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Daniels Executive Education Assistant Director Janet Redwine shares leadership lessons learned as a U.S. Olympian

Janet Redwine

Thirteen years ago, Janet Redwine practically lived in a swimming pool. Her full-time job came with a strict schedule: six to eight hours of swimming, one to two hours of land training, and coaching with nutritionists and sports psychologists to condition her mind, body and spirit six days per week. As a member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Artistic Swimming team, Redwine swam 400 miles and 2,164 hours, practicing her team’s routine more than 200 times in the three years leading up to one four-minute event on the world’s biggest aquatic stage.

Formerly known as synchronized swimming, the sport was officially renamed artistic swimming in 2018. As the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo get underway July 23­–Aug. 8 (they were postponed one year due to the pandemic, but not renamed), the Daniels Newsroom chatted with Redwine about her journey from Olympian to Daniels staff member and the applicability of leadership skills from sports to business.

 

Q: When and how did you get into synchronized swimming and what was your path to the Olympics?

A: I was one of those kids who felt like I always knew how to swim. I did swim team, swim lessons, diving lessons—everything I possibly could do in the pool. One summer, my mom told me and my twin sister that they were offering synchronized swimming lessons and she thought we would like it. We tried it and just loved it. I guess the rest is history. I swam competitively throughout middle school and high school. I went to Santa Clara University and swam for the Santa Clara Aquamaids, one of the best clubs in the nation. I graduated college in 2004 and decided I was going to pursue this Olympic dream. I made my first national team, and then made the first cut of the Olympic team in late 2005 and made every cut after that.

 

Janet Redwine, right, and her twin sister, Jennie, left (courtesy Janet Redwine)

Q: Did your twin sister make the team as well?

A: She had a shoulder injury in 2006 and had a pretty big surgery. She made the same cuts I did all the way through 2007. She qualified for the World Championship team in Melbourne, Australia, but after that competition they downsized from 12 to 10 swimmers. She was 11th and just missed that next cut. That was the happiest and saddest day of my life. We thought it would be something that we would both do, but she has been my biggest supporter and biggest fan.

 

Q: What was your Olympic training like?

Courtesy Janet Redwine

A: It was definitely intense! We have pretty long practices because of the intricacies that are involved. It’s not only the technical aspects—you have to have a certain amount of strength and skill to be able to do these moves—you also have to do them at the same time as the rest of your team of eight people. The training is endurance, cardio strength training, as well as fine detail work like dancing, where you have to do certain things on different counts. We’d work on a series of 16 counts for two hours, doing it again and again until it was perfect, and then again and again, training our muscles to do it at the exact right time.

 

Q: What characteristics were necessary for success, or even participation, in the Olympics?

A: When you get up to a certain level of anything, whether it’s an Olympic sport or an executive in an organization, your skill, your talent and your innate ability take you a long way. But the rest of what gets you there is what separates you from the average person, and that is a lot of those mental-emotional characteristics. There are a lot of days when it’s hard—not just because the training is physically hard, but it’s also hard emotionally. There’s a group of eight who can swim, but there are 10 to 12 on the squad, so they’re constantly switching people in and out. The emotional toll that takes, like, “today I’m good enough, today I’m not good enough,” it’s very similar to the sales and business world. “I made a sale today, no one wants anything today, I made a sale today, no one wants anything today.” It’s that emotional back and forth—how do you balance that and still come out the other side, remembering the love and passion behind why you got into it and why you’re pursuing what you’re pursuing?

 

2008 U.S. Synchronized Swimming Olympic team in Beijing, China (courtesy Janet Redwine)

Q: Do you feel like those characteristics are intrinsic—that some people are more prone to having resilience—or do you think that is something anyone is capable of developing?

A: I feel like now as a parent, we all want to raise kids with resilience and grit and those who keep trying. When I look back at myself as a child, I think I always had a sense of determination and working hard. I will always go above and beyond, but I think what sports taught me is the reward of doing that. If you have that intrinsically in you, if you have this desire to keep achieving and keep reaching a high level, but you never have an opportunity to do that because you never find something that you feel like you’re good at or you’re proud of, I don’t know if that would ever develop into anything. I was super fortunate that I found this niche sport that I was good at, but then also applying that same hard work and pushing myself to be the best that I possibly could.

 

2008 U.S. Synchronized Swimming Olympic team in Beijing, China (courtesy Janet Redwine)

Q: What was the outcome for your team?

A: We placed fifth. And we were very happy with our swim. Of course we were disappointed and of course we wanted a medal, but we felt like we had the best possible swim that we could have and the results were what they were. You have to be OK that you’ve done everything in your control that you can do. You can try harder next time, and you can learn from it, but you can’t go back and change the results. And fifth in the world isn’t so bad, you know?

 

Q: Fast forward 13 years, and you are now working for Daniels Executive Education! What was the transition from Olympian to business like for you?

A: For most athletes, one of the hardest parts is transitioning from athletics to normal life—especially in my sport, where my whole day was planned. So, then, after the Olympics you’re like, “Now what do I get out of bed for? What am I doing today?” I was always the kind of person who didn’t want to put all my eggs in one basket, so it was really important to me to get an education. At least I had a degree. It was in history; I didn’t really know what I was going to do with that degree, but I didn’t have to start over.

I got a job teaching; I’d always coached, so I was around kids and love that. The job was OK, but I didn’t love it. I was still looking for what my next passion was that I could get excited about. I moved back to Denver, and I was working at Young Americans Center for Financial Education, and then when this opportunity came about, it seemed like the perfect way to take the next step. There’s a lot of intelligent, bright people in higher education and that’s been really refreshing. It is inspiring to go to work every day and hear what these amazing people have to say. if you’re in a position where you’re learning every day and growing every day, that’s really fulfilling.

 

Q: How did your skills and training translate to the business world? Are there similarities between leadership in a team sport and leadership in business?

The United States performs in the synchronized swim team event free routine final held at the National Aquatics Center on Day 15 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on Aug. 23, 2008 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

A: Artistic swimming is the ultimate team sport. You are literally depending on everyone else to do exactly their job at exactly the right time. You’re probably never going to find a professional environment where everyone is doing exactly what they’re supposed to do at exactly the same time, but since that’s my baseline, certainly that’s what I try to do.

I was not ranked first or second on the team; I was either ranked seventh or eighth, so I was not guaranteed a spot. It definitely felt like I had to work for it every single day, but I think that experience allowed me to be that quiet leader who works hard and leads by example. I also think that you really have to have this trust of your teammates and that’s a great parallel to the business world. You can’t control everything. In artistic swimming, you can only do your job to the best of your ability and encourage and help those around you to do the same and that’s what makes you successful.

As it was getting closer to the Games, we also did two to three hours of mental preparation [each day]. Having that mindfulness and awareness of “where am I right now, why am I feeling this way, how do I come out of this spiral,” I think is super important. Also preparing visually for what you’re about to do. When you’re going someplace for the first time, like a job interview, look it up to see what it looks like. Picture yourself succeeding there, go in with that attitude and that idea of what success is.

 

Q: What is your stance on goals—both setting and achieving them?

A: I think that when you have your sights set on something, you have to find a way to do everything you can possibly do to get there. That’s eliminating excuses like, “I’m tired,” or “I’m hungry” or “this person did this, so that’s why it’s not going to work.” On the flip side of that, you also have to be OK with the alternative. You have to be OK with what getting fifth looks like, with not making that sale, and if you have your whole life, your whole personality, your whole psyche riding on that one result, that is so terribly unhealthy. I had to be OK with working as hard as I possibly could and knowing that that’s enough.

We talked a lot about what our goal was, which was bronze. We rehearsed what it would look like if we didn’t get bronze, not because we wanted that to happen, but just preparing ourselves and the people around us to be healthy and realistic about it. We discussed how it would feel: “This is what it feels like being with your teammates, this is what it feels like to be on the medal stand getting a bronze medal,” but also, “this is what it feels like to have done the very best you can and not see the results that you would hope to see, and that’s still a good feeling, to know that you’ve done the best that you can.”

If someone asked me what my goal was, I think my honest answer from 2002 up until I made the Olympic team in 2007 was I wanted to get as far as I possibly could in the sport of synchronized swimming. I hoped that was the Olympics, but if I didn’t make it to the Olympics and I’d done everything that I could do, then I could still feel proud of my accomplishment. I think the same thing could be true of building a business, raising a family, getting a new job—if you feel like you’ve done everything in your power to make that happen and truly worked really hard, then you can be disappointed, but you can’t be mad at the result; you can just take it as something to learn and grow from.

Janet Redwine at Olympics opening ceremony

2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony (courtesy Janet Redwine)

 

Q: What are you most excited about for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics?

A: Of course, the opening ceremonies. It’s super stereotypical, but that one brief moment where everyone’s getting along in the world and it’s really nice. The feeling that all of the best athletes from every single country are in one place. One of my favorite memories from the Olympics was the opening ceremonies. I am so thankful that 2020 was not my year. It’s been such an emotional roller coaster for these athletes. I think back to feeling so relieved I made it through all those trials and was finally on the team. I can’t imagine doing that all over again. There are people who had to qualify twice to make the team a second time in 2021. One of the things that made it so special was having my family and friends make such a big trip to Beijing to see me compete. So, the fact that there won’t be any fans in the stands—you get energy from the crowd. You’ve heard of big crowds here, but have you heard 150,000 people cheer essentially for you? That’s a lot of people, so to not have that this summer [due to COVID] is such a bummer for the athletes. But, at least they get to compete. You have to look at the bright side.

 

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