Carly Patterson - The Journey To Olympic Gold + Motherhood
Please note this episode was recorded prior to the pandemic.
Introduction: Welcome to Beyond Speaking with Brian Lord. A podcast featuring deeper conversations with the world's top speakers.
Brian Lord: Hi, I'm Brian Lord, your host of the Beyond Speaking podcast. And today we have on Carly Patterson. This is an Olympic Year. And so women's overall Olympic gold medal champion in Athens, a mother and a person has made like a kid's book and a singer and has done so many different things. And we're excited. We've already had like a little meeting here today. But, Carly, thank you so much for coming on. We really appreciate it.
Carly Patterson: Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Brian Lord: I know. Well, it's kind of fun hearing all your different stories. And the humility is one thing I like. You know, like "All I did was win a gold medal," I guess it's kind of funny.
Carly Patterson: I need more me more! [Laughing]
Brian Lord: But, you know, where did that passion come from t to get into this I know you said it's an accident? How did that accident happen?
Carly Patterson: Yeah, it was just a random chance at my little cousin's gymnastics birthday party. She wasn't even a gymnast. And she- that's where she had her birthday party. And I was six years old. And it just sparked this passion, you know, deep inside and led to an 11-year incredible journey. And the coach actually came over that at that birthday party and was like, "Hey, do you take gymnastics somewhere?" I was like, "Nope, this is my first time." And he went over to my parents and said, "Hey, I think your daughter's got some potential. You should put her in the sport." Which was not my parent's plan at all. They're like, "Oh, we don't have time to, like, be dropping her off at gymnastics and, you know, whatever else." And after three months of begging them and, you know, about to hurt myself trying to do all these things I learned at the birthday party, they finally put me in.
Brian Lord: Oh, wow. So did any of the other kids pick it up from that?
Carly Patterson: Any of the other kids from the birthday party? Just me, no. And my cousin still likes to say that I owe her big time. So I'm like, yeah, you're probably, right.
Brian Lord: So what is that? Because it's one thing to just start it. It's another thing to keep with it. Where do you think that passion came from or that will to stay with it came from?
Carly Patterson: Yeah. You know, I think... By kind of embracing that spark, you know, everything worthwhile kind of starts with a spark. And I think that taught me when you feel that nudge or something pulls you or you gravitate towards it, that you should pause and pay attention and be curious. And, you know, ask what is it about that spark that captured your attention? Because sometimes it's like we're driving down the highway and we're so focused on that end goal or where we're trying to get to that we might be missing, you know, these blinking signs that we should take this detour or that we should take this exit down a different road that might lead us down, you know, a road that could spark a new path and passion in our life. And, you know, I think just going after that and trying and failing and still, you know, having the will and desire and keeping that passion alive to keep going and to try to become the best gymnast I could be was what kept me going. And there were times where I had to step out of my comfort zone or step into the uncertain. And I think that's another thing that has taught me about life in general. Just, you know, when you don't push yourself past those boundaries, when you don't step out into uncertain and engage and, you know, embrace that spark you're going to miss out on a lot of opportunities that you could have for your life.
Brian Lord: What does it feel like to go into those places?
Carly Patterson: It's scary. You know, it's you know, when you do things like that, it's going to be scary. It's gonna be difficult. It's going to be challenging. But I have learned that it is going to be way more rewarding than any of, you know, the difficulty and the nerves and the scaredness.
Brian Lord: How old were you when you started realizing you were pretty good at this?
Carly Patterson: I guess I was about maybe 10 and I kind of told you guys this story because, well, I thought I was good. I was level 10 at 10 years old, which is very young to be level 10 in gymnastics-
Brian Lord: - Which is like the second-highest right?
Carly Patterson: The second-highest level you can be- just below that elite level. And I was winning all around Louisiana and getting on the podium and getting, you know, medals and trophies and I had Level 10 Nationals, my very first one coming up. And, you know, I thought for sure I'd get on the podium and get trophies, just like I always did. And the podium I found myself on ended up being 76th place all-around. And I told you, there's no podium for 76th place. And so that was a big reality check of wow, you're nowhere near as good as you thought you were and there's still a lot of work to be done.
Brian Lord: Now, a lot of people, when they hit that, when they realize are not where they thought they actually were, stop. What made you keep going?
Carly Patterson: Yeah. That just kind of instead of getting complacent or instead of looking at how far I still had to go and thinking, "Oh my gosh, I'm 76th place that's so far away from getting on the podium, so far away from getting any kind of trophy or medal." You know, I could have just said "I'm never gonna be as good as these girls and I'm just going to give up." But I think instead I let that fuel me and fuel my passion for the sport and challenge me. And I kind of just took that challenge on. And I was like, "No, no, I will be back next year and I will get on the podium." And I did not in the all-around, but I did end up getting first place on floor that very next year. So that also taught me that, you know what, putting in that work and, you know, having the determination to make something happen that you want to happen, know, can truly work.
Brian Lord: What's your favorite out of the different disciplines or exercises that go into that?
Carly Patterson: So the balance beam was always my favorite and it was also my best event. And something that's really fun, my coach and I came up with this beam dismount. It's called the Patterson. It's named after me because when you do a skill at a World Championships or Olympic Games and you do it successfully, it gets named after you. So no one in the world had ever done it before. So let's see if you know what this is, Brian. It's a roundoff, back handspring, double Arabian.
Brian Lord: Oh, okay. Of course. I've done that two or three times this morning. [Laughing]
Carly Patterson: So one of the most difficult skills you can do actually and in the sport and I competed it at the world championships and got it named after me. And so that was one of those really cool things that in my career that I'm super proud of. And then I just totally lost track of your question.
Brian Lord: Well, I think that's one of the things that I really like, is that in kind of researching this, like the discipline and the grit to actually accomplish something so well, so difficult, no one's ever done it before. How long and how many times did you have to do that before you could do it at that level?
Carly Patterson: Oh, gosh. And it was such a scary skill to do. I mean, I guess when you're doing one of the hardest tricks, it's going to be scary. But I mean, there are days where I did not want to do it. Like, "I really hope they don't make me do my dismount today." You know, there were those days where I would just be off, you know, and just constantly go crooked and, like, take off of one leg and then not get the power I needed, land on my back. You know, there are so many mess-ups. Way more mess-ups than, you know, successful ones. And that's why it just took doing it over and over and over again, and especially on those days that I didn't want to do it and figuring out those issues and working out those kinks. Because in the Olympics, on the All-Around night, doing my beam routine, I did one of the best beam routines that I had ever done that I could have ever done. And I ended up sticking my dismount, which I didn't do that in competition very often and it didn't even happen at home very often it was very hard to just stick cold and not have to take a little hop or a little step. And I could feel it in my the first couple skills, the roundoff back handspring that I was on and that I was gonna land it. And so it's pretty cool. And yeah, beam was just always one of my favorite events. And one of my best events. So maybe it was because my favorite I don't know. Normally that's not people's favorite because you're, you know, tumbling on a four-inch wide piece of wood. So most people don't think that's fun.
Brian Lord: Maybe that's why you're so successful. [Laughing]
Carly Patterson: Yeah, that's what I always tell young gymnasts. I'm like, "I think because I was nice to the beam and I liked it, it liked me back. So just start out with like a hug every morning." Maybe it'll help. [Laughing]
Brian Lord: Kind of zooming forward to the Olympics here, what's it like arriving at the Olympics the first time?
Carly Patterson: It is really surreal. One of the most surreal moments of my life. You know, we got there and got to the arena and it was, you know, 2004 it was the Athens Olympics, the birthplace of the Olympics. I knew that and how special that was and how cool that was to be a part of and, you know, just remember walking into the arena that first night and, you know, the lights are super, super bright. The cameras are all up in your face. There's a literal camera that runs like, feels like it's chasing you along the vault runway. So that's a little distracting-
Brian Lord: -Is that the only place where that happens is at the Olympics?
Carly Patterson: I- from what I can remember and my competition days, I'm pretty sure. Yes. And I remember looking at that thing like "I don't like this, I do not like this at all, I feel like I'm being chased. But, maybe that helped me run a little faster and block a little better, I don't know. But the Olympic rings were plastered everywhere on everything, as you know, a constant reminder that you're at the Olympics if you'd forgotten. And, yeah, you know, palms were incredibly sweaty the whole bit. Really, just all kinds of feelings and emotions and, you know, and it being so surreal. And I think that being 16 and being so young, that was something that kind of helped me. I was almost not oblivious. I mean, obviously, I was extremely prepared and had trained my whole life for this. But I think that youngness in me, I didn't let kind of the bigness of what was happening and what I was about to do affect me as much as maybe if I would have been a little bit older and really realized that pressure and realized that there are millions of people watching me on TV. You know, there's a camera chasing me on the floor. You know, it's just "We're at the Olympics." It's all so big and scary and just kind of like I tried to treat it as another competition and just going in there and doing what I knew how to do because at that point it was truly all mental. I'd put in the preparation and the effort and the time and the repetitions. And it was just all about going out there and doing what I knew how to do.
Brian Lord: So what- taking you up to that day and that time you're doing it in the gymnastics. What part of the Olympics? The Olympics are usually a couple weeks there. Is that beginning, middle, end?
Carly Patterson: We were in the beginning because everyone always asked if we get to go to the opening ceremonies. And we didn't because we were competing the very next day and that was our preliminary competition. So it was, you know, qualifying for everything. It was a big one. And on you know, we didn't want to be on our feet for hours and hours and walking and not resting. So we didn't get to see that. So yeah, we're at the beginning normally.
Brian Lord: And how long do you compete? How many days during the Olympics do you compete for? Especially with the All-Around.
Carly Patterson: Yeah. It's kind of going on for a few weeks. You've got, you know, that preliminary competition and then you've got, you know, a few days of training and then you've got, you know, the team competition, a few days of training. All-Around competition, a few days of training and then so on and so forth with individual events. So it lasts a long time. And I just remember, by the end of it all, like I didn't want to stay another week or two to see closing ceremonies. I just wanted to go home and sleep in my bed, which now I'm like Carly like, I regret that because I should have stayed I should have explored Athens more during that time because it does not look the same way anymore, I've been back. But yeah, now it's just, you know, a young 16-year old. All I wanted to do is be back in my own bed with my own pillow. [Laughing]
Brian Lord: So take us to sort of, you know, getting ready that that, you know, through your competing. And, you know, to this point, like from a historical standpoint, it had been Mary Lou Retton, who had won the Olympic like U.S. Olympic gold medal for the All-Around. And that's it-
Carly Patterson: Right.
Brian Lord: -At that point. And now I think right now we're kind of in this spoiled time where we have so many great. But to that point, it had not been, you know, written in that interview that you did with her, like she was saying, yeah, we Americans no one's expecting anything of us, so. What was your kind of expectation from that big perspective and then what was the moment like?
Carly Patterson: Yeah, you know, it was she won twenty years before I did. And I was born four years later. So I didn't even get to see it happen, you know, live. But I knew that she was the last one and the only one to win. And, you know, going in there, obviously that was my goal. But I tried not to put, you know, too much, put too much pressure on it to where it sabotaged myself. But it was yeah, it was just one of the most incredible and surreal moments of my life. And I knew that after beam, I looked over, saw my name go to fourth place in the standings, and then we're going into the fourth and final event, which was floor and I was up dead last. So that meant I got to watch every other competitor finish their last routine and take a breath of relief while I still had to go. And by that time- and it was my turn to go up- I had already calculated the exact score I needed to get to clinch the gold. So no pressure, you know. But I remember going up there doing the floor routine of my life, sticking off or my tumbling passes and just kind of running back down and my coach's arms and, you know, we're waiting for that score in those few minutes, feel like a few hours. And finally, we just look over and see my name moved to first place and it's like, what just happened, and he just throws me up on his shoulders, you know, and we're just both like yelling like "You did it, we did it, we did it.! And I'm crying. And I'm laughing. And then think like all the emotions just start rolling and, you know, and we're waving to the crowd. And it is just literally one of the most surreal and incredible moments of your life to think, "Oh, my gosh, you did it. You are the best."
Brian Lord: So you come from that, obviously didn't stay around in Athens, as you mentioned, and you come home and it was different than what you thought it was going to be. Tell us what it was like coming home.
Carly Patterson: Yes, Part Two of that question. You know, like you said, I didn't have anyone that I saw do it before me, so I had no clue what to expect. And I just, you know, leaving there, I was thinking, "Oh, I've made my dreams come true. You know, I'm an Olympic champion. Awesome. I'm going to go back home and go back to school and, you know, go back in the gym and just continue what I was doing, normal life." And when we got off the plane, it was like every news station was there. Everyone from my gym was there. We went straight to like a press conference and like, you know, from this long flight where I've looked disheveled and then, you know, I had like a presidential motorcade on the way home to my house from the airport. And I was just remembering, thinking like, what is happening? What is this life? Why are people doing this for me or why do people care? You know, I just thought I was doing it for me, which I was. But when one of the cooler things that happened after I was getting recognized everywhere I went, which was very strange and different and something I wasn't used to, but something that people would say and come up to me and they would be like, "Carly, thank you for what you did for our country." And I was like. "Oh, like I never looked at it that way." I mean, I was doing it for myself in like more of a selfish way, but it was really cool to hear that. That just kind of like boosted, you know, our country and, you know, just kind of helped bring people together. And so to kind of hear people be thankful and appreciative of that was really cool and made me see winning the Olympics in a whole different light.
Brian Lord: And then you went on to college and marriage and everything else. And one of the things that you mentioned before is that sort of this grit to get through difficult times. You've had some difficult times as well through that snd so what is it like with you, with your story of becoming a parent as well?
Carly Patterson: Yeah. So my husband and I met at a mutual friend's wedding after locking eyes over the mashed potato bar, which everyone laughs. But that is a true story. And, you know, so we date for a few years and we decide we're right to get married. We traveled the world, do married life for a few years, and then we decide, I think we're ready to expand our family and start the family. And, you know, as most, you know, keep new couples starting out trying to have their first kid. They think it's going to happen on the first month, right? Well, we learned that the hard way a year goes by with, you know, nothing but negative pregnancy tests. And then we decide to go get checked out, see if there's just something that, you know, we should know about. And then I find out I have PCOS and that we're going to have a really low percent chance to conceive on our own. So we start seeing a fertility doctor. And that very first month we are doing our first set of treatments and we get pregnant. We're like, OK, that wasn't too bad. All right. And we go in to see the baby for the first time and have that first sonogram. And when the screen pops up and I'm like, you know, telling "Mark, get the video ready so we can send to the family and all that." And, you know, the video screen pops up and there's no heartbeat and there's no, the baby has stopped growing. And so they were like, "Yeah, you guys are going to miscarry. This is not going to work out." And you know, just everything I could do to, like, keep from losing it. When the doctor was, you know, having that "after meeting" with us of plans and next steps and what's going to happen. And, you know, that was one of the most difficult days of our lives. And, you know, through that, that's when for me, you know, we continued on with our fertility treatment, you know, ended up getting pregnant a little while later, year, year-and-half later on our third IUI. And, you know, now I've got a two-year-old and a one-year-old. And that was a difficult time of having to kind of relinquish control because there was a lot of anger and a lot of hurt and a lot of, you know, "Why me? Like, why am I having to go through this?" Which is like, why are you even asking that? Like, everybody goes through hard times in their life and you just have to deal with them. And so, you know, that's when for me, faith came in and was a big thing that helped turn things around and helped get me back to thinking, you know, and being in a place of waking up every single day, being grateful for everything that I had, being thankful for. You know, all the blessings that were in my life, even though we were still waiting for that baby and waiting for that one thing that we were longing for so much. And so, like I said, that just was a period of realizing that it's not about having control over everything that happens in our life, because that's just not going to be realistic. Sometimes it's about consistently getting better through life's challenging times and setbacks and learning what that vehicle is going to be for seeing yourself through those challenging times. And for me, it was faith.
Brian Lord: And how much do you think your resiliency that you learned as a child helped you as an adult?
Carly Patterson: I think that probably definitely was a big factor, because getting through things like injuries and, you know, losses in and wins and, you know, there are those times in the gym where things weren't working out. And I had nothing to do but just to just keep trying, to keep putting in the work, and to keep putting in the effort. And that's kind of how I looked at that and really look at anything in life now that you've got to work hard at whatever you want to do. And it's not always going to happen in the timing we want to. Like, there going to be times where we have to just have patience for our hard work to show up or for, you know, that recognition of what we're doing in our jobs or, you know, whatever it may be. And definitely learning that at a young age was very helpful to just keep plowing forward, you know, through those difficult times. I was not going to give up. You know, it's just kind of in my DNA not to quit now and through my life as a kid in the gym and what I learned. It is very helpful.
Brian Lord: What do you think you picked up from your parents that you're going to apply now?
Carly Patterson: Oh, you know, my parents are you know, they're great parents. And I'm super lucky to have such supportive parents that would, you know, get me to the gym, get me from the gym to school, and then back to the gym, and then back home. And I just don't even know how they did it. But, you know, my mom I was telling you guys, my mom is just a great example of, you know, just a point that I love to talk about and how saving a setback for later. And, you know, this is kind of a time where a setback can happen at the exact wrong time. And I'm not sure there's ever a great time for setback back, but there's always, you know, a worse time. And my mom at 30-years-old decided to go back to school. And I had my sister and I, as young babies, worked full time, was a wife, was, you know, a mom, a friend, and tried to probably keep a social life on the weekends to keep her sanity. And, you know, I asked her so many times, "How did you do that? Like, when did you sleep at that time period? How were you able to get through doing all the things that were on your plate?" And, you know, she's like, "Carly, well, I probably didn't sleep as much at that point. I probably did. I probably was really tired and I did struggle, you know, but it was something that I wanted to do for myself and I wasn't going to let any of those things hold me back. You know, I was going to just embrace it and get through the time of however it was going to be it was gonna be a little bit tired for a little while. And that's OK. And you just push through it and you don't let that stop you." And now at the age of 60, she's turning 60 this year. And once again, sorry for the shout out, Mom. She like, "[You're] telling everyone, she's turning 60 this year." So she decided just a few weeks ago she's started back school again and to finish her college degree out. And so now she's going to be the only one in her family with a college degree and she doesn't need to do it for work or for any other reason, except for it's just something she's always wanted to do in life. And so that doesn't mean that the setback is not still there, that, you know, she's not still a mom, now a grandmother and works full time, has a social life. And she, you know, she's just a really great example of determination and whatever you want to go after in life, go after it and don't let anything stop you. And I think I've been really lucky to see her go through these things of knowing that, "Ok, it's not going to be easy." Like, I see her push past, you know, the tiredness or maybe the worry or the nerves. Like she has been so nervous leading up to starting school again, you know, so many years later. But she just finished her first paper and she got like a perfect grade. And she called me the other day. She goes, "I just have to tell you that your mom's really smart." [Laughing] And I was like, you didn't even need to be worried-
Brian Lord: -Y'all should get her a lunchbox or something for her 60th birthday, like Peppermint Patty lunchbox or something like that. [Laughing]
Carly Patterson: Love it. Gonna steal that idea for sure. [Laughing] So, yeah, I think I'm just really lucky to, you know, be able to look up and have these role models of, you know, go after whatever it is that you want in life. It's gonna be hard. It's gonna be challenging. It might be scary, you know, difficult, but it'll also be so rewarding and worth it.