25 Female Athletes on the Pursuit of Perfection

By
Photo: Getty Images

For professional athletes, striving to be the best comes as second nature. In a competitive world driven by high stakes and high pressure, the ones who reign from the top tend to possess both the technical precision required of their sport and also minds of steel that won’t crack under pressure. But is the pursuit of perfection ultimately worth it in the end? Below, famous athletes including Nadia Comaneci, Kim Yu-Na, Katie Ledecky, and more talk about winning, losing, and dealing with pressure the size of a nation.

Nadia Comaneci

“It wasn’t my goal to score a 10. Yes, gymnasts aim for perfection, but I never thought about the score. If that’s what’s in your mind, it will probably mess you up. I just remember trying to stay focused. It takes very little to break your concentration, and then you make mistakes. In Montreal I kept thinking, ‘Pay attention, this is the Olympics! It only happens once every four years!’ Before the Olympics I had felt like I was prepared for any situation, but I wasn’t prepared for this. All the same, I think I handled it pretty well!” —ESPN, May 2016

Katie Ledecky

“Goal setting has definitely stuck with me. Those ‘want times’ were always very ambitious. That part has carried on. I try to set goals that seem kind of unreasonable at first. As I work toward them, the more reasonable they look … If I do fall a little short, chances are it still will be something great.” —ESPN, August 2016

Ronda Rousey

“Men get the luxury of being able to specialize. Women are expected to be perfect at everything. Am I a good girlfriend? Am I a perfect mom? Am I the best athlete? Am I wearing white after Labor Day? … These little constant quests for perfection start pecking away at our attention. Perfect never leaves room for improvement. And perfect never lets us focus on what’s really out there for us to achieve … you don’t need to be perfect to be valid. Your flaws — your unsuccessful attempts at greatness or even mediocrity — are real. They make you better. And that’s beautiful because it’s never perfect.” —Refinery29, July 2016

Serena Williams

“No one takes a loss harder than I do. In any sport. I hate losing more than I like winning.” —Glamour, June 2016

Simone Biles

“To me records prove how mentally strong and powerful you are and how well you can handle pressure. It’s inspiring to young athletes that there are records that can still be broken. It’s never over, there is always something else you can do to do more.” —the Philadelphia Inquirer, July 2016

Nancy Kerrigan

“They’ve labeled us ice princesses. In other sports they’re getting in fights and throwing their equipment. For us to get a little upset, I mean, so what? I love for people to know I am on the ice. I have been doing it for 19 years and that’s where I’m comfortable. But off the ice, it’s a little difficult to always be who everybody wants … Perfect. There’s no such thing.” —TV Guide magazine, December 1994

Ibtihaj Muhammad

“Most parents tell their kids before matches to do their best, or to have fun. My mom always said the same thing: ‘Don’t waste my money.’” —BuzzFeed, February 2016

Jackie Joyner-Kersee

“Every time I lost, it made me more determined to come back because I was never satisfied. I always felt if I was out there I had to be a student, willing to learn and willing to listen. I had to train like an Olympian.” —Sport 360, November 2014

Kim Yu-Na

“Because winning a gold medal had been a dream of mine since a young age, I needed to empty my mind during the preparation for the Olympics by telling myself that it would be OK not to win a gold medal. It was to reduce the pressure within me. So, to my surprise, I wasn’t nervous at all. I felt almost comfortable right before and during the performance. I think that’s how I was able to perform really well.” —CNN Talk Asia, June 2011

Florence Griffith Joyner

“I’d always come in second. When you’ve been second best for so long, you can either accept it, or try to become the best. I made the decision to try and be the best in 1988.” —Ebony, June 1992

Billie Jean King

“I used to think about everything that could go wrong and then try to picture myself, how I would react to it or how I’d respond to it. For instance, with the wind blowing, like last week at the U.S. Open it was really windy, and it was so hard on the players. So I always thought about the wind. I thought about the sun. I thought about bad line calls. I thought about rain if we had to wait, things that were probably out of my control, and how would I respond to them … and I think that’s where the champions come through. So I would visualize all these different possibilities.” —Fresh Air, October 2016

Kerri Walsh Jennings

“We all strive for excellence; we all strive for greatness. But that’s a far cry from perfection and that’s not even something I strive for anymore. I want to be better than I was an hour ago. I want to be better than I was yesterday, and just keep going in an upward and forward trajectory. Perfection isn’t even in the cards. I’m comfortable being imperfect in my sport and as a mommy. You can’t hold yourself to those standards. You’ll crush yourself. Not being perfect makes the journey more fun.” —Parade, December 2015

Janet Guthrie

“[I] knew at the very beginning that I was not allowed to make any mistakes. If I’d done in my first Indianapolis 500 what Danica [Patrick] did in hers — spinning out, taking one or two other drivers with her, stalling on a pit stop — if I’d done those things, there wouldn’t be a woman at Indy to this day.” —AARP Bulletin, May 2011

Abby Wambach

“When you’re up here as an athlete – I’ve been there – you’re on air and everything is easy. The ego can get lost in the stars. And you start to believe that the light needs to be that bright to keep you happy. But that’s just not real. It’s not real. The fire has to be turned down most of the time, and then, little by little, you increase the gas you put on the fire so that the flame can burn bright as you get closer to the pinnacle. For me, that pinnacle is the World Cup, and during that time, you’re fed with Twitter, with people loving everything you’re doing. Or not loving it. If you score a goal, that is clear, concise, measurable validation. In the real world, though, you don’t have that, so once it’s over, you have to find different things that make you tick, that move you.” —ESPN, October 2014

Marlen Esparza

“The first week or two, I was still thinking it was a joke [that I didn’t qualify for the Olympics]. It just didn’t make any sense to me. It still doesn’t, no matter how I cut it. I went through the stages of depression. The crying. The ‘blame everyone.’ The anger. Then it was just being sad. And then it was time to move on…But I’m having a lot more fun because I don’t have to freak out about everything. If I lose, but if I can learn from it, I can be where I am – happy and have a happy face and not be so freaked out. And I can sleep at night. I was getting anxiety attacks and panic attacks. Those have been resolved.” —ESPN, December 2015

Chris Evert

“When I was younger, I was a robot. Wind her up and she plays tennis.” —ESPN

Sasha Cohen

“I just had to keep strong and if there was a mistake, I had to shut it out of my mind and believe I could nail that next element. When you make a mistake, you hear the whole audience go, ‘Ohhh.’ You can hear that groan everywhere. You have to learn just to snap out and stay in the present. That’s why athletics teaches so much about life, about being a mentally stronger person.” —Forbes, January 2016

Danica Patrick

“Most people only see me at the racetrack or an interview or just after qualifying or the race. You’re seeing a very small glimpse of me as a person in a very similar situation every time. It’s tense, it’s focus, it’s frustration, it’s sometimes excitement. For the most part, we all pretty much come away from each race thinking about what could have been better. So I don’t think that’s an accurate description of what I’m really like in general.” —USA Today, September 2016

Michelle Kwan

“I’m glad last year happened. Everything had happened so fast, I didn’t appreciate what I’d already done. I didn’t enjoy it. I was so worried about winning, it was as if I was caught in my own web. I kept asking myself, Why am I here if I don’t love it? Why am I torturing myself? It’s supposed to be fun, and I thought I’d die if I didn’t win.” —Sports Illustrated, February 1998

Simone Manuel

“Coming into (Thursday’s) race, I tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders as it is something I carry with me being in this position. But I do hope it kind of goes away. I am super glad with the fact I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport, but at the same time I would like there to be a day when there are more of us and it’s not ‘Simone, the black swimmer.’” —USA Today, August 2016

Dara Torres

“When you start letting the world know what your goals are you have a lot more pressure on yourself — from other people. As an athlete you want pressure from yourself not other people. Because you are proving it to yourself, not other people.” —USA Swimming, September 2016

Kim Zmeskal

“I think I’m going to be a very picky person. I guess it’s because, as gymnasts, we were always worried about what other people were saying about us. We were always being judged. I find myself judging people the same way. People who don’t get good grades at school, it’s like, Well, why don’t you? I can’t help it. I had a B recently on an English paper. I was so used to getting A’s, I was really, really upset. My friend, who got a C, said to me, ‘Are you going to cry? Because if you’re going to cry, I’m going to slap you.’” —Sports Illustrated, December 1992

Kristi Yamaguchi

“Any medal would have made people happy in ‘92. But in ‘94 it will be expected to be gold. I’ve never had that kind of pressure on me before.” —Sports Illustrated, December 1992

Amanda Beard

“Even outside the pool, I saw the world as a competition. And if I wasn’t winning, I completely failed … The perfectionist drive that made me a star athlete in the water, out of the water tore me apart. As I nitpicked every little aspect of myself, I discovered over and over again that I wasn’t good enough.” —In the Water They Can’t See You Cry, April 2012

McKayla Maroney

“It’s almost like, since I won a gold medal, anything that’s next has to be up to that caliber, or else I’m like, ‘You’re a failure!’ People are like, ‘She’s hit her peak, she’s done.’ … They just don’t expect anything greater than a gold medal from me. And it’s hard to top that if you think about it.” —Yahoo!, August 2016