‘The more you are connected to your athletic identity, the more difficult the transition out of the sport.’ Anja Bolbjerg – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 83
Anja Bolbjerg, a double Olympic finalist shares her story of how she got into skiing with her brother, and how her brother passed away 7 months before her Olympic participation. How she put herself into the spot of a contender for the Olympic title and then got badly injured just prior to the Olympic Games, and how her positive outlook has always helped her through difficult times.
Furthermore, we discuss
- What the sport of moguls is
- How she got into freestyle skiing
- Her darkest moment
- How she got badly injured just prior to the 1998 Olympics
- Her best moment
- Her advice to a younger Anja Bolbjerg
- Her success habits
- Her morning routine
- How to prepare for important moments
- How to overcome setbacks
- Her role model
- The best advice she received
- A typical training day in the life of a mogule freestyle skier
- Her interview nomination
- Her motivation to help athletes that are transitioning out of sport through her project The Athlete Story
- What’s going on in the life of Anja Bolbjerg at this moment in time
- Where can you find Anja Bolbjerg
Christian: Today I’m joined by Anja Bolbjerg. Anja is a double Olympian, double Olympic finalist, who competed at the 1998 and 2002 Olympic Games in the woman’s moguls representing Denmark.
Anja: Thank you, Christian. Thank you for having me.
What the sport of moguls is
Christian: Anja, can you explain in a few words what the sport of moguls is?
Anja: Mogul skiing, is skiing and it has bumps and jumps. It’s an acrobatic form of skiing where you go rodeo-style down a bumpy slope and you have to do two jumps with tricks in the air, and it’s all judged by judges.
Mogul skiing is an acrobatic form of skiing where you go rodeo-style down a bumpy slope and you have to do two jumps with tricks in the air.
Christian: Okay. So the judges judge the difficulty and the style of the jumps?
Anja: Yes, and they look at the speed of your run and at the technique of your turns.
How she got into freestyle skiing
Christian: And how did you get into that? Because from my research, I saw this sport has only been in the Olympics since 1992 as a test event, and since 1994 as a complete event. So how did you get into that? It hasn’t been an Olympic discipline earlier, right?
Anja: No, it hasn’t been an event. At the Olympic Games in Calgary 1988, it was the test event. And at the Olympics in Albertville 1992, it was the first time it was a real official event. I was skiing more or less like a ski bump at the time that these Olympics won and together with my younger brother, we thought this was a really cool event.
We’d always looked for the mogul runs for an extra challenge, because we were not part of any club, where you could put up gates, and we skied the more conventional styles at the time. So that was our challenge and our love was in the moguls.
We skied the more conventional styles, but our love was in the moguls.
Christian: When did you make the transition into moguls as a dedicated sport?
Anja: I did around the 1992 Olympics, really.
Christian: Oh, cool. And within a few years, you made it to the Olympics?
Anja: The weird thing is I’m from Denmark. You’re living in Holland. We have no mountains in our countries. So there was no Denmark tour that I could compete in and my brother would say that there’s only one way we’ve got to go international with the level that we have.
So we looked at where we could compete and obviously we were last every time, especially me. I was just really, really dead last every time. But with the training, it moved on and it got better and better. But we competed together with the best in the world straight up from the start.
I was really, really dead last every time. But we competed together with the best in the world straight up from the start.
Her darkest moment
Christian: In your life as an athlete, what was your darkest moment?
Anja: That was definitely when my brother died. He died from cancer and our whole skiing adventure was together. This was our project together.
We really wanted to qualify for the Olympics together, but he got cancer and he died in 1997, one year before the Olympics. So he never got to see me compete in the Olympics, but I got to go.
Our whole skiing adventure was together. This was our project together. We really wanted to qualify for the Olympics together, but he got cancer and he died in 1997, one year before the Olympics. So he never got to see me compete in the Olympics.
That whole thing was tough for me because, of course, it’s extremely sad and I miss him. In addition to that, I also had this feeling of unfairness that I got to do all this that he wanted to do because he was the better one of us two and he died.
Christian: How did you recover from that?
Anja: That’s a really tough question. I don’t know how you really ever recover from that, but time is a big thing. I kept competing. I didn’t stop because this was within the Olympic qualifying year and I know that my coach wanted me to keep competing and qualify.
I don’t know how you really ever recover from losing your brother, but time is a big thing. I kept competing.
Even though I was in this zombie world where I didn’t notice anything around me, I just went on autopilot and did the things. And obviously I didn’t do very well. Actually, one thing I remember is my coach at one point told me that I just look like a loser in everything I do, even when I went to dinner.
It was really tough to take that at the time because I just lost my brother. But at the same time, he was trying to get me to snap out of it. It helped somehow for me to move on and be present again. But I don’t think you ever recover fully from losing your brother.
Christian: Yes, I can believe that.
How she got badly injured just prior to the 1998 Olympics
Christian: In my research, I also saw you won the World Cup leading up to the Olympic Games in 1998. Which means you had put yourself into the spot of being a contender for the Olympic title, but then you get badly injured prior to the Nagano Olympics. What goes on in an athlete if that happens just a few months out of the Olympics?
Anja: I was leading the World Cup because I had got some good results before Christmas. We usually have a one week break around Christmas. So at the Christmas break, I was leading the World Cup and it was a big deal in the Olympic year.
And it has never happened to anyone from my country to be in that position, in the sport of skiing. So it was a big deal back home as well. Together with my coach, we just didn’t want to rest on the laurels and we wanted to keep working.
And even though I was told to watch out because my back was not capable of just going like that, I kept going. My discs just herniated and it actually happened when I got back to compete at the same place I was when my brother had died the previous year. So make of that, what you want, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
My discs just herniated and it actually happened when I got back to compete at the same place I was when my brother had died the previous year. So make of that, what you want, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
So that in my experience is because I didn’t have anybody with real world-class experience in my entourage. I was just so focused on keeping on the World Cup schedule that I just kept traveling around to all the stops up until the Olympics.
I should have probably gone somewhere for rehab and gotten ready and forgotten about those last World Cups because it wasn’t important compared to the Olympics. Anyways, I got to the Olympics and the only way I could compete was that my coach went out to look at the course, and back then the courses were a little more irregular than they are today.
So you’d have like a few long bumps and then a short one and then a big one. So he would draw that on a piece of paper for me and I’d lie on my bed with my pain studying the course so I knew it by heart. Then I just go out, do my run, and come back home.
I know that was how it was done. On the adrenaline, I didn’t feel the pain when I was competing. I wasn’t even able to sit down for dinner.
- Also, check out the interview ‘It’s ok to have failures, but it’s not ok to not try.’ with Olympic champ Nikki Stone, who shares her story of a severe back injury and how she recovered from it.
Her best moment
Christian: I’ve tortured you long enough. What was your best moment?
Anja: Winning the World Cup was a really great moment. It was a good moment because I was so afraid of the course, to be honest. It was the steepest course of the tour in Les Plaine in France. It was very icy conditions and everybody was scared of the course, but I got my act together.
I had a trick in my back pocket and I was the only one who was able to do an extra turn on one of the longer bumps. And I did it, it paid off and I won. When I started skiing, I never would have thought I would win a World Cup. So that was a huge moment for me.
I was so afraid of the course, it was very icy conditions and everybody was scared of the course, but I got my act together and I did it, it paid off and I won. When I started skiing, I never would have thought I would win a World Cup.
Christian: How has it influenced your life?
Anja: It’s a big part of my identity even today. We’re talking 20 years ago, if not more. So it has influenced my life.
It gave me some kind of confidence I can pull out at different moments because I have these tricks; the three, two, one, go and you know it’s time. It’s just this confidence that you can do a little more than you think when I need that. That’s the biggest gift.
Christian: I believe that.
Her advice to a younger Anja Bolbjerg
Christian: If you could go back in time, 10 or 15 years, maybe 20 years, what advice would you give a younger Anja?
Anja: Get a mentor who can relate to the situation you are in and who’s not invested in the project as such, but who’s invested in you. Get someone who’s not worried about you, but who has your best interests at heart. The mentor should not be focused on the results, the Federation, nor your branding, but should be someone who gets you.
Get a mentor who’s not invested in the project as such, but who’s invested in you.
Sometimes you’ll be in positions where you have to make big decisions. The coach may take care of that, but you want to be able to have your own input as well. This is where it would be a big help to have someone who you can talk to about whatever the thing is. So get a mentor.
Christian: You think that person needs to be a separate person than the coach?
Anja: The coach can act as a mentor and I even say you can have different mentors for different things. But I think it’s a good idea to have someone who’s not your parent, not your coach, not your physical therapist or athletic trainer.
As a strength & conditioning coach, you know that the coach will take a little bit of that role. However, you need someone who’s been in your exact position, who’s been competing, and who has a little more of a perspective from the way I think.
Christian: Yes, what I realized just now when you were talking. It needs to be someone who has a bit more perspective and is not that much involved in the entire process. Essentially, the coach is also invested because the athlete’s success is his success. So he will always look at the performance angle.
Her success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful person or athlete?
Anja: I don’t know. I’m not really big on routines and habits as I think of them. Maybe some other people will tell me I am, but as I see it, I’m not. But believing that I can learn, is a big one, being committed and determined can be a habit.
Christian: I think the ability to believe also is a habit. In the end, it requires quite a bit of guts to do that kind of sport that you are doing. Is that something that is taught to you by your sport? Do you think it teaches you to be determined and dedicated?
Anja: It definitely does because I didn’t get into my sport being super brave. I was also afraid of jumping. I was afraid of a lot of the things that I was supposed to do, but I have found strategies for how to get over it.
I didn’t get into my sport being super brave. I was also afraid of jumping. I was afraid of a lot of the things that I was supposed to do, but I have found strategies for how to get over it.
Sometimes it’s just having that coach who tells you that they cannot give you their balls and that it has to come from inside of you. If it’s the three, two, one, go, I got to do it.
Her morning routine
Christian: Do you have a morning routine? How do you get ready for the day?
Anja: I use music. I put on music to get me in the mood and do a little bit of a muscular wake-up. So that would usually be dancing in my room and a good breakfast and there you go. Some people do a whole routine, but the music in the morning usually gets me going.
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: How do you prepare for important moments?
Anja: That goes back to focusing on what I can do, believing that I can do more than I think, and having good humility in training. I’m okay being a beginner. I’m also okay about learning something new where I suck.
Focusing on what I can do, believing that I can do more than I think, and having good humility in training.
You have to come to a point where you got to take that humility aside and tell yourself that you can do it. You can’t focus on all the reasons that you need to train more but just focus on the reasons why you got this.
That’s been the biggest learning thing for me because I would always go back to saying that I should have done this or that more.
- Also, check out the interview with 4-time Olympic champion Inge de Bruijn, who explains that her coach always told her that she can do more than she thought she could. Hence the title of the interview ‘You can always do more than you think you can.’
Christian: It does. You mentioned these three, two, one, go, can you elaborate on that?
Anja: First it’s part of our sport, that’s our sign when it’s competition time. But I’ve actually seen since the huge Ted talk with millions of viewers, where the woman explains that she uses it to get her out of some kind of situation.
Christian: Yes, it’s Mel Robbins.
Anja: That’s what we do in sports all the time. I did free ride skiing after the mogul skiing and sometimes you have to jump cliffs where you tell yourself that you don’t really feel like doing it.
But then giving yourself that three, two, one, go, and then it just happens. It really helps. And it helps in any situation really.
Check out Mel Robbins Ted Talk ‘How to stop screwing yourself over’
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?
Anja: One of my big advantages is that I have a very positive mindset. Somehow it comes naturally to me to relate the situation I’m in, to something that’s way worse. That helps me think forward and think that it is not as bad as it could be and I can learn different things and move on.
So taking the lesson in that situation you’re in and believing that nothing happens for no reason. Everything happens for a reason in this world. People say that. Having a little bit of that kind of mindset helps me move forward if there’s a big setback.
It comes naturally to me to relate the situation I’m in, to something that’s way worse, taking the lesson from that situation and believing that nothing happens for no reason.
Then focusing on the bits of progress I make, and because of all the injuries that I’ve been through, that has really helped me make it through and get back on what I wanted to do.
Christian: I’m just thinking, is that something that is a positive outlook that you always had or you developed it somewhere along with your athletic career?
Anja: You know what? I think it’s my way of just dealing with adversities. We all have different strategies of dealing with adversity and I believe mine is just that more positive.
And it develops through everything you go through. Even when I divorced, I was thinking that at least I could go skiing because he didn’t want to go skiing.
Then it becomes natural. Maybe, in the beginning, it’s not natural, but we learn that through sports, we always have to focus on the things that we can control and not focus on whatever the universe throws at us.
We learn that through sports, we always have to focus on the things that we can control and not focus on whatever the universe throws at us.
So having that with me on my athletic journey is a way you put it to practice and the more you put it to practice, it becomes second nature.
Her role model
Christian: Who’s your role model and why?
Anja: That’s a really tough question. And I know that that sounds weird, but I don’t have any huge role model or someone that I model.
Christian: It’s not as weird as you think. Quite a few people I’ve interviewed have said, that they don’t have role models. I always think that’s quite interesting, and maybe even a trait of high performers not to have a role model.
Anja: Oh really?
Christian: Yes. There’s certainly a trend.
The best advice she received
Christian: What’s the best advice you received and who gave it to you?
Anja: This has nothing to do with sports really, but when I was a teenager and I was annoyed by one of my friends and my mom gave me some advice. She told me that I don’t have to love everything about my friends, but they could still be my friends.
It’s really good advice because it helps me relate to people and accept them for who they are. You don’t have to love everything about them in order for you to be friends. Actually you can appreciate the differences and I think that’s the best advice I’ve ever gotten.
Christian: Really cool.
A typical training day in the life of a Mogule freestyle skier
Christian: How does a typical training day look like for a freestyle skier?
Anja: You get up pretty early in the morning because you have to go up to the mountain. Usually, you stay somewhere up in the mountain, but you still have to go up on the hill. When it’s off-season, where you’re training it would be like 3,500 meters because that’s where the snow is, and in the season you’re competing.
So you get up early in the morning, you go up usually to some kind of a restaurant or a place up there where you can do the proper warm-up, you get all your equipment on and you go to the course. You go slide slip down the course.
You check out how it looks that day, how it’s feeling, and how’s the snow. Then you do usually one warm-up run and then it’s all in from pretty much the second run because in the competition you have usually two or three runners to go through the course before it actually starts.
So you want to be ready fast. And then usually you can do about 10 full runs in a session and then you’re done. Your legs are done because it’s like doing 60, 70 squats full-on for one of the runs, plus you have to do the tricks in there. So, for the legs, it’s pretty good work.
Christian: Yes, I believe that. And do you take that into consideration when you plan the week so that you have days with more impact and days with less impact? Any kind of a high loading, low loading, high loading in terms of skiing load?
Anja: Yes. When I started, we would do five days on and then two days off. But as I saw more and more people change that rhythm, so it’d be three days on, one day off, three days on, one day off.
Well, that’s the ideal, but then you have weather coming in and sometimes the glacier will be closed. Sometimes you just can’t train because you can’t see anything or just different reasons can be that you move this schedule around, but that’s usually how it goes.
Her interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Anja: It’s Jeffrey Bignell. He’s from your country. Do you know him?
It’s my generation. He skied moguls, but he also did I think motor cross or something like that and at a high level and he’s done quite a few awesome things. So, that would be one person I think could be fun for you to talk to.
Christian: That’s really cool. The freestyle skiers, also train in the facility where I train my athletes. So maybe I can get a connection there.
Her motivation to help athletes that are transitioning out of sport through her project The Athlete Story
Christian: You’re running a project called the “Athlete Story” where you help athletes that are transitioning out of their career. I think it’s a really interesting and cool project. Tell us more about that.
Anja: You will stop sports at some point and if you are an active athlete, you most often don’t put much thought into this, but when you stop sports, there’s actually a big void. Almost every athlete will feel this void.
- Also, check out the interview ‘Confront yourself with your doubts!’ with 2010 Olympic champion Mark Tuitert and ‘Never lose the essence of who you are.’ With 1996 Olympic champion Tania Lamarca, who both outline the void they felt after retiring from professional sports.
Even if you have planned out what you want to do afterward and all that, it’s something you have to deal with. And so I have been thinking about how you can make this transition easier and so I’ve created “Athlete’s Story”, which is both also a podcast.
There’s also a seminar that I call “Success for After Sport” where we go through different things of the inner work that you do to find out who you are beyond sports. That’s usually the biggest question; where am I when I’m not the runner or cyclist or whatever your sport is?
Then I’m hosting this as a network. So then you can network with other athletes who’ve been in the same situation as you; have had sports as a career for a while, or for many years, and who are now transitioned beyond sports. This is just so you keep that athletic identity.
Why do you still move on? A lot of sports psychologists say that the more you are connected to your athletic identity, the more difficult the transition out of the sport. But I say, try and keep the strengths in the athletic identity.
When you stop sports, there’s actually a big void. Almost every athlete will feel this void. The more you are connected to your athletic identity, the more difficult the transition out of the sport.
Feeling that you are still an athlete after sports will help you stay in shape. It will help you find your confidence when you need it. It will help you perform when you need it. And then just networking for fun is also part of the day.
Christian: And where can you find this? What’s the URL? What’s the direction? 00:26:04
Anja: You can go to The Athlete Story or the Successful After Sports Summit.
Christian: And the summit opens periodically, or is it open all the time?
Anja: You can now buy access to the one that was just hosted, and there’ll be a new one regularly, like once or twice a year with new people.
What’s going on in the life of Anja Bolbjerg at this moment in time
Christian: What’s going on in the life of Anja Bolbjerg further than that at this moment in time?
Anja: I don’t know if you can see it doesn’t look like a typical room here. I have got this place in Italy. The Mediterranean is just in front of me and it’s a big piece of land where I want to create a training camp facility, yoga, retreats facility, and then, bed and breakfast. So that’s the big, big project I’m working on besides the “Athlete’s Story.”
Christian: That’s really cool. I want to come in to visit it one day.
Anja: You should. You’re invited.
Where can you find Anja Bolbjerg
Christian: Where can people find you?
Anja: You can connect with me on Instagram, LinkedIn, or my website, my name, Anja Bolbjerg I’m sure you can find me. You can tune into the athlete story podcast and find it.
Anja Bolbejrg’s social profiles
Christian: Really cool. Anja, thanks a lot for your time. That was great.
Anja: Thank you for the invitation, I had fun.