‘If you are well prepared, luck will follow you.’ Christina Illum Scherwin – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 70
Christina Illum Scherwin, double Olympian, outlines how she got a serious injury right before the Olympic Games. Christina outlines the lessons she has learned as an athlete and how she applies these lessons in coaching her athletes.
Furthermore, we discuss
- How she got to the US
- Her darkest moment
- How she trained around her rotator cuff tear
- Her best moment
- How to help athletes that struggle with confidence
- Her advice to a younger Christina Illum Scherwin
- Her success habits
- The lessons she learned as an athlete, and what she has taken into her coaching role now
- Her morning routine
- How to prepare for important moments
- How to overcome setbacks
- Her role model
- The best advice she has received
- A typical training day in the life of an Olympic javelin thrower
- Her interview nomination
- Where can you find Christina Illum Scherwin
Christian: Today I’m joined by Christina Illum Scherwin. Christina is a double Olympian and competed at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games and the Beijing 2008 Olympics, representing Denmark in track and field.
Amongst her biggest achievements, was a fifth place at the European Champs in 2006 and 4th place at the World Champs in 2005.
Christina: Thank you.
How she got to the US
Christian: Christina, what brings a Danish person to the US?
Christina: A long story, but the short version is I came to the US on a scholarship for track-and-field. It’s a way that Europeans can come here and go to school, get free education, and good coaching, so I came in 2000. I got my Bachelor’s degree and then I stayed, got married, had kids and I’m still here in 2019.
Christian: So you did not start your athletic career in the US, but then since 2000, you were training in the US and qualified for the Olympics in 2004 and 2008.
Her darkest moment
Christian: What was your darkest moment as an athlete?
Christina: As an athlete, there’s a lot of dark moments. It’s not as easy as it sounds for anybody. You only see the good moments. You don’t see all the hard work.
It’s not as easy as it sounds for anybody. You only see the good moments. You don’t see all the hard work.
Unfortunately, I’ve been through a lot of injuries. I was coming off 2006 with breaking the national record. I was excited about going into the Olympic season and then in 2007 / 2008, and I hurt my shoulder and I knew something was wrong.
I had an MRI, doctors looked at it and they couldn’t see anything specifically wrong. They told me that I would just heal through rehab. I tried, but I couldn’t break through the pain.
So I had a second opinion and in January 2008, I was diagnosed with a rotator cuff tear. That’s a hard injury to get back from fast because I didn’t have a lot of time. I had no option, so I had surgery in January 2008.
I had eight months going into the Olympics and if anybody knows about rotator cuff surgery, that’s almost impossible at that time. So that was really hard for me. The hard thing and what makes the Olympics special, it’s every four years, but if your timing isn’t right you screw it up.
What makes the Olympics special, it’s every four years, but if your timing isn’t right you screw it up.
Then at the time I was 32 years, so I knew it was my last Olympics and that was my time to shine. Unfortunately, I missed it and that was tough. I still competed, but I wasn’t at the level I wanted to be at.
But I had a lot of people question it and said I should pull out, but I felt like if I wasn’t there then I would have no chance. So I felt like and hoped that I could pull one out. It just takes one throw, but I fought my hardest and I just wasn’t ready. I didn’t have enough time.
Christian: How did you recover from that moment?
Christina: It’s hard to say because of the timing I had planned I was going to retire. So I did retire after that. I kept rehabbing and making sure that my shoulder was healthy.
I moved into coaching and what I bring to those kids is that I always try to make sure my kids advocate for themselves and question things. If they feel something is not right, it’s probably not right and they should seek second opinions and just keep fighting for themselves sometimes.
I always try to make sure my kids advocate for themselves and question things. If they feel something is not right, it’s probably not right and they should just keep fighting for themselves.
Christian: And from what I understand, if I understand correctly, your rotator cuff tear was not diagnosed from the beginning?
Christina: Yes, they just said they couldn’t see it on the MRI, so they said that maybe I have something called a slap tear. So it’s a labrum tear and those do not always need surgery and because it was an Olympic year, we were hoping not to have to do surgery.
But the pain was unbearable. I had a rotator cuff tear and I just couldn’t break through it even though I was rehabbing really hard. So the only option was surgery at that time.
How she trained around her rotator cuff tear
Christian: And then out of interest, how did you train around it?
Christina: You just try to really get the area super-strong. The problem is when you have a tear in the shoulder, the shoulder isn’t sitting in the right spot so it’s not loose and it’s not functioning correctly.
That leads to pain and more like a slap tear. The labrum is sitting on top and if that’s broken the bone goes into the top and it hurts. So a lot of people with labrum tears, pain up over the top when they throw.
I can deal with pain, but rotator cuff tear is unbearable. It’s like you throw and you literally want to throw yourself to the ground. And then I can’t get the repetition that I need. You can only go through it for so long.
I actually got hurt before I qualified for the Olympics, so I did qualify with a hurt shoulder because I knew it’s better to do it now whilst I was in great shape. I was doing really well, so I still qualified with a hurt shoulder, but you can only continue so long.
Do you know what I mean?
A lot of athletes with shoulder injuries get cortisone shots or painkillers or whatnot, but this was just beyond that. I needed to have it repaired.
Christian: Yes, that was my question. I imagine if the pain is so unbearable, you have to reduce the training volume drastically, right?
Christina: Yes, and then I don’t get the volume that I need for the long throws. It’s like you’re on a fine line when you’re competing at the Olympic level. It’s such a fine line.
You have to be 2% undertrained then over-trained. If you overtrained, it means you’re in trouble. So it’s just the fine line that you’re always functioning at. It’s just if you want to compete with the best, you got to be right there and sometimes it’s just you push it too much.
Mine happened in a throw, though. It was in a competition and in a bad throw. It’s a lot of force coming down the runway running as fast as you can, stick down your left leg and then you throw and that’s just a lot of force on the body and if your technique is a little off, stuff like that happens, unfortunately.
Christian: I believe that.
Her best moment
Christian: What was your best moment?
Christina: Without a doubt, my World Championships in 2005. I came in ranked about the top 20 in the world, so I was thinking maybe I can make the final if I have a good day. I came in, I had broken my national record right before, and I knew I was in great shape.
Qualifying, I hit a good throw, I made it to finals and then the final everything just peaked. It’s the thing every athlete dreams of when everything comes together at the same time. I broke my national record again in the final and I finished fourth.
It’s the thing every athlete dreams of when everything comes together at the same time.
Most people when they are fourth, they’re not happy, but it was unexpected for me, and at that moment, it was amazing. The winner broke the world record, number two broke the European record. It’s just everybody was just really doing well that day. It was a really good day for throwing.
Christian: What did you learn from that moment? How has it influenced your life?
Christina: I realized in that competition that I was capable of a lot more than I thought I was. I think as an athlete, we always struggle with thoughts of whether we’re good enough or whether we really can compete with some of the amazing athletes.
I realized in that competition that I was capable of a lot more than I thought I was.
I don’t know, I haven’t always been the most talented athlete in the world, but I have this will to not want to lose. I’m a good competitor, so that taught me that I can be in the top and compete with the top. So that was an eye-opening moment for me for sure.
How to help athletes that struggle with confidence
Christian: And you’re in coaching now, so you’re coaching athletes. Confidence and struggling with confidence is something athletes have, especially developing athletes. They’re always questioning if they will ever be good enough. How do you give that confidence to your athletes?
Christina: It’s hard. I coach the University of Oregon for six years, I’m no longer there because I moved to East Coast, but I’ve coached a lot of good college athletes and part of coaching is not just coaching. I’m literally turning into their friend, their mom, their confidant.
I really try to build them up as, not just an athlete, but as a person. If I have someone who thinks they’re not good enough, I really try and show them how good they actually are and how talented they are. You don’t go into this traditional track program unless you are something special.
I really try to build them up as, not just an athlete, but as a person.
Right now I’m coaching high school. It is the same thing, but just at a different level. It’s really important for me to always make sure the athletes have confidence in themselves and they believe that they’re capable of much more than they believe they can.
Christian: And how do you specifically do that, as an example, how do you show someone how good he or she is?
Christina: I use a lot of videos to show them because often it’s hard to visualize what they’re actually doing. I point out to them this is what you’re really good at; this is where your strength is; you excel in this.
And then I say something that may not be as good. I may tell them that there is room for improvement. If they can improve that, they can do a lot. Technically certain things can help them improve five meters and if you improve five meters you are in a completely different league.
So I try to both pick out positive and negative, and negatives turn them into positives. It’s all about finding areas where you can constantly improve so that you can bring your level up. Improving 1% in everything you do every day is going to add up and all of a sudden make a huge difference.
Improving 1% in everything you do every day is going to add up and all of a sudden make a huge difference.
You don’t think about these small things, but everything adds up. I always try to tell my athletes, when they have a competition, they train the day right after because that’s the day their competitors rest.
So we gain a day on their competitors if that makes sense. So we rest at other times, but I try to always mentally just make sure they’re doing something their competitors may not be doing.
Christian: That’s an interesting one, I remember I was working in England for some time and we had a talk from Daley Thompson, the decathlete. His biggest competitor was a German guy called Jurgen Hingston. Daley Thompson said he knew that the German guy would always rest on Christmas Eve, so he trained on Christmas Eve and that gave him the mental edge.
Christina: Yes. You’ve got to work when your competitors rest.
Her advice to a younger Christina Illum Scherwin
Christian: If you could go back in time, 10, 15, or 20 years, what advice would you give your younger you?
Christina: I didn’t start to compete and peak till later. I wished I would have gone back and put more emphasis on good coaching from a younger age. I was a little bit stuck in a club system where the Danish mentality is a little bit different.
I wished I would have put more emphasis on good coaching from a younger age.
I don’t know if you know about it, but it’s like you don’t think you’re any better than your neighbor. It can put a damper on things and it’s just like you just go about your daily business and you just follow your coach, whatever he says.
But if I could look back now, I would have sought international coaching help at an earlier age. It was random that I found the coach that I ended up being successful with. He contacted me in 2004 at the Athens Olympics.
He said that he saw something in me. He said he felt like if I worked with him, we could do something amazing together. Literally from 2004 to 2005, I was a completely different person and that’s when I got fourth at World Championships.
And in the Olympics in Athens, I got like 29th or something. Nothing special, I didn’t make the Olympic final. It just shows how much a good coach can impact you. It’s really incredible. If you’re not in the right system, the right training regime for you, you can get stuck and you get stale.
You got to progress. And then I wish earlier on, I would have had that opportunity to meet the right coach. I think now with my daughter competing in gymnastics, I’m not pushing her, but I’m making sure that she’s with good coaches because it’s important.
Christian: How old is your daughter?
Christina: She’s 10 years, so she’s very young. I don’t know if competitive gymnastics is going to be her thing at all, but she competed at Nationals last year in the US. That’s a pretty big thing because it is a big country. Not pushing at all.
I actually wish she would go and do track, but I think gymnastics is a good way for her to learn coordination and get to know every aspect of her body. My job is just to make sure she has a good setup and that she has support around her.
Christian: And then with your coach, the new coach you had after the Olympics in 2004, did you also move location to train with him or her?
Christina: I spent many, many camps with him. He’s actually from Iceland and he was also traveling around the world because he has international athletes from all over. So no, I didn’t move, but I spent a lot of camps with him.
He wasn’t my technical coach, but he was my physical trainer. He did mental aspects and physical training and that was what made the difference from me. I’ve always had a pretty stable good technique, so that wasn’t my problem.
Christian: That’s interesting. So you did the technical work by yourself?
Christina: With my coach here locally, yes.
Her success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful athlete or person?
Christina: I can’t stand losing. I have this drive to compete and that’s unfortunately hard to teach someone. I’ve struggled to teach that to some of my athletes. I’ve just been lucky to be given that.
- Also check out the interview ‘I always want to improve.’ with 5-time Olympian Reinder Nummerdor, who also mentioned that the drive to win is very hard to teach if the athlete doesn’t have it.
I don’t like losing and I’m going pretty far not to lose, in terms of my will to compete and to push myself. And then I always feel like if you’re well prepared, luck will follow you.
If you’re well prepared, luck will follow you.
I usually say luck follows the well-prepared. So I try to be as prepared as I can be and then, whatever happens, happens. Then I’ve done all that I can do.
Christian: And this will to win or the will to not lose, now you transitioned out into quote-unquote normal life, how does that turn out in normal life? Do you still have the feeling you need to compete?
Christina: Yes, I do transfer it to every aspect of life. I just finished my MBA and it turns into that I want the best grades. I guess I’m a little brainwashed from this competing, but it is my life.
I also play tennis now, which I really enjoy and it’s like I can’t stand losing on a tennis court and it’s who I am. I’m just getting into the business world and it will transfer to that, I’m sure. That’s my drive and that’s my drug. I love to compete. I love to try and push myself.
I’m a little brainwashed from this competing, I love to compete. I love to try and push myself.
It’s not about competing against others sometimes, it’s more about pushing myself. How far can I go? How good can I be at something and then I dive really deep into it and I just go for it?
The lessons she learned as an athlete, and what she has taken into her coaching role now
Christian: You moved into coaching and you coached NCAA Division One Champion, US Olympic Trial Champion, and an Olympian. So what have you taken from your career into the coaching and what did you change as a coach?
Christina: I have taken a lot of things. I don’t coach my athletes the way I would coach myself. I always individualize it, so I don’t try to make every athlete a mini-me because that’s not what it’s about.
I don’t coach my athletes the way I would coach myself. I don’t try to make every athlete a mini-me because that’s not what it’s about.
I always cater to the individual athlete and to their strengths and weaknesses. But when I coach someone, it’s like I see coaching as an aspect of three things. There’s a mental part, there’s a technical part and a physical part.
I have built a lot of that in the same way that you can control technique and mental parts when you’re in a competition, as much as you can physical. So always make sure physically, they’re very, very fit.
That’s the most important thing. If you’re in a competition and mentally you’re not feeling well or technically, your technique falls apart, you always have the physical part you can fall back on. So it’s like you have these three things that are really important that’s the way you peak.
That’s something I really have brought onto my athletes. I’ve taught them that it’s three things you really need to be very good at. It’s really three important things, but certain things are harder to control than others, but when the three things come together, that’s when you really peak.
What other aspects have I brought on?
I really try to take every athlete as an individual and just really work with them. They’re young kids. When I get a college athlete they’ve moved away from their parents and in the US, without offending anybody hopefully, they’re not as mature as European kids.
So they really need to be nurtured much more than a European young adult at 20 or twenty-one. So I just really try to take them as a whole person and not that I’m raising them, but I’m the only adult that is really around them that they can trust, so I try to be the best that I can for them.
Her morning routine
Christian: Do you have a morning routine?
Christina: Not really. I am a planner, I plan a lot and so I always have the days planned out and when you’re a professional athlete your days kind of look the same. Unfortunately, it’s not the most exciting thing at times.
I am a planner, I plan a lot and so I always have the days planned out.
I don’t meditate in the morning. I just make sure I have a good breakfast. I always make sure I have protein in the morning because I have a morning workout. So I go through the schedule, eat breakfast, and then usually have an early-morning workout and that’s what I did.
I still make sure protein is in every meal. This is something as important.
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: How do you prepare yourself for important moments?
Christina: I always try to prepare for the unexpected. Very often the things that can throw off an athlete are like something that’s unexpected; something they didn’t plan for. I know this is crazy, but I always packed extra shoelaces.
What if your shoelaces break when you’re there and in a competition? You prepared for this your whole life and then you don’t have shoelaces? So I did plan down to small details because then when something happens, I’m prepared.
Like in my mind, if this is travel, you have a connecting flight, if you miss it, don’t panic because you’re prepared for it mentally. It can happen. So it’s just I always try to really prepare for the unexpected because then when the unexpected does happen, you’re mentally prepared for that.
I prepare for the unexpected because then when the unexpected does happen, you’re mentally prepared for that.
Christian: And your sport, the javelin throw. In a competition, there’s a very short period of time where you have from the run-up until you throw the javelin. There’s a very short moment in time, so you need to be spot-on at the moment.
What I really want to get at is let’s think about the marathon that has been broken recently. You have a bad start; you can always make up later. I assume in the javelin, if you have a bad start, then probably the rest will be messed up as well. So how do you make sure you’re spot-on when it matters? How do you prepare for that?
Christina: It’s a matter of visualization and having just gone over it enough times, in javelin you have 60 seconds. There’s a clock starting. So if you start wrong and you don’t hit your mark, yes you can run back, but usually, it’s just too late because you have 60 seconds to perform your throw and that usually is not a good idea.
So it’s just a matter of having done it enough times that is just so automatic in your body that you don’t think about. It’s like when young athletes start out, they count their steps. When you’re a professional athlete, you don’t count. It’s just in your backbone.
You just know that now you’re going to withdraw your arm, now you’re going to throw. You have a mark, of course, but your body just knows what it has to do. If there’s something technical you want to work at, I used to only think of one thing at a time because otherwise, it will become too clouded.
So when you’re on the runway and getting ready, you can think about one thing. But at the big moments, the big meets, I honestly just thought about competing in that moment.
It’s not about small details. The work is done, your body knows, the muscle memory is there. It knows what it has to do. You just go out and focus on actually competing.
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?
Christina: A lot of talking. Personally, I just talked a lot with my coach. You have to have someone to talk to. I have never really used sports psychologists as much as other people
You have to have someone to talk to.
I had a great coach I really could talk to a lot and then we would just plan. We would set up a plan for how to recover and how to get back on track. It’s like that’s the most important thing. You got to have a plan on how to get back on track again.
- Also check out the interview ‘Confront yourself with your doubts!’ with 2010 Olympic Champion Mark Tuitert, who outlines he always made new plans after a setback to bounce back from the setback.
Setbacks happen all the time in track and I’m sure in any other sports. It’s just that’s part of it. You’re training right on it on the fine line and setbacks happen for one or other reasons and it’s just a matter of adjusting. Athletes are very good at adjusting for setbacks and unexpected things and that they adjust and they adjust very well.
Her role model
Christian: Who’s your role model and why?
Christina: One role model that I looked up to a lot, both now that I’m done with sports, and during my career is a tennis player called Caroline Wozniacki. I just find her quite amazing what she’s done.
She has Polish parents, and she grew up in Denmark. She grew up in a system where there’s no tradition for tennis and that’s really hard to be the trendsetter in a sport and to do something nobody else has done before.
She grew up in a system where there’s no tradition for tennis and that’s really hard to be the trendsetter in a sport and to do something nobody else has done before.
It’s not easy and I really respect her for that. I feel like she has carried herself with grace and dignity throughout her whole career. You know how it is with famous athletes, a lot of people always have something negative to say and now she’s not competing again, but you know what?
Nobody has walked her shoes. Tennis is an unbelievably competitive sport and what she’s done is unbelievable. I really respect what she has done for herself and the sport and now young tennis players are coming up in Denmark.
Now we have two juniors. One won French Open and the other one, I think she won Wimbledon. I hope I’m not wrong, but they’re both very high ranked on the world ranking and she’s done amazing things for tennis both in the world, but in Danish tennis, in general, she’s a great athlete to look up to.
Christian: And in addition to that, I also know because she’s also quite good-looking, and there has always been a lot of envy and a lot of criticism against her, but knowing a few people that have worked with her, said that she’s actually quite a hard worker.
Christina: Like her going out and running a marathon in the time she did, I think it was 3:30 or something? It’s unheard of. She is like the hardest worker you can find, without a doubt and you just have to respect that.
Yes, she’s amazing looking. You can’t take that from her and I’m sure a lot of people are envious of that and for her making a lot of money. She’s decided to live in Monaco because taxes are high in Denmark and it’s a better climate for her to train in.
A lot of people are hard on her for that. But you know what, she is just going with class and she doesn’t seem like she’s getting involved with any bickering. I really respect that. I think she’s carried herself so well.
The best advice she has received
Christian: What is the best advice you received and who gave it to you?
Christina: It’s probably the Icelandic coach I had. His name is Weston Hafsteinsson. He taught me the expression, “There’s pain and there’s pain-pain”, so you have to know the difference.
Pain is okay because sports hurts, but pain-pain is not okay. That’s when you should stop training. So it’s something that I really have brought to my athletes because it’s so hard to figure out when it’s the time you should slow down when it’s the time you can keep pushing.
It’s so hard to figure out when it’s the time you should slow down when it’s the time you can keep pushing.
It’s the fine line we’re talking about. He taught me this expression. He always said, “Christina, do you have pain or do you have pain-pain?” So the idea was so simple, but it was an easier way for us to communicate in some ways.
We knew that when it was pain-pain, it was time to stop. We had to cut it off and seek treatment or recover and sometimes pain is not talking about injured pain.
I’m talking about physical pain from hard training and sometimes that’s okay to work through; like pushing and training is really hard. It’s just hard work. There’s nothing easy about it, but that’s also what you have to learn to enjoy and just work your way through.
Christian: Yes, there’s also a difference between pain and discomfort and not everyone knows that difference.
Christina: Yes, quite true.
A typical training day in the life of an Olympic javelin thrower
Christian: How did a typical training day look like in the life of a professional javelin thrower?
Christina: I had about 11 sessions a week, I would typically train Monday through Friday; three sessions. I would do a technical session in the morning. I would have something in my hand every day.
I usually throw in the morning and then I would go home, recover, eat some lunch, and then I would go back out again. I would either do conditioning or lifting. I lifted, depending on the season, three to four times a week.
Then at night, I would have a massage treatment and on the weekend I just had one session because it was a high-intensity session, so I needed to have a little bit more rest around that session. That’s really how the weeks and months just went and it became a habit.
It’s like you’re going to work. I did some of my best training when I was in Los Angeles training at UCLA. It was beautiful surroundings and I really enjoyed every bit of it.
When you’re in it, of course, it’s hard, but looking back I realize that it was really amazing. I can’t believe I was so fortunate to train in Los Angeles under beautiful circumstances. It’s just something I look back at and just feel very fortunate about it.
It’s a great job.
Her interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Christina: So I thought about it a lot and I thought I wanted to nominate my roommate from the Olympics. Her name is Henriette Engel. She’s a World Champion in canoe and she is such a hard worker as well and she’s just the most wonderful girl and I think you would enjoy talking to her.
Christian: Oh, that’s cool. We’ll reach out to her.
Where can you find Christina Illum Scherwin
Christian: Where can people find you?
Christina: I really don’t have a website or anything. I’m not very good at that. I would tell people to reach out to me on LinkedIn. That would be great. I’m trying to transition away from coaching. I’m trying to transition into the business world.
Christina Illum Scherwin’s social profiles
I am actually starting a job in January doing business strategy for a company. So that’s something I really am looking forward to. I’m hoping I can bring some of my experience from the sports world into the business world. So I’m excited about that.
Christian: Yes, with all your strength on planning, that should be working out well. Planning, determination, and putting things into practice. That should work well.
Christian: Yes, cool. Thanks for your time. I’m really interested to hear how your business venture will turn out. We’ll connect in a few years again and then see where you ended up.
Christina: All right. Thank you.
Christian: Thanks for your time.
Christina: Thank you so much.