Sophie Kin Seong









By Sophie Kin Seong

Mind Over Medal

I’m teaming up with Sagar to feature our MBA classmates. One of the things I’m trying to work on this year is just plain discipline. While I used to love sports, now my dread of the anticipated soreness discourages me from a strenuous workout. I have a drink instead and tell myself that I’ll jog tomorrow. Researchers love studying athletes because while most people let pain dictate their actions, athletes are able to put mind over matter habitually.

So I sat down with Olivier Siegelaar, sports, travel, and food enthusiast, full-time trader, and Bronze Medalist at the recent Rio Olympics. I was curious what analogies and lessons could be gleaned from competing at that level into the business world.

What are some lessons from rowing that has helped you in life? olivier-profile

The world is your oyster.

When I compete, whether at work or in the boat or anywhere else, I do it with a goal in mind. So even when it gets hard to continue, I know I will never experience the joy of getting there unless I put in this work.

Yes, most people will say that the chances are small that you will win. But somebody has to win, so why not me? Why not you?

So the world is your oyster. If you want it enough, if you are willing to sacrifice enough, you can do anything.

Most people, I think, are pain-avoidance. When they see the struggle ahead to achieve a physical or professional goal, it’s discouraging. What do you have to say to that?

When I first started rowing, I couldn’t sleep for a week before each race. Now, I anticipate the nervousness and the pain. Before I row, I know it will be painful if I give it everything. But fear and pain is my body’s way of telling me that I am working for something worthwhile. So when I know that pain or tough times are coming, I just expect it and do it anyway.

If you achieve a goal and look back and realise you didn’t work very hard to get it, it takes away from the joy of achieving it. A worthwhile goal is one that requires hard work. My coach used to say, “Don’t tell me you want to win a medal at the Olympics, show me!”

You can start small. People get scared because they think of all the things they have to do to reach their goal. But if you must do something you don’t like, like make the bed or wash dishes, you just set little goals and start with that.

Tell me a story of one of your most difficult moments and what went through your mind. 

What an Olympic medal really looks like

What an Olympic medal really looks like

There was a time in the winter when I was rowing, working full time at a trading firm, studying for GMAT, and I had to explain to my girlfriend that after she moved to the Netherlands for me that I wanted to go to Oxford for a year. I would get up at 5.30am, cycle in rainy cold weather for 30 minutes to row in the cold pouring rain, cycle back home to shower and eat, and be at my desk by 9am. Then I would leave at 5, go to practice again, come home around 8pm, cook, study until late at night, and the next day, I do it again. Days like this were obviously miserable. I thought, why am I doing this to myself? Why don’t I just give up something?

But I always remind myself that we experience lows so we can experience amazing things. If I am in a low, it is because I am working towards a high.

There was a moment after we won a medal in Rio, I was sitting on a beach chair in Ipanema with my best friends, I had a caipirinha in my hand and my girlfriend on my left, and I was so intensely happy. I looked back on all that it took to get me there and it was worth it. I know that I would sacrifice again to feel that kind of happiness.

Why an MBA?

A lot of athletes talk about a ‘black hole’ after their athletic career is done. When you are an athlete, it is like being on a high. You are always intensely training, you get a lot of attention, but once you stop, people move on. When they don’t have other skills, it is harder for them to find the next stage. People think that as an Olympic athlete, everyone would want to hire you, but that is not true. I wanted to develop other skills.

Ultimately, we want to be happy. Of course I want a good job, but I’m here to search for a place where I can do what I love and do something good for the world too.

Walking the walk, in a manner of speaking

Walking the walk, in a manner of speaking

Are you going to beat Cambridge this year and take back the position that looks better on us?

Of course. I don’t work this hard to lose.

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