Forging Olympic Mettle

By Charles McKenzie, June 26, 2019
Alumna helps elite athletes perform on the biggest international stage

Editor's note: This is the fourth installment in a 6-part series that also appeared in the spring issue of ICView. Read Mind Games to learn how two alumni helped major league teams to World Series titles, and read Keeping Focused Amid Chaosto find out how an alumnus is helping minor league players in Latin America. Read "Staying Sharp Despite the Grind" to learn about MLB player Tim Locastro '18.

In a Venn diagram of practice and performance, the circles should ideally overlap, but the Olympics, says Nicole Detling, MS ‘05, presents a set of rings all its own, linking athletes and their nations on an overwhelmingly historic worldwide stage. 

“As an athlete, you might tell yourself it’s just like training for any other competition, but the reality is—it’s not. It’s the freakin’ Olympics. There’s no reason to discredit or discount that,” says Detling, the owner of HeadStrong Consulting.

Competitors must first comprehend the gravity of the experience before anticipating and working through all of the unique thoughts, feelings, and pressures the games produce. 

“That way, they’ll build the tools to handle this being the biggest competition of their lives.”

As coordinator of mental performance of athletics for the University of Utah, where she received her PhD in 2007, Detling helps prepare winter athletes who are thrust into the spotlight only once every four years. Detling even got a taste of that attention when she appeared on The Colbert Report before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. 

coach with olympic rings

Detling coached aerial skiers at the Sochi Olympics.

It was at those same games that one of her athletes, a speed skater, ended up winning Olympic gold. That night, she heard a knock on the door. It was the athlete, holding one of the most prestigious award in all of sports. 

“Before I even knew what was happening, he was putting it around my neck. I said, ‘What are you doing? That’s yours!’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but I couldn’t have gotten there without you.’”