Jennifer Abel walks confidently with a strong belief in herself to the end of the diving springboard, and spies the younger divers gathered below at the side of the pool. They are intently watching her practice session, literally looking up to her. “That’s Jennifer Abel, the Olympian!” one of them says, pointing.
Jennifer knows that she isn’t just practicing her own dives today. She is also setting an example, being a leader, and the one thing she wants the kids to see is how hard it is to get to where she’s standing now.
“I practice each dive thousands of times so that I’m ready when I stand on the board. It’s an intense life and there are mornings when you don’t feel like getting up early or going to train, but you do it. You persevere to reach your goals.”
Jennifer executes a perfect triple summersault, and the water barely ripples as she plunges below its surface.
In a way, it’s surprising that Jennifer is a leader. She’s barely 20 years old. She is a veteran Olympian, but still the kid on the team. Jennifer qualified for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing when she was just 16.
“I have always been confident, and I had hoped to make the team in time for 2012,” says Jennifer. “When I made it four years earlier, I wasn’t really prepared for the pressure, for the amount of work and the reality of the situation.”
The Olympic Games was a completely different world. Jennifer knew she was a good diver, but when she faced the intense pressure of competing against the very best athletes in the world, she felt overwhelmed.“It really hit me when I walked into the packed Water cube aquatic venue in Beijing,” says Jennifer. “That’s when I first realized that I was an Olympian. But I felt like I was just a kid! The stress started to build and I was so nervous. The Olympic Games are such a big event. You can prepare, but until you lived it for the first time, you can’t understand.”
Too much pressure to win can kill an athlete’s performance, and the veterans on the team knew Jennifer needed extra guidance. Her coach, Cesar Anderson, took her aside.
“He kept me focused on my diving, on all the hard work. He also had a trick where he’d ask me to focus on just one thing — like the angle of my arms or how I point my feet as I enter the water. It was different for each dive, and that helps me keep my mind focused.”
Fellow diver Emilie Heymans was at her third Olympic Games, and was also a steadying influence and role model. It wasn’t always because of what she said, but how she acted. Emilie and Jennifer now dive together in the synchro event. That is when two athletes dive at the exact same time and score points as a team.
“Emilie had been through all this before, and was so composed and calm,” she says. “To me, a real leader is someone who helps everyone around them become better.”
Jennifer also learned a valuable lesson: No one can be great by themselves.
She overcame her nerves and finished 13th overall, an amazing result for such a young diver. Being nervous, is a normal feeling for athletes as they care a great deal about their performance. It is expected to feel butterflies in your stomach and sweaty palms as you prepare for a big event.
“I gained a lot of confidence, and I’ve grown up so much since Beijing,” says Jennifer. “Leadership isn’t always telling people what to do, but it is being the example for them to follow. I feel I can do that even better now.”
Jennifer scampers out the pool, and grabs a towel. A few of the young divers inch over to say hello, gathering their courage to ask her for a few words of inspiration. Jennifer smiles and listens to their questions.
“I love it when kids come up to ask me for advice,” she says. “I tell them attitude is so important, that’s why I always smile. I try to be as honest as I can and I tell them that they have to believe in themselves and work hard and never give up, no matter what you want to be. Everything is easier when you have a passion, a love for what you do.”
Then Jennifer says she has to get back to work. If she wants to win a medal in London she needs to practice 1,000 more times.
Connecting: Making a class web
In groups of two or three, have the students discuss leadership. Guiding questions may include:
- What does the term “leadership” mean to you?
- What are qualities of a good leader?
- What qualities does a positive role model display?
- Who is a positive role model in your life? Use two attributes named to describe this role model?
Students share answers with the class and the teacher records the main themes on a class web.
Processing: Identifying leadership in action
Before reading the story together, choose four key qualities from the class brainstorm to complete the quadrant on the student activity sheet.
Ask the students to read the story silently on their own. Reread the story with the students. Match the chosen qualities on the quadrant to examples from Jennifer’s story. Students use point form note-taking skills to record the examples from the text with the qualities on the quadrant.
Transforming:” Leading by example”
Jennifer is only 20 years old, but leads by example. Ask the students to discuss how an older student, friend, or adult has demonstrated leading by example. Discuss how this is a much more effective way of leading compared to just telling people what to do.
Explore what the saying “Do as I say, and not as I do” means. Why is this not a suggested way to lead?
Ask the students to develop a leadership slogan that will inspire their class and school to lead by example. Have the students organize a leadership campaign for a younger class of students using the slogan.
You may want to provide well-known quotes or existing slogans such as:
“Kids can be leaders by caring about causes that appeal to them. They should not be afraid to fail.”
“I wanted to be someone who didn’t just accomplish things outside my community, but rather someone who strengthened my home for others.”
“Good leaders have respect and passion. You have to respect yourself, your sport, your teammates, your coaches and the rules. You also have to love what you do.”
Olympian, Short Track Speed Skating