Jennifer Abel walks confidently to the end of the diving springboard. She spies the younger divers gathered below by 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.
Jennifer knows that she isn’t just practicing her own dives today. She is also setting an example, being a leader.
One thing she wants the kids to see is how much work 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 diving board. There are mornings when I don’t feel like getting up early or going to train, but I do it. It is not always easy.”
Jennifer performs a perfect triple summersault. 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, a Canadian veteran 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. Then 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 she faced pressure that she’d never faced before. It was easy to feel overwhelmed.
“It really hit me when I walked into the packed Water cube venue in Beijing,” says Jennifer. “That’s when I first realized that I was an Olympian. I was just a kid! The stress started to build and the nerves. The Olympic Games are such a big event. You can prepare but until you’ve lived it for the first time, you can’t understand.”
Too much pressure to win can hurt an athlete’s performance. The veterans on the team knew Jennifer needed extra guidance. Jennifer’s coach Cesar Anderson took her aside.
“He kept me focused on my diving, on all the hard work. He also had a trick. He’d ask me to focus on just one thing, the angle of my arm or how I point my feet as I enter the water. It’s different for each dive. That helped me keep my mind focused.”
Fellow diver Emilie Heymans was also a big help. She was at her third Olympic Games in Beijing and was a role model for Jennifer. It wasn’t always what she said, but how she acted. She and Jennifer now dive together in the 3-meter 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,” says Jennifer. “She is confident and focused. To me, a real leader is someone who helps everyone around them get better. We have become very close. You have to be close to dive together.”
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.
“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 showing them how. I feel I can do that even better now.”
Jennifer comes out of the pool and grabs a towel. A few of the young divers come over to say hello and to ask Jennifer for advice. Jennifer smiles and listens to their questions.
“I love it when kids come up to ask me for advice,” says Jennifer. “I tell them attitude is so important, that’s why I always smile. I try to be as honest as I can. 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.”
Your passion comes from having a strong interest is something that you like to do or that your are good at. Think about what it is that you are good at or that you really enjoy doing for fun?
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 teams of two or three, have the students discuss leadership. Guiding questions may include:
- Who is a great leader that you know or may not know?
- What makes that person a good leader?
Students share answers with the class and the teacher records them.
Note: this activity can be completed either before or after the students have read the story.
Processing: Identifying leadership in action
- Students select four key qualities from the class web activity to complete the quadrant on their student activity sheet see attached
- Once students have reread the story silently on their own ask them to match the chosen qualities on the quadrant to examples from Jennifer’s story. Students may use sketches or key words to show their understanding.
Transforming: Leading by example Role Play
- Jennifer is only 20 years old, but leads by example. Ask the class for stories of when they led their peers or younger children by example. Examples may include wlaking a younger student to the bus stop or doing something without being asked. Ask” How can you model good leadership behaviours in your own school / class / hallway/ assemblies / library/ playground /big buddy activities?, etc.? “
In small groups, have students create and perform a sketch (a drawing or a skit) that demonstrates “leading by example”.