Welcome to Episode 17!
Our guest for STIMY Episode 17 is Louisa Jane Gurski (née Sawers).
Louisa Gurski is a two-time British Olympian who competed as a sprint kayaker in the London 2012 Olympic Games and Rio 2016 Olympic Games and the inaugural European Games in Baku. She has obtained incredible achievements including the gold medal in the K-1 5000m at the World Championships, and the silver and bronze in 2013 Montemor-o-Velho and 2009 Brandenburg respectively for the European Championships
If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to become an Olympic-level elite athlete, and how they pivot after retiring from the sport, then this is the episode for you!
Who is Louisa Gurski?
Louisa Gurski was 26 May 1988 and grew up in Walton-Upon-Thames, England, which was located by a river. As a child, she was always full of energy and together with her two brothers, would go to the local park in Walton, play rounders with their neighbors, and also play at the old swimming pool on Kings Close.
At the age of 10, she began kayaking at Elmbridge Canoe Club and discovered that she really enjoyed it.
Becoming an Elite Athlete
Louisa spent nearly 20 years as an elite athlete and in this STIMY interview, she shared:
- What her training schedule was like;
- How she overcame doubt;
- The difference between being a great athlete and the best athlete; and
- Her most fond memories from competing in the London 2012 (home game) & Rio 2016.
Retirement & What Lies Thereafter
It is gruelling to have to be at the highest physical level for two decades. And after Rio 2016, Louisa decided to retire for good.
On STIMY, Louisa shares:
- The moment she decided to retire;
- What it was like to no longer be an athlete;
- Finding a new future for herself when she was no longer an athlete
- Why she decided to pivot from a corporate job to being a personal trainer;
- Whether she would recommend her daughter be an elite athlete;
- How to encourage more sports in a child’s life; and
- How COVID has impacted her life.
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
And if you’d like to listen to other STIMY episodes featuring elite athletes, CLICK HERE. Past interviewees include:
- Danielle Kettlewell: Australian synchronised swimmer on her journey to the Olympics
- Lily Xu Lijia: x3 World Champion & x2 Olympian medallist; flag bearer for China in the London Olympics 2012
- Red Hong Yi: Artist who paints without a paintbrush. Past clients include Google, Facebook & Nespresso. Her artwork was recently featured on TIME Magazine’s 26 April special issue on climate change & TIMEPieces (TIME’s new NFT community initiative)
Some of the things we talked about in this STIMY Episode can be found below:
- Louisa: Website, Instagram, Twitter, International Canoe Federation
- Subscribe to the STIMY Podcast for alerts on future episodes at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher & RadioPublic
- Leave a review on what you thought of this episode HERE or the comment section of this post below
- Want to be a part of our exclusive private Facebook group & chat with our previous STIMY episode guests? CLICK HERE.
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Ep 17: Louisa Gurski - Two-Time British Olympian Sprint Kayaker
Louisa Gurski: If I wasn't a kayaker, who was I? What was I doing? If I wasn't going to the gym, if I wasn't swimming three times a week, if I wasn't going out on the water, what was I doing?
And I do remember feeling after I had my time off the holiday, the relaxing time, where you eat all the chocolate biscuits you want. You kind of feel like, wait, no, let's go back to reality. How am I going to pay the mortgage? What am I going to do with my day? I think any athlete that suddenly stops and doesn't have a next career path feels massively lost.
There's no one checking over your shoulder going, what time are you doing , how fast are you paddling Lou, there's no one checking in on you. And I had that nearly 20 years and something to race against the clock . So it was very strange.
Ling Yah: Hey everyone. Welcome to episode 17 of the So This Is My Why podcast. I'm your host and producer, Ling Yah, and today's guest is Louisa Gurski. A former team GB athlete who competed twice in the Olympics in London, 2012 and Rio 2016, as well as a slew of world championships and European championships, including the inaugural European games in Baku.
She has achieved incredible successes. And today she shares how it all began from her time growing up in Walton-upon-Thames to first kayaking in Elmbridge Canoe club and joining the team GB team to compete at two Olympics.
Louisa shares about what the training was like, what distinguishes great athletes from the best athletes, and also how she made the transition from being an athlete to what she is doing now.
So are you ready?
As I understand it, you were very active as a child growing up with two brothers. So living at Walton-Upon-Thames, which is near a river, what was your childhood like?
Louisa Gurski: yes. So I would say three of us were always outside my parents garden and we played around tractors, swing, slides, everything. And our neighbor where we live, we go play Rounders together in the park.
When I was 10, I started kayaking on the river, which just sort of, four or five minutes down the road from where they live with that. So it was a very active lifestyle. I loved PE at school. I loved competing against my brothers and that obviously transferred into my career. So yeah, very active.
We'd always go on a holiday and be in the swimming pool from the moment we woke up to when we had to go to bed. Always doing water sports, banana boats, we were quite a loud, crazy family. Just always on the move.
Ling Yah: So it was just something that you naturally felt inclined to it. How did the whole kayaking at Elmbridge Canoe Club happen though? Was it because your whole family was going there.
Louisa Gurski: So my older brother, John, 2 years older than me. He joined, I just thought, Oh, that looks quite fun. I tagged along. I like sports. I like water, being outdoors. So I went down with mum and dad and I loved it. And just being outdoors, there's a really good group of friends that you go through all the stages through the years.
I really enjoyed it. It was just every time you go down, you get faster, you learn something new skill. I loved gaining strength and beating the boys as well. It was quite fun at that age when you're so young, it's quite easy to beat the boys because you're all kind of the same level.
And then it's obviously when you hit puberty, men become stronger than women naturally. But when you're 10, 12, you're kind of on a level playing field. And I really enjoyed that kind of ability to beat boys.
Ling Yah: I think at the time you beat your own twin brother, Nick. And that's why he quit when he was young, wasn't it?
Louisa Gurski: Yeah. Yeah, he said, he got a headache when he went paddling. But I was happy. I loved it. My brother went through the ranks. I kind of followed him and it was really good to have him as a good figure to follow.
Ling Yah: So, were you quite serious about canoeing since you were young?
Louisa Gurski: Yeah, I'd say so.
The weekend we went off to France as the Great British team and you go off to Germany and race and I loved it. I remember friends had birthday parties and I wasn't bothered, but kayaking was my main driver.
So my parents were always very open. They said, you know, you can go, if you want, you don't have to go. They weren't pushy at all. Very, very supportive. I think that was sort of half the joy of it for me. I felt I didn't have to go, it was my desire to go paddling and just get faster each time it was yeah, purely for me.
Ling Yah: And were they training very seriously at the club at the time?
Louisa Gurski: That's only me three times a week when you're sort of 10, 12. And then as you go through for 15 years, then go every day, maybe have a couple of days off in between. And then as soon as you come sort of 16, 17, you start at the end morning sessions and then you go off to school.
So it's a nice gradual progression. Obviously if you jump in the deep end too early, you'll burn out. The club is great at stepping you up the levels and, nice little steps as you go they're taking you through them.
Ling Yah: Were there certain seasons where you couldn't because it might be hard in the winter , right?
Louisa Gurski: Yeah, British winters aren't nice. They're very cold. It's funny when you're a young guy, it toughens you up almost.
If it was really snowing and really horrible weather, the club won't go out for health and safety, but it made you tough. It made you sort of just put more layers on.
Be sensible to wear clothes after. You learn a lot about sort of keeping more and then when you get older, er when you hit senior team, you go off to Australia for six weeks and train there or South Africa where it's nice and warm.
So you get the best of both worlds you learn and then when you get older, you can reap the rewards of going away to summer sunshine.
Ling Yah: So going away to places like Australia was that when you were already in the World championships and European Championships?
Louisa Gurski: Yeah. The British team decided that in those winter months, so from sort of November, all the way through to February, March, the team would go away.
Even Seville, we went there at the beginning of the year, sort of January, February, March time to get some warm sunshine and get some good quality paddling in.
So you'd probably see sort of the Hungarian team or the German team training out there. You kind of have bases around the world that people go to just to get some warm weather, really.
Ling Yah: Is it better to go around and train different places? Like how does it build you as an athlete?
Louisa Gurski: I think it doesn't matter as long as the water's nice, Seville is very good for warm weather and it's only a couple of hours flight. And then the base where there's lots of national sports hanging out there and trains out from it's not far from the airport and it gets quite bumpy, which ultimately does actually help you.
So ideally you want nice flat water. And to train in water even though it doesn't look bumpy, but these skinny boats can fill everything. It makes you prepare well for them when you're racing and you can't control what the weather is throwing at you. If it's going to be wavy and bumpy and horrible winds.
And if you trained in those conditions, then you come out stronger because you've done it and it's normal for most. Whereas if you constantly change nice flat water, it's a nice glass mirror then suddenly you go out to a championship and the course is horrible and windy.
As I say, weather you can't control, your confidence goes out the window. You're gonna slap. It's just going to be panicked. So training conditions that are bumpy now and again is quite good. I think.
Ling Yah: I remember when I was doing competitive dragonboat racing we did it once at a sea and the waves were crazy. You couldn't even stay in position just to get the proper start point .
what was the hardest place for you to raise? Cause you've been all over the world.
Louisa Gurski: Ooh.
There's a course in Poland, Poznan, and it's really, really open. The wind can whip up all the way down. So the course is usually two kilometers long and it starts nice at the top. And then by the time you get down to the end, the waves could be sort of a couple of meters high and they have occasionally called off racing cause it's been so horrible, but it's almost who can cope best.
So Australians, for example, if you have paddled in the sea, some come from a surf ski background and they have very good ability to paddle in the waves, whereas other sort of smaller countries maybe haven't been exposed to that so yeah, it just depends how competent you are and your sort of upbringing.
So my club, as I say, we went out whatever weather, if it was windy, you go out paddling. So I was very happy to paddle in the waves where some people might not be happy.
Unless they cancel the race, then you got to go out there and do it.
Ling Yah: And I think that people didn't realize that when you were paddling, it's not just about the strength, there's a lot of tactics involved as well, right. What kind of main tactics do you think it's most important to bear in mind?
Louisa Gurski: So there's two different types of races. You've got sprinting and marathons. So sprints are 200, 500, a thousand and then marathon you've got anywhere sort of 10, 20, 30 K.
The tactics for a sprint race if you're in a crew boat, so four of you in the boat, you'll have to know exactly what everyone's doing. So counting six strokes, or if you're going to pick up at certain places, is having a race time that you've practiced so much in training that come race day, you can do it with your eyes closed.
You can sit on the bank and you can visualize exactly what you're doing. Every meter almost 500 meters.
I absolutely love the tactics. It takes years of practice. So it was quite similar to cycling. You sit behind people's bike to sort of chill and sort of save energy, there is a very similar thing in kayaking could wash hanging.
So you sit on the wash and almost tilts your boat up and it makes it a lot easier to paddle. So if you see a boat, they'll have waves coming out the side, you're essentially sitting on that wave, the boat tilts up and you're going downhill. If you sit on that it's easier. But everyone kind of wants to sit on certain washes that are nicer.
So it's a real game of sort of moving around and also these boats along. So you kind of hit people's boats. They are sort of playing nasty.
Usually people who play nasty mean they're quite panicky and they're not very fast. So they'll play dirty, almost. Just sort of cover their abilities. Whereas if you're very confident and you have the fitness and the speed, you can easily get out of danger and move out of the group and then come around and find the wash hanging that you want.
So there's loads of tactics.
If you go off the start, for instance, you kind of want to have nice, clear water. You don't want to be in the washy wave, and then you want to sit on a nice, comfortable wash, your boat tilted. But then obviously someone's going to come on to take that wash. It's lots of games you're going to get to learn.
What countries, so as you race, what they are, if they're a panicky paddler, for instance, if they're going to sort of keep tapping your paddles because they're just nervous. Whereas you have a strong athlete who is just going to paddle away from it all.
Just go to nice calm water, and then come back in after. I could go on and on about it. I love it .
I loved the game of it. It's basically a game of saving energy and then making sure you're there in a good position at the finish. It rakes a lot of practice. And many years I learned probably from the best club to where to position yourself and how to sort of watch out around people that's going on.
You're always listening to someone that's coming up on the outside or in on the inside, watching people suddenly speed up or slow down. If someone takes a drink, it's usually assign the person to change. So another leader, but then no one wants to leave because that's the hardest position. Cause that's the hardest work.
Cause you're not on the wash, your boat is not tilted, but then you also have to do the work at some point to kind of get the respect from the group that you're fit enough and strong enough to be in that group. If you know what I mean? So I love it. I miss a lot of that kind of tactics and playing around and you kind of work together.
I've raced with Australian or Japanese and all around the world and you can kind of work together in a group of four, for instance, and try and move away from the group that's behind.
So you can kind of get a bit of space between the two, but then I've worked with people that don't want to do any work and then the group catches up and then it just becomes bigger and it's an interesting one.
You never know what's going to happen. You can't plan it either. You just have to go in and try and sort of be safe and be out of danger.
Ling Yah: So when you're paddling and people are catching up, do you start screaming at each other going faster, faster.
Louisa Gurski: Absolutely. Yeah. You got it. Go, go, go, go, go they're catching.
And if they're not fit enough, then they won't. But if they've generally caught up, it means I probably catch up again. At that point then a couple break away and be like, right, we don't want to get caught again cause obviously the bigger the group at the finish line, the more danger and wasted.
There's two of you then first or second, whereas if it's eight of you, you could come anywhere.
Ling Yah: So is it better to just be ahead of everyone and just put everything at the start?
Louisa Gurski: Yes, definitely at the start. It's good to get away from all the waves and the paddle and the carnage. It's quite a nerve wracking thing being on the start line and waiting for the man to say, go, but you just want to go, it's going to be your hardest sort of one minute that you've ever done the race and you just want to go and get nice fat water.
And then sort of relax a little bit, look around, see where everyone is, and then you try and find a wash because you know, you got another sort of two hours of paddling around that you want to sort of work together as a team
The fittest people will be at the front, the strongest, and then gradually as the race goes on through the hours and the minutes, it all sort of dwindled down. And then you're left with the fittest and strongest and the luckiest as well.
Ling Yah: And are there different roles, depending on where you're seated? Because when I was doing dragonboat like the first ones were the pacers, the engines were in the middle and the one at the end, we were bringing it up. Is it the same as well?
Louisa Gurski: Yes. So I've always been in the back of the boat. So the first person steers it, sets up a really good rhythm, sort of symmetrical. They've got a very calm head, and they're sort of driver of the boat.
And then they also have the tiller boss that can angle left or right? Number two is a really good communicator. So passes. Cause obviously if you're sitting in the back to the front I can't hear what the front person is saying and vice versa, they can't hear the back. So number two will speak from the first and pass the message down the boat.
And then number three and four are the engines of the boat, really. We push the boat on. You're staying in times you're constantly watching the paddles going left and right. And then also my job is also to make sure if we are lining up into the bucket at the start of a sprint race, if the wind is coming from the right, you need to pull your paddles to the right.
So you angle the boat coz you want to be dead straight down the course. You don't want to be angled one way or the other. So that's the back person's job.
It sounds silly, but you have a lot of weed sometimes on courses, so we can get stuck on the rudder at the back. you're just kind of making sure that that's clear and your back paddle and you clear it and you throw it away.
So everyone's got their roles and it's interesting, after sort of a couple of years, you kind of get used to that role and once we switched it around and it's very interesting, you sort of get used to your job in that seat. Number one, two, three, or four. That when we switched, I sort of assumed that people could hear me at the back.
Or that you assume that the boat is being angled and you appreciate how hard that role is and that you have much more respect for everyone that sat in that seat and the job they're doing. You really respect your teammates and what they're doing in that seat.
Ling Yah: I imagine you must know your teammates really, really well, just to ensure that you're completely in sync.
So what kind of things would you guys be doing to ensure you were just totally aligned?
Louisa Gurski: So a lot of the teams that I've raced visit Rio and London, we've known each other for years before. I lived with two of them actually. and really good friends. Like even now I talk to a lot of them, still texts and calls .
We used to have Friday night Curry nights or pizza nights. Eight to 10, 10 of us or so. It was lovely to be sort of building those bridges. And then when it comes to race day, everyone's very different how they prepare. So people might want to listen to music and might go off quiet.
Some people might be sort of extra loud and excitable. So it's just working out how. Everyone operates and sort of with that. So yeah, it's lovely the team that we had. It was so tight and essentially, I sometimes saw them more than my husband or my mum and dad, my brothers, so you really get to know everyone inside out.
And so what makes them tick and their weaknesses and how to sort of work around them, how to get the best out of them. I really liked that side of sometimes you don't have the fastest for athletes makes the fastest 4k for .
So K4 stands for the kayak and then the number four. So it's not always the fastest form makes that K for the fastest.
Sometimes it's how people click and how they paddled together. But it's ultimately that team spirit. And if everyone's on the same page, then you've got magical stuff like them. I love it.
Ling Yah: Wow. And who gets to decide on what makes a K4. Is it the coach then?
Louisa Gurski: Coach. Yeah. So you have your selection race at the beginning of the year and your K 1. So you're single.
And then from that you also be ranked and look at how you're training and how you doing, and then they put up maybe three or four different combinations. So I was always in the back. I'd never been put in the front just because of the years experience I learned in the back of the boat.
I was quite suited to that position, but you still have to perform and show that you're fit and strong to sit in that seat. It was never a given that you've just given that seat. So yeah you have to do a couple of sort of fitness tests that you show that you're monitored for all your training sessions, and as you go throughout the sort of time trial and selection process, and then it's down to the coach to decide what's the fastest boat to bring to the Olympics.
Ling Yah: And how does one progress from training at a club to going to the Olympics?
Louisa Gurski: Little little tiny steps.
When I was 10, you just doing little cart races and then you built up to going an hour drive away on Sundays, do races there, and then you go overseas.
And then you joined the British team, the racing team, and then it's still tough gradually over the years, really?
And then selection policy is bought out and then you think, right, I'm going to go for this and it's tiny little steps, but if you look at the whole picture, it does seem crazy.
Having gone from 10 years old, just doing a little race at my swimming club all the way to the Olympics finals. But as I say, it flies by those years and I've been retired for four years now. And I'm like, why did that time go?
Ling Yah: I mean, you spent almost 20 years there and that is just incredible that you dedicate yourself to just one thing.
You were very dedicated to this sport. When you were training, were you thinking, I want to be an Olympian? What were you fighting for?
Louisa Gurski: Yeah, absolutely. I think it was always a dream.
I remember watching it going well. that'd be pretty cool and seeing goosebumps, but I never really knew it was possible. It's just a dream. And then suddenly you're there the next day and you're doing the selection race to be considered for the London Olympics and Rio. It creeps up on you slowly and then suddenly it's there.
Ling Yah: And what about self doubt especially during the selection process, do you face that and how do you overcome it?
Louisa Gurski: Yeah, definitely. Yes. I think any athlete would be lying if they said they didn't have moments of self doubt , when you're tired, everything comes on top of you.
Everything seems a lot worse than it is. And if you've trained three times that day and , you're almost numb with pain and your forearms are cold. You're just basically a zombie. Everything seems worse. There were definitely times when I cried just out of pure fatigue and I speak to mom and dad or my husband and they just say, Oh, everything's okay in the morning.
You're just in that quiet sort of dark place. And fatigue can do a lot to a mental state. But I think the main thing that we practice a lot when you're in that tired state, that you can keep going, that you try and push it. It's just getting that mental strength that when you come to race and you hit that mental wall of going, Oh, I can't do it.
You practice it millions of times in training that it becomes, no, I can go through the wall. I can do this.
Ling Yah: And I think it was in 2006 was it when you moved to Marlow, Buckingham to train with the GB kayaking team. Was that difficult to have to actually physically move to train away from your family?
Louisa Gurski: I think I was really excited cause we were living in a kayaking house with my teammates. It was by the river.
It was really exciting. a new sort of territory, but for me, the team was really good and the girls got on and had sort of say pizza nights on Friday nights and Saturday nights. So that was nice, sort of having that team bond.
Ling Yah: And what was the lifestyle? I think that you were training from once a week to three times a week to three times a day, six days a week.
Something like that, right?
Louisa Gurski: Yes. So say you train three days a week, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, was two days, and then back to three. So you have a rest afternoon there Wednesday and then three sessions, Thursday, Friday, and then Saturday. And then Sunday is your rest day.
It was very full on and. I think some people may have done degrees, but it was so hard to study as well because it's a full time job. Some days you're basically walking around like a zombie, refueling for the next week or washing your kit? I'm going to buy some more food. Might see some friends or family, but you're so tired that you don't really want to, you just want to watch lie down, watch TV all day and just eat. And then get ready for the next week's training. So the weeks flew by and the session's really tough.
But I loved the meets. Each session was like a little challenge that you can sort of tick off. You've got all your scores, your data and your weight lifting and shifting. And for me, it was sort of like a little progression in your mind, but you're getting better and stronger. And the coaches sort of monitoring you and you're supporting your teammates as well so that when you come to race, you know that you're going to be there for each other.
It's that feeling of knowing that you're not the only one on the start line. That you're all racing together. That you have each other's back and you're going to absolutely deplete yourself for each other, which was just the best team that we had I think.
Ling Yah: And I wonder, you mentioned briefly that it's quite hard to do all your training like studying, for instance. Cause I spoke to another Olympian and she said that she had to pay her entire way through just to get to the Olympics. So was it the same case for you?
Louisa Gurski: Ah, no. So we were very lucky. We're sponsored by the UK sport lottery funded. And depending on the position you came at the world championship meant you got a certain amount of funding on top of that. You had sponsorship, so you can ask the boats or paddles or kit food, equipment, cars, even. And then local councils can sort of give you sponsorships.
So I think it's different. I'm not sure how the other countries do it, but Britain depending on where you are ranked in the world or however each sport does it dictates how much funding you're on.
Ling Yah: So is kayaking considered one of the bets of funded sports then?
Louisa Gurski: I don't know, in terms of money-wise. I guess it's off your own bat, how much you drive for sort of sponsored it yourself.
I remember writing letters to companies asking for extra supplements or peanut butter or any protein bars that you think are going to fuel your diet and your overall lifestyle.
And companies, some obviously you don't hear from, but some send out little samples. So some people got free paddles. If you sort of want to watch championships, you can get free pedals out of that as a kind of reward and it's all sponsorship.
It's like a two way street of working with brands and building up a rapport with them. It's very good.
Ling Yah: Was it difficult to reach out to brands? I mean, you have to put yourself out there. Not just train.
Louisa Gurski: Yeah it's quite hard because kayaking is obviously not a big, big sport compared to sort of football or tennis or athletics. So if you haven't got that main sort of media coverage as a lot all sports have, but I think I remember typing up email, send them out.
If I don't try it, I don't know. So you get some answers back. and very lucky that you can have some sponsorship with some companies, but yeah its sort of off your own bat.
Ling Yah: And what about going to the Olympics itself? Cause you went twice. So were the experiences very very different for you?
Louisa Gurski: Yes, absolutely. London was sort of the home game and you can bring my aunt and uncle neighbors all around there.
We trained where we raced at the Olympics with Donnie Lake in Eaton. That was where we trained every day. So we knew that London was happening there. So when I moved there, we knew that in sort of six years time, the race is going to happen there. So we knew the Lake inside out.
We knew everything about it. And then Rio is obviously a massive unknown. You've got the heat, the color, the carnivals, the vibe. Everything was outdoorsy, very different . Environment, but both races wise, very different races, different kinds of tactics. We used different preparation.
So they're very different, but both very, very special to me.
Ling Yah: Do you have a particular favorite moment from those two competitions?
Louisa Gurski: London for me was when we walked out in the opening ceremony and David Bowie, we could be heroes, came on. And I remember just looking around, and obviously cause as a kayaker you don't really have massive stadiums, cause it's outdoors.
So this stadium was packed with 80,000 people. And I remember just looking around and my cheeks are aching so much from just looking around and being like, Oh my gosh, this is awesome. So that for me and I was with my teammates and we're just bouncing and hopping and giggling so much. So David Bowie, We Could Be Heroes.
And every time I hear on the radio, I just think of that moment walking out.
And then Rio for me when I finished my racing, I was debating whether retiring. my body was sort of giving up on me a little bit. I wasn't sure I was on the fence. And, my family had flown out .
And I remember we finished racing and my husband gave me a massive hug and he had tears in his eyes. He's a man. He doesn't cry very often. I gave him the biggest hug ever, and it was also a hot and sticky and I saw my parents. And then that evening we went to the stadium to watch.
And I just remember thinking I don't want to be anywhere else in the world right now. I'm so happy that I have my family, my husband. I know I've got sort of a couple months off to recover and think where I'm at. And I just thought I don't want to be anywhere else.
I was just, very, very happy at that moment.
Ling Yah: And because we all have these conceptions about what the Olympics were yesterday and the media was portrayed in a certain way. Is there anything about the Olympics that you think people don't normally know about?
Louisa Gurski: I think probably the years that you give before that one moment.
So no athlete has suddenly got out of bed that day having spent a couple of sessions. It's years of work before that. So Jessica Ennis, Mo Farrah, all the swimmers or the divers, everyone, they spent hours and years in that swimming pool, in their gym, in that moment, in that boat training, I think you probably look at other sports.
So I had a go at rowing. You take for granted how sort of easy each sport makes it look. So cyclists, for instance, during tour de France, they go on for six hours, and then can go sprinting at the end up this Hill. And you just think how on earth they do that. So I think you take for granted how easy each sport makes it look.
So javelin, they make it look so fluid. but years and years of tears and upset and joy and happiness and injury that brings that one moment on that start line and that sort of 30, 42 hour effort, you just see this little snippet. But there's so much more that happens behind the scenes leading up to it.
Ling Yah: And given that you were in the forefront of your sport for so long, what do you think separates great athletes from the best athletes?
Louisa Gurski: I think how you prepare it. Some people prepare differently and then it's how you put yourself out there. It's making the best of a situation.
So you can either take a look at the weather and go, Oh no, it's windy I can't do that. Oh no, I forgot this. I can't do that. Oh, no, I don't feel so good. I'm tired. It's changing that attitude. Yeah, I can do that. and it's just different between a good athlete and a great athlete. So making the most of the situation, I think is turning around, making it work for you.
So, maybe windy, but it's windy for everyone. I may have forgotten my tee shirt, but it's okay. Cause my teammates have got something. It's always looking for another alternative that's going to get you through and then just preparing, making sure that you don't end up in that situation, that you come down to that moment that you don't forget.
Ling Yah: And you alluded to it briefly earlier, but after the first Olympics, were you thinking again, whether to retire before you went for a second and decided to retire?
Louisa Gurski: No, after London, I was still quite young. I was thinking, yeah, no, I want to go again, I took four months off. So I went traveling around India, Vietnam, Cambodia, where I met my husband, which is really nice.
I was still keen to jump back in the boat, whereas Rio. So I was 28, in kayaking it was quite oldish. You wouldn't really see an athlete pass 35. I kinda knew that I was sort of on the edge and my body was giving up anyway.
It has little niggles here and there, my body was saying, hang on a minute, you can't keep pushing me through these gym sessions and these running sessions. Cause you can't do it.
Ling Yah: And what was the point where you decided that you had to listen to your body and just stop being this elite athlete?
Louisa Gurski: I started training into the winter sort of November, I went back, a lot of athletes will take a lot of time off after each cycle. and I just didn't have that motivation, that buzz, that excitement. Cause it takes a lot of hard work to get up every morning after bed with your muscles already feeling flat because you've done a really hard session the day before.
I just thought I can't do this. And I was trying to find that motivation, but I was saying to my coach. And he said, if you don't have it, you can't find it. it's quite hard to constantly chase it. And motivation is the main reason why you do it. You're driving forward for that sort of PB or that more weight to be added onto your disks or to go faster than you did yesterday or the week before.
So it's that motivation for those times to come down or you to run faster or lift more is never there. You're just kind of flopping along and you kind of lost that fire, that spark.
And I'm discussing with my husband, we kind of just thought, well, let's look to sort of move on. New challenge in life and he's always wanted to have children.
So yeah, I think that was a big driver as well. For me.
Ling Yah: Was it scary for you to make that final decision to step away?
Louisa Gurski: Absolutely.
If I wasn't a kayaker, who was I? What was I doing? If I wasn't going to the gym, if I wasn't swimming three times a week, if I wasn't going out on the water, what was I doing?
And I do remember feeling after I had my time off the holiday, the relaxing time, where you eat all the chocolate biscuits you want. You kind of feel like, wait, no, let's go back to reality. How am I going to pay the mortgage? What am I going to do with my day? I think any athlete that suddenly stops and doesn't have a next career path follow feels massively lost.
There's no one checking over your shoulder going, what time are you doing , how fast are you paddling Lou, there's no one checking in on you. And I had that nearly 20 years and something to race against the clock . So it was very strange.
Ling Yah: How did you go through that journey with discovering who you were? Because I understand after you left that you were with Woodgroup for three and a half years. So how was that like transitioning over to what you're now doing?
Louisa Gurski: So with that, it was my first proper job and I remember feeling quite lost there and we were just doing up a house, so that was my focus. It was quite a short job.
I went then to join another company after all and all those little jobs that I did have helped me. So with admin, it's helped me form emails, which I never used to have, the skills of Excel, which I never had.
So all these people were asking me and I said, I've never used a computer to work before. Like how many words a minute I can do. It is a very different environment, but you just have to make the most of each situation, I guess.
Ling Yah: I imagine it being quite hard because for the first time you have these fixed hours, you're working indoors at a seat, working from the bottom up all over again?
Louisa Gurski: Yeah absolutely. I think for me it was a job and they would pay the bills.
So it ticked that box. And then I was thinking, right, how can I go better? How can I make myself work up the company again? Cause you are starting from the bottom. And I liked that. I remember going right, what more responsibilities can I have?
How can I improve this system? How can I do that? Give me more things to d.O more tasks. So I guess it kind of transitioned the two sports and working.
And then also go for runs on lunch breaks.
Ling Yah: I read that you were cycling 20 km every day and running, spinning during lunch breaks. So you just couldn't get sports out of your life.
Louisa Gurski: Yeah. I was thinking, Oh, maybe it'll just fade away after time. and then sort of three years in, I was like, no, this really isn't going anywhere. Still training.
And I was still cycling to and from work, this is a commute, but actually I think deep down knew that it was my kind of daily exercise ticked.
And then when someone says at work oh let's go for a little run of like, yeah, yeah, let's go for a spin about, yeah, yeah. I'm there. So I was always looking for that sort of adrenaline kick.
so it was quite hard, I think, being in office.
So I was paddling this morning at six o'clock on the river and I felt like I lost a little bit of my love for kayaking, but this summer, these past couple of months, I've found it again. Going back to my, like, canoe canal bridge. And an early morning session before my day starts and just put me in a good place, watch the sunrise.
And I'm so happy whenever I talk to my husband after I'm just on cloud nine. It makes me so happy. The action of kayaking, just being on the water. And just paddling to the best that you can technically , I love it.
Ling Yah: Did it never cross your mind to maybe train future athletes in kayaking so you could be in the water again?
Louisa Gurski: I did think that, I do do a little bit with the little kids at the club, and I really liked seeing just little tweaks that I can help them with and little movements, but unfortunately the base for the British team is two hours North in Nottingham.
When I was looking at jobs, kayaking is such a small group of people and athletes that you can train. Whereas PTing is, you've got pre and postnatal, which I love. You've got elderly, you've got all different people in different phases of their life that I quite like to help.
And alongside that you've got the lifestyle that I can tap into, see what diet you're sleeping, what you're doing day to day that I lived in and sort of was trying to always make the best of . Whereas with these athletes, they're fantastically trained. I just feel that my coaching abilities probably aren't as advanced as the coach that they have in the team.
Ling Yah: And can you share a bit about your personal training, which I understand that you're currently doing now? I mean how's life been like, do you feel that this is your current why?
Louisa Gurski: Yeah, definitely. This is my career.
I'm so happy about it. I can obviously be flexible around me and I can help people. It's so nice to see them progress and hit their goals. It sounds really sort of cheesy, but I love this feeling when I say right, we're going to run from here to here and then repeat it.
And they go faster, and I didn't know how they did it, somehow something clicks in their brain that you can kind of tap into. And actually the longer I work with clients, the more I can understand what makes them tick. If they prefer that kind of quiet. Calm focused or encouragement or positivity is working out how they operate.
And just seeing their faces when they did it, they didn't think they could do or lift something. And let's just say, you did that. And they said, no, no, you helped me. I didn't know who did it. It was your job that you did it. then just exercises in general just makes everyone feel good. I've had some people with some kind of come through in the morning going I'm really flat.
I went to sleep at 2:00 AM.
I am like, you're here. Step one ticked. Lets just crack on. And then pre and postnatal women are to begin with, to have a child, and it's just amazing itself. I think there's a lot of trust that is involved between me and the client. Obviously they've gone through this big change in their body, physically and the bodies change dramatically. And then they come to me whatever their goals are.
Ling Yah: And how has COVID impacted you and what you're doing right now?
Louisa Gurski: If anything is not, it's pushed me online.
So at the beginning of this, I was thinking, gosh, how am I going to see clients face to face and how am I going to interact with them? Saw a lot of classes going online and then decided that okay I'll jump on with them and I was able to then have more clients because I'm not traveling around as much, and it's a lot easier.
I think clients are more comfortable in their own home. Gyms can be very daunting, sort of wearing lycra, mirrors, everywhere, light, music. Because someone who's not in that sort of comfortable, it's quite a scary place.
I totally get that. I still do face to face, with limited equipment so that side's quite tricky, but. I think being outdoors, you can still say two meters apart and it's absolutely fine. You just can't high five them or give them a hug they've done really well, but it's a good little setup I have.
Ling Yah: And before we wrapped up, I wonder what you recommend your daughter to be an elite athlete if that's what she wanted to do?
Louisa Gurski: Yes, because sports, it was such a big part of our life and it shapes you so well, like team sports, it makes you stronger physically and mentally, I think the benefit on your heart and your lungs and everything is just brilliant. and also my husband's very tour and I'm sort of quite tall for a woman.
So I feel like it'd be a waste if she didn't use her long arms, long legs, but obviously I'm not going to be a pushy parent. If she doesn't want to do something, then that's fine, but I will be exposing her to lots of sports.
Hopefully the ones that she likes.
Ling Yah: So you don't think that parents should be pushy and just tell the child, for instance, to just go for it and find out whether you really like it or not?
Louisa Gurski: I think it's a fine line. So I know a couple of family friends , they're sort of exposing their child to sort of netball and kayaking and football and all these different sports, swimming, athletics, and then sort of hoping that one will maybe stay.
So for me, I did swimming. I did netball and I was just like hiking. That's it for me. I just felt so comfortable and I loved it and I kept asking mom and dad to take me down to the club, I think being pushy to a certain extent, but then.
At the same time you don't afford to force your child to do something and then they arrive up to the rugby pitch in tears and in a big state.
But then again, it doesn't have to be sports. It can be music, it can be art, it can be theatre. I think it's just finding one passion that really makes them happy really. Like kayaking for me, it made me so happy. It still does make me so happy.
I look forward to going paddling. I look forward to that hour of just really pushing myself and me time and challenging myself. If my daughter finds something like that, like I did, then I'll be very lucky and very happy.
Ling Yah: Do you think there's something that parents can do to make that whole experience more enjoyable and fun?
Louisa Gurski: Probably trying different things and also family holidays. Going out there and just booking the kayak, or having to go on a bicycle, just exposing them to lots of different sports and just seeing if anything fires .
So a lot of my mum's friends have got older kids and they say, Oh yeah, we went cycling the other day. And they really enjoyed it and we're going to go buy a new helmet so it's exciting. Those little things.
Something that just ticks in their brain that they go, mom, can we go paddling again? Or mom, can we go down to the running track again?
So yeah, exposing lots of different things and just seeing what happens, seeing where they fall in love.
Ling Yah: Well, thank you so much, Louisa, for your time today. I normally end with these questions. The first one is, do you feel that you have found your way?
Louisa Gurski: Oh that's deep. Yeah, I think so. I feel purpose now. I think I was lost for a bit after Rio, so I thought I found my place.
Ling Yah: And what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?
Louisa Gurski: I think changing people is if they've had a session where they've really developed themselves and I've sort of assisted in that way.
Even if it's just how they do a press up or how they're determined to chase a new goal. Hopefully I can help people to have a little reminder of going forward by themselves.
Ling Yah: what do you think are the most important qualities an elite athlete should have?
Louisa Gurski: Mental strength is definitely one.
Motivation, that fire within.
I think having a calm, clear mind when you come to race. So it's very easy to get panicky, and all the pressure builds up, but it's almost calming down and going to sort of calm meditative state and sort of going okay. I'm just gonna breathe here for a second. I've done this many times and just really focus on what needs to be done and that you can do it. It's a positive, calm, relaxed state, I'd say.
Ling Yah: And where can people go to find out more about you and connect with you?
Louisa Gurski: so my website, so www.louisafitness.co.uk
I'm also on Instagram.
Message me and say hi.
Ling Yah: And that was the end of episode 17.
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