“The year that I won the Olympics in 2000 I actually lost five matches that year,” wrestling champion Brandon Slay tells me on the Best in the World with Richard Parr podcast. “I went to a couple of tournaments and I didn’t even place and got beaten by some guys.”
“That attitude of realising I can’t let a loss, I can’t let defeat define me, I can’t let it destroy me; knowing that it is part of failing forward, struggling well and taking those necessary lessons to make me stronger. I think all of that was really important for my career.”
Brandon Slay is now the Executive Director and Head Coach and the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center in Philadelphia. Before he coached the USA wrestling team for two Olympic cycles for the 2012 and 2016 games.
“Success doesn’t come overnight,” says Brandon.
“Most people in our culture nowadays have the desire to start something, to try something whether it’s a sport, a hobby, a new job whatever it maybe. I think there’s this idea that they’re going to become successful and really good at something immediately. And that’s not the reality.”
“Anybody who starts something for the first time, specifically a sport – you don’t walk into a basketball court, take a basketball and shoot three pointers and make every one of them. You don’t pick up a football and start throwing perfect passes or get a soccer ball and start kicking it in amazing ways. It takes time and effort. It takes making good decisions. It takes extra hard work.”
On the way to becoming an Olympic champion, Brandon earned a business degree from the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania while at the same time becoming a two-time NCAA All-American. It wasn’t easy for the man from Amarillo, Texas.
“You have potentially five to six wrestling workouts a week and you’d lift weights three to four times a week so you’d potentially be working out 8-9 times a week. So you add those eight to nine workouts with your academic responsibilities, that becomes really challenging.”
Life became easier for Brandon once he graduated so he could fully focus on the Sydney Olympics.
“When I moved out to the Olympic training centre after graduating from college I didn’t have, four or five classes, I wasn’t writing three or four papers a week, I wasn’t studying for mid-terms and finals.”
“All I was essentially doing was being ultra focused on becoming the best wrestler in the World”.
Part of that focus included visualisation. The three-time Texas state champion explained to me what he would do before a competition.
“The mental preparation is what I would call visualisation. A lot of that would have to do with visualising specific opponents that I would want to beat. So I would see myself scoring on points on say the guy from Russia or the guy from Iran or the guy from Bulgaria or even from the United States and certain Americans I’d need to beat. I’d see myself taking them down, turning them, pinning them, seeing myself get my hand raised against them at the end of that match. Seeing that over and over and over and over again, whether it’s during the day when I’m day dreaming or whether it’s a specific time I’d set aside to visualise or whether it’s when I’m laying in bed at night before I went to sleep. I think it’s just seeing my self succeed, seeing myself do what I’ve been drilling and preparing to do was very, very important for my success. If you can see it then you are able to do it. I think if you are not able to visualise yourself doing it and you just can’t fathom that you can actually do something like that I think it’s going to be a real challenge to pull if off. If you can see yourself doing it then I think it’s possible to accomplish.”
Beyond visualising the actions he would take to succeed, Brandon would visualise the result and success.
“I saw myself with the gold medal. I saw myself bending my head round and somebody putting a gold medal around my neck saying ‘you will forever be Olympic Champion.’ I told people that’s what I wanted to accomplish. I visualised myself singing The Star-Spangled Banner. I visualised myself beating the Russian who hadn’t lost in six years and knowing that I was going to have to beat him. He was the reigning Olympic champion; knowing I was going to have to beat Buvaisar Saitiev from Russia to win the gold medal. I knew that was the case and so I saw myself, I visualised myself beating him over and over again. And again I think it’s a really healthy thing to do mentally because if you can visualise yourself doing it then it’s achievable.”
Going into the 2000 Sydney games, Buvaisar Saitiev was the reigning Olympic champion and a three-time World Champion. In Australia, Slay was drawn with Saitiev and the Bulgarian Plamen Paskalev in the elimination pool stage. Victories over Paskalev for Slay and Saitiev meant their match would determine who was going through to the quarter-finals.
With the match drawn at 3-3 at the end of the two three minute rounds, overtime was needed. 30 seconds into the additional period what Slay had visualised became a reality. He managed to get the winning point to cause a sensational upset. Slay’s 4-3 victory would be the only time Saitiev would ever lose at the Olympics. The Russian would go on to win two more Olympic gold medals in Athens and Beijing, along with three more World titles.
But in Sydney, Slay celebrated the first round victory like he had just won the gold medal, yet he still had three more matches to go.
The American then defeated Gennadiy Laliyev of Kazakhstan in the quarter-finals and former World Championship bronze medallist Adem Bereket of Turkey in the semis.
To become the first American Olympic welterweight champion since Kenny Monday in 1998, Slay had to defeat Alexander Leipold of Germany in the final.
But he lost 4-0 in what he considers controversial circumstances. “It’s a very ominous match,” Slay says.
“I got called for things there that I had never been called for in my whole entire wrestling career, which was very strange to me.”
“It was a very frustrating period of time. I felt it wasn’t really refereed correctly.”
“I didn’t cry over Olympic spilt milk for too long. I realised that I gave my best effort that I could in that tournament. I didn’t have any regrets.”
“Although I didn’t have the gold medal that night I did have a silver medal from an Olympic games.”
“I realised that night that there is more to life than gold medals.”
However there would be more than a silver medal for Brandon Slay in his life.
A few weeks after the final, it was revealed that Alexander Leipold had failed a drugs test during the games. He had tested positive for using the banned substance nandrolone. Leipold was stripped of his medal.
On 16 November 2000, just over six weeks after the final, live on NBC’s Today Show, Brandon was presented his gold medal outside the Rockefeller Center in New York City.
“They did give me my gold medal and I did get to sing The Star-Spangled Banner, and I did hear them say ‘you will forever be Olympic champion.’ No it wasn’t in Sydney the night I wanted it to happen but it still happened and I’m still thankful for it.”
Having achieved his goal, did Brandon Slay’s life change?
“Most people, I think they feel that if they become Olympic champion or they become wealthy or they get a certain type of job or they get a certain type of home or they become a pro soccer player or professional football player or if they marry a specific person or if they get into a specific college. Whatever that goal or summit it is for them. I think there’s a lot of people who feel that once they reach that point in their life then they will have made it, there’s like this panacea and there will be no problems and everything will be smooth sailing for the rest of their lives. I would say that is a lie.”
“What happens is you accomplish your goal and it’s very special and you enjoy your view at the top of the mountain, so to speak, you enjoy the view. But ultimately you can’t stay on top of the mountain for the rest of your life. You have to take your pictures, breathe some fresh air but then you have to walk back down. You have to go find another mountain to climb. You have to find another set of goals to accomplish. The danger is though that some people reach that summit, they want to stay up there and they don’t want to come down and they draw value in that and that’s what defines them and it ends up being kind of sad because when it defines who they are and they draw value on that I think they really miss out on the rest of their lives.”
“The what’s next for me was a positive thing. It wasn’t like ‘well I won the gold medal now there’s not going to be any more joy for me the rest of my life.’ It was like ‘well ok I’ve accomplished my goal. The view is really, really nice. Let me take some pictures of the view so to speak but let’s go walk down the mountain and find another mountain to climb and I think that’s how we should view goals.’”
According to Brandon there is a need to set objective goals and process goals.
“It‘s pretty easy to set objective goals. What I mean by that is: say athletically speaking, I want to be a state champion, I want to be a national champion, I want to be Olympic champion. It’s easy to write those down. But the challenge is to set process goals. What I mean by that is if I say I want to be Olympic champion well what’s that going to take? Well it’s going to take me wrestling in high school; it’s going to take me wrestling in college. There’s going to be a lot of things that take place before I even get to the Olympics before I can accomplish that. Well what else is it going to take? I’m going to have to get better at my offence on the mat. I’m going to have to get better at my defence, I’m going to have to get stronger, I’m going to have to get faster so there is all those other things that are needed to be accomplished before I can be Olympic champion. So I then have to set up all these other process goals along the way to help me accomplish those.”
Ultimately Brandon says only one thing matters to succeed.
“The most important question is what are you willing to sacrifice to get there?”