua: At first yes. I always looked at my hero Tom Ponting (3 x Games, 3 x Medalist) like a god. He embodied everything it was about. But he’s so normal and down to earth. He’s actually pretty nerdy. Haha. So, who you are at the core likely doesn’t change. It’s easy to be changed temporarily though because one is swept up by a fickle system that temporarily idolizes you. I recognized it early though I think and I tried hard to be humble. I sure hope I was. I think we eventually revert to normal selves. There are exceptions though – some people can’t see themselves outside of the Games context and spend years framing their existence by it. It takes a lot to realize you aren’t that important and to see beyond this. It really can shake one’s foundation.
There are some fundamental and positive changes it makes though. The Games brand is a tangible way to look in the mirror and derive self-confidence in other facets that one may lack otherwise. There is a solidarity it can provide, but those who grasp that keep it inside and recognize the strength it brings is the same strength people find in other pursuits (raising a family, playing an instrument and so on).
Steve: You recently missed qualifying for the London Olympics, which I think, came as a surprise to many people. How do you feel about this right now?
Joshua: I feel awful. My pathway changed. Having to hash over it every day with strangers and friends alike is really tough. I am a broken record, which is tough as I know everyone means well. It’s hard to open up with everyone about something so personal and visceral. I recognize challenges I faced and I feel that I likely was over-faced in the past couple of years for the obstacles laid out. So although I hurt inside, I also recognize that I am not the Energizer Bunny; I can’t overcome everything. I don’t regret my effort as I feel I did everything possible to perform. I am sad that I didn’t, especially because I am a better athlete now than I was four years ago.
Steve: How does this impact who you are or how you see yourself?
Joshua: It’s the first life failure I’ve had. Many mistakes, losses, hiccups along the way. You lose more than you win – the ones who lose the most are the ones who are eventually the champions. But this is the first big picture item that slipped through my hands. I look at myself differently now, but it shows how even when aware of it, our daily self-image/confidence/conscience sits on a pedestal. I think it’s good in some regards, as I have to see myself more wholly and not rely on just “pentathlon-josh.” It still hurts; when I look in the mirror I see failure at the moment. How can one not? My parents say they just see sadness in my eyes. There are two upsides. The first is it shows how passionate I am about this and how important it is. How many people have found that passion in their lives? I am lucky. The second is I recognize I ended up here because I failed at university volleyball. Which led to the greatest journey I’ve ever been on. So, in my optimistic moments which occur more frequently, I tend to think this set-back can lead to a re-oriented outlook on a new and potentially great journey.
Steve: Do you think there will be Josh 2.0 or perhaps 2016?
Joshua: No doubt Josh 2.0; I don’t know context, but yes. This situation will result in some new approach. I think 2016 is certainly a possibility, but at this point I need to recover my head and heart. I have dreams for the competitive years ahead, but I can’t share them yet! (I didn’t talk much about Beijing in the early days because it was so personal and I was concerned about just doing the job required to make it.)
Steve: What qualities and experiences have you gained competing at the international level that will help you outside of sport?
Joshua: I believe I have patience, a good ability to analyze a situation/setting, certainly competitiveness, but an ability to pursue it calmly. I feel like I’ve lived in a confined environment for a long time that’s delivered a lot of unique skills. I spend limited time in the “real” world so I often laugh when I see how people in the “real” world often act under pressure, in confrontation, or when pursuing a goal. There is a lot to be said for choosing an objective and quietly, but consistently working toward it. I like Henry Ford’s line that “No one builds a reputation on what they’re going to do tomorrow.”
Steve: What advice can you pass on to people for setting and achieving goals?
Joshua: Orient it around something you are passionate about. It’s easy to get excited in the moment about various dreams. To reach it, it must be something that even on the crappy, rainy, bad-traffic, lonely days, you still feel fire in your heart. Otherwise, it’s just a death march (which I think I see soooo often). I am a very linear thinker so not everyone subscribes to my rigidity in approach. I think writing down goals so they are in front of you is critical. It can stay confidential, but the difference between a dream and a goal is the underlying structure that’ll make it happen. I dream about a lot of things, but the one’s I achieve are usually the goals I write down and create a pathway toward with benchmarks. Too often we want a complex answer to a difficult but basic question. Usually it’s an easy answer, and what people don’t like, is it’s most often rooted in hard work. At the USA Olympic Training Centre, there is a quote above the door leading into the wrestling training hall. As I recall it says “Enter these walls with an unrelenting urgency to be the best.” I think we all need that above our bedroom doors, to read each day as we take on the world in our individual fields.
Very excellent indeed. I like the word ‘unrelenting’ because it underlies the fact that we often give up too easily. I don’t expect Josh has that problem, even after missing on the London Games. After all, it’s not just what we accomplish that gives our lives meaning but what we also overcome. What I’m excited about is seeing what’s next. Whether it’s sport, business, or both, Josh has the tools to succeed. No pressure, of course.
You can follow Josh on his blog http://www.riker-fox.com/ and on Twitter @JoshuaRikerFox.