About Sarah Wells
Obstacles don’t scare Sarah Wells (@SarahWells400mh). As a 400m hurdler, this Olympian’s reputation was forged through overcoming challenges and achieving the incredible. Take her debut at the London Olympics in 2012, which came despite an injury that had her sidelined her for months just the year before.
Outside of competitive sports, this athlete is coaching people to pursue excellence through the Believe Initiative, an organization founded on—fittingly—a message of resilience. Most recently you would have seen Sarah pushing her limits on the latest season of The Amazing Race Canada.
Evidently someone who understands the importance of building resilience and self-belief, along with the power of purpose, you’ll want to listen-up when this Olympic semi-finalist and Pan Am Games silver medallist takes the stage.
**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.
Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today is a very special interview with a very special educator. She is not one that works directly in the classroom every day as a teacher or a principal or support staff, but she works with thousands of young people every single year with an amazing program called The Believe Initiative. I’m so honored to call this individual a very close friend of mine. Her name is Sarah Wells; might ring a bell. Obstacles don’t scare Sarah Wells. As a 400 meter hurdler, this Olympian’s reputation was forged through overcoming challenges and achieving the incredible. She debuted at the London Olympics in 2012, which happened despite an injury that had her sidelined for months, just the year before. Outside of competitive sports, she’s coaching people to pursue excellence through the Believe initiative, which you’ll hear about today. An organization founded on a message of resilience. Most recently, you would’ve seen Sarah pushing her limits on the latest season of the Amazing Race Canada. She is a phenomenal speaker to youth and organizations and has so many amazing stories to share. I hope you enjoy this conversation with my good friend Sarah, and I will see you on the other side. Sarah, why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about what it is that you do.
Sarah Wells (01:32):
So, my name is Sarah Wells. I am an Olympic 400 meter hurdler. I am a adoring fan of Mr. Sam Demma <laugh>. No, I’m honored to be here really. Excited to share a bit of my story, who, where I got started, honestly, in track and field. I wasn’t good at any sports and I had a high school teacher see me in gym class and he was like, you need to do track and field. And at that point, it was early into my high school experience, like it was like near the end of grade nine. And I had already been cut from every single high school team, like basketball, volleyball, soccer, badminton, cut from every team. So when the teacher is like, you should, you should come to the track team, I was like, no dude, I already got cut from every team at this school. <laugh>
Sarah Wells (02:16):
Like, you don’t want me on your team. And he was like, no, no, no. I just saw you run to the ball, do nothing with it, <laugh>, but then run away like really fast again so you can accelerate. I I wanna teach you how to hurdle. Hmm. And so I was like, okay, sure. So I go out and I end up finding hurdles and falling in love with the sport and end up setting my sights eventually on the Olympic games. And that high school teacher and I, we stayed coach athlete for the next nine years until we made the Olympics together, which is pretty unheard of and not, you know, your classic story. But yeah, it was a wild ride. I was convinced I wasn’t athletic and then suddenly I was <laugh>.
Sam Demma (02:56):
And at what point did you turn back and decide it’s time for, for me to share these experiences and stories with other people? You speak for clients like r BBC and huge schools and you start your own initiatives that we’ll talk about later as well. At what point did you turn back around and say it’s time to share and give back in speaking?
Sarah Wells (03:12):
So I was kind of head down into sport once I realized that I had some potential. But once I made the Olympics, I had a story to tell of what had gone on. And you know, the <laugh> short form of that is really, I had an injury. I sat out for what was supposed to be three months and turned into nine months. Wow. And I had never touched Olympic standard before. And so everyone was telling me like, you’ve just sat out for nearly a whole year, like you’re not gonna make it. And on my first day back to training, I got the word believe tattooed on my wrist. And I said, when I make the Olympic Games, I’m gonna put the Olympic rings underneath here. And six months later, <laugh> you know, shockingly even to myself, I make the Olympic games. And I finished that tattoo and I put the Olympic rings underneath exactly where I said I would.
Sarah Wells (03:59):
And so I’m like, holy mo, believing in yourself works. And my parents, they were really proud and so they were te telling their friends what I had done. And my parents’ friends were like, come talk to my kids’ school. And so I was like, okay. And so I walk into a gymnasium, I’m like, this is what happened. And like, I got a tattoo. Don’t get a tattoo though. Don’t tell your parents. I told you that <laugh> and like, just believe in yourself because if you believe in yourself, you achieve your goals. Look, I did it and I started sharing that story. And for four years while I was still training cuz I wanted to make a second Olympic games I was getting to speak and share that and inspire others and realize, you know, how powerful this what had happened to me could be used for good to help inspire other people. And so it was so exciting and it helped me fund my training and training camps and, and competitions and helped me continue to develop and get faster and stronger. And, you know, right before my next Olympics at it was the 2015 PanAm games, I ended up winning a silver medal and only losing to the number one ranker in the world. And so it really set me up to be like, okay, the next Olympics, 2016 Rio Olympics, I plan to go win a medal and call it a career and speak all I can <laugh>.
Sam Demma (05:12):
That’s so cool. I gotta be honest with you, when I think about any running athlete, like the first thing that comes to mind is like, fors, Gump, <laugh>. I’m just like running for hours. And I’m curious to know because as a soccer player myself, like training is fundamental to the game. Like, if you don’t train, if you don’t go to a track and you don’t run, you don’t become a faster sprinter. You know, you have to go to the track and you have to run. But I have to imagine that there’s, there’s certain days where like the running just became so melodic and you just, you know, it was like, it was like you didn’t wanna do it. Like I have to imagine there was times where you just didn’t wanna do it. And how did you get yourself through those moments and continue to push yourself past your limits every training session to get to where you were when you competed in the games?
Sarah Wells (05:55):
Oh yeah. There was a thousand moments I could probably think of, of days. I was just like, dang, why do I do this? Like this sucks. Like I laugh at the shirt that one like Nike made that shirt for runners that said, running sucks. <laugh>, <laugh>. Cause it does, it sucks. It’s so hard. Like, and it’s like a bunch of other teachers that say like, my sport is your sports punishment. Like that is what track and field is. Yeah. And even though I just joked about how I wasn’t good at sports and then I just said like, eventually I found track and field, it’s like I wasn’t good at sports, I was good at exercising <laugh>, I was good at just running, you know, and being able to put in work. And it wasn’t always fun. Like you said, there was many days I wanted to give up and just say like, ugh.
Sarah Wells (06:36):
So it’d be so much better if I could just like stretch for the whole practice, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, like, I don’t wanna push my body hard. But the ways I was able to rise above that in moments you just really didn’t want to was I think kind of twofold. Like one, there’s a little bit a around the like remembering your goal and like picturing yourself, like vividly picturing yourself what it’s gonna feel like and look like when you do get that goal. Mm-hmm. And there was moments in workouts where like I would show up kind of like a soggy cracker, like, ugh, am my coach, I wanna cracker <laugh>. Yeah. That’s saving a lot. and I would just be like, I don’t wanna be here today. Like I’d be cranky for whatever reason, maybe I had a bad work at the previous day or I didn’t get a good sleep and my coach would be like, you know what?
Sarah Wells (07:28):
Like get to it. Like I don’t care. Like this is what it’s gonna take. And what he would do sometimes is mid interval, like we’re approaching the end, this is where I’m, I’m wearing thin on grit and motivation and energy and I remember specifically this one workout we were doing hills and you are basically walking by the time you get to the top of this hill, like it is so challenging. We had done a bunch of figure eights, like you run diagonally all the way across and all the way up and then you jog down and you run diagonally all the way across and all the way up to draw figure eight. And we had to do like six sets of this and it was terrible. And I had already thrown up, I think at this point once <laugh>. And so I had to keep going.
Sarah Wells (08:06):
And my coach, I remember this like second last interval, which is one of the hardest intervals because you’re not done, you still have one more, but you’re so beat by that point. And so it’s like one of, it’s the second last interval, I’m running up this hill and as I like am getting to the top, I wanna give up, he can see I’m slowing down and he just yells to me 55 seconds, which is the time I needed to run in order to make the Olympic games. And it’s just like, just hearing him yell that in the moment, I was like, I’m tired, I’m exhausted, I don’t wanna keep going. But the second he yelled 55 seconds, it just anchored it all back to like, why am I doing this? What is this gonna help me? What brick does this help lay? And finished that workout and was like so pleased with myself of like, because he said that I didn’t give up because he said that I crushed the last workout or the last run.
Sarah Wells (08:56):
And like, I think a big part of how you push forward on any day, you don’t feel like doing your homework. You don’t feel like going to school, you don’t feel like doing the job that you signed up to do, you know, is by remembering like vividly what is the thing that this lays a brick for, whether it’s in a week from now, a month from now, a year from now, whatever that is. so that’s one thing. The, the second thing is a bit more anchored, less big picture and long term and more tangible on like a daily, weekly practice is I would keep a workout journal that would have, what was my workout? What times did I run, how was I feeling during the workout? And what I could do is every training season is cyclical. Like you have a base season where you do a long, like a bunch of hard long intervals.
Sarah Wells (09:44):
Then you have specific season where you’re doing, it’s kind of long and it’s really fast. And then you have kind of race season where you’re doing less volume but really high intensity and you follow these cycles every year. And so the workouts might be mildly different, but they’re a little bit the same at each time of year. And so I would keep a log and I could look back years and years worth of my, of my log and say, look, at this time of year last year I was only at this point and I don’t feel like running today, but look how much further ahead I am. Where else can I go? What other new heights can I reach? Or it holds you accountable of like, ugh, I was faster at this point last year. I need to keep going as much as I don’t wanna work out today.
Sarah Wells (10:25):
If I have this big goal then I, I need to push today. Like regardless of whether I wanna be here or not. And it just is a little bit of an accountability partner being held to that log. And you know, it might not be a daily practice for you if you’re doing this like with school or anything like that, but I would encourage you to keep a log of like things you were working on, what went well, what were the practices you were doing like character building practices, not like athletic sport practices that were enabling you to become the best version of yourself that were enabling you to take a step forward in your goals. And when you can see that and look back of like, oh, last fall in September I was so organized and I was committed to blocking time to work on school and I was committed to networking and reaching out to organizations I could volunteer at so that I was building my brand and my volunteer opportunities, then you can suddenly motivate yourself to be like, shoot, I better be doing that again. And you can push on the days you don’t want to because you’re held accountable to what you know works cuz you have tangible qualitative science to show that it does. So that’s really the kind of the two ways I would push beyond motivation is one remembering and anchoring to that big goal vividly. And the second thing would be keeping a log so you can hold yourself accountable to things that work and things that don’t.
Sam Demma (11:43):
Sorry. Do you have a second tattoo that says 55 seconds somewhere <laugh>?
Sarah Wells (11:49):
No, not yet. Not
Sam Demma (11:50):
Yet. That’s awesome. So cool. I love that.
Sarah Wells (11:52):
Love my believe tattoo. I’ll share this like quick story by I got the tattoo and I had been injured and my parents knew I wanted to make the Olympic games, but they really didn’t believe it was possible. They really didn’t like, not that they don’t love me, but I don’t really don’t think that they believed that it was possible. And I, I got the tattoo secretly. I finished my very first after the doctor cleared me to run, I finished my first workout and I was like, you know what I’m doing? I took my friend and I was like, let’s go. And I walked right from the practice to the tattoo parlor. I didn’t have an appointment. I literally walked in and I’m like, I need a tattoo blue, I believe on my wrist. So I get it. I didn’t tell anyone. And then I was at school so my parents didn’t see me. And I went home at Thanksgiving and I showed my dad and I got this believed tattoo and my dad said, you ruined Thanksgiving. <laugh> <laugh>. It was amazing. It was like kind of hilarious because yeah, he did not believe that was necessary. No pun fan. He’s a fan of the tattoo. Yeah, right. Yeah. Yeah. He’s a big fan now though. He’s like, that’s awesome. Great job. Love that. You made the Olympics good work.
Sam Demma (12:56):
Yeah. Now, now it all makes sense, right? It’s funny, I, when I was 18 after my first knee surgery, I got this tattoo and it’s a, it’s a Latin phrase. Yeah. and it says Vinke keur, which means he who endures, conquers, you know, if you can endure pain, suffering, hardship training, now you can conquer and <laugh>. Well, did I know that I was gonna stop playing soccer after two more injuries, but <laugh> But I applied to all areas in life. Like I think it’s a, it’s a mindset Yeah. More than anything. Totally. But I’m curious, like from your perspective, what do you think makes up the mindset of an Olympic athlete? Like if I was to take some surgical equipment and like poke your brain and like figure out like what makes up Sarah’s mindset what do you think, what do you think the things are that would be included?
Sarah Wells (13:42):
So I think there’s, there’s people really put Olympic athletes on a pedestal Yeah. And think that they’re these like special humans that they must ha like you just ask me, can you get into my brain and look around and say our brains are gonna look very similar. Yeah. Like anyone, like while Olympic athletes, yes, it is a, is a unique thing that we are one of the best in the world at one specific thing. But so many of us, we had opportunities presented to us that we were able to, to take advantage of. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And there’s a professor, a Canadian professor that studies resilience that talks about how we admire the rugged individual, but we should be admiring the resourced individual. And really it’s about resilience and grit and all of that. Like there there’s some nature aspect of it of like, yes, someone might be willing to to harness or take advantage of an opportunity that’s presented them.
Sarah Wells (14:45):
They might be more inclined to do so. But it’s more about are those resources presented to the person? Like that’s how you can be resilient is when you have more opportunity, when you have resources in front of you. Now someone might say then, okay, so am I screwed? I’m in an underprivileged neighborhood and my school system doesn’t have a lot of things in front of me. Like, am I screwed? Then it’s like, well no, because there are, there are resources that like now it’s just like unfortunate that you have to take more of a role in choosing to go find those resources. Mm. But don’t blame yourself of like, I’m not resilient because like clearly I don’t know how to push past challenges clearly I don’t know what to do. Like, instead it’s like, okay, get, just acknowledge that it’s not, it’s not you, you’re not the person who’s not resilient.
Sarah Wells (15:35):
You’re not the person that’s not rugged, you’re not the person that’s not gritty. There’s not enough resources. And so ask for help in that moment. Like, I had a year where after having a very successful high school career, when I went to university, I got hurt right away. Like within the first few months I got injured and it was one of my first like really big injuries and I didn’t perform provincial on that provincial level. I like barely performed well on the national level. And I was so convinced, like, okay, it was the end of the road. I was a good high school athlete, this is it for me. And I had coaching staff and in a support system around me that never stopped believing in me. Mm-hmm. And they kept pouring resources into me. They kept providing the opportunities, they kept putting me on the track because one of my coaches said, talent doesn’t go away.
Sarah Wells (16:27):
And he said that to me. Did I believe it in that moment? No way. If you looked in my brain then, oh, let’s look for the grit in here. It wasn’t there. <laugh>. Yeah. It wasn’t there. What I had was, I had this amazing coach around me that said, talent doesn’t go away, Sarah, go get back on the track, try again, do it again. Do it again. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> until suddenly I realized myself like, oh shoot, he’s right. <laugh>, here it is. I found it. It took a while though. And so I think asking for help, like I I, when my coach said, look, what do you need? When I said I I just don’t know if I can make it. And he was like, Sarah, tell lets go away. What do you need? I said, I just need reminders. I just need you to keep telling me that this is possible then.
Sarah Wells (17:07):
And by doing that, I was able to open a door to find, to have him understand what I needed and then I got the resources I needed to then be resilient and be gritty and become an Olympic athlete. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so as we are all struggling with how do we be gritty? How do we become more resilient? How do we become more resourced? It’s like ask for help. And it, you know, ask for help has become quite trend right now on, on the like mental health space. And, and I think it’s so important there, but it doesn’t have to be like asking for help. Cuz I’m like, I’m so struggling that I’m like in the deep end over here, but asking for help for like literally simple things like, oh, you know what? I ha you, I could come into practice one day and be like, I’m having a rough day today.
Sarah Wells (17:49):
So in the last interval, remind me my big goal mm-hmm. <affirmative>, because you know what? I’m gonna start to let go of it then I’m just gonna, it’s gonna start slipping. And so I could at the beginning of practice, just tell my coach, Hey, I’m gonna need you to remind me why we’re here today. And because having him there, because he would remind me of that, like those external resources is like really what helped me get to the place I’m in. And even what I’m doing now, and I know we’re gonna get to that in a bit. Like, I’ve now built a youth organization and we help others build resilience and self-belief. Even what I’m doing now and how I’ve been able to build this organization and impact 120,000 youth and get on stages and do all these incredible things, it’s not because of me, it’s because of amazing people.
Sarah Wells (18:32):
I’ve like said, Hey, this is the mission I’m on. This is what I’d like to do. I don’t know how I’m gonna get there. But just so you know, <laugh>, that’s what I’m planning on doing <laugh>. And because I say that out loud because I’m brave enough to believe in myself and just put it out there, even though it might not come true, well suddenly that person who hears it is like, oh, I know someone you should talk to that might be able to help you with X. Oh, actually you wanna do that? I specialize in that. No way. Crazy. Yeah. And then I’m like, leapfrogging forward has nothing to do. Like, I won’t say nothing. My mom would be so mad at me, Sarah, you should be more. She would be like, want to. Yeah, exactly. You gotta believe in yourself isn’t your whole thing. Yeah, exactly. and I do like, I do believe in myself. I, I constantly say like, I believe I, if anyone can do this, I believe it’s me, but I believe I can do it because I’m willing to put the goal out there to ask for help and find the resources necessary. And I think, you know, if you looked inside of the, the mindset of an Olympic athlete, I think you would find an incredible incredible ability to ask and receive help.
Sam Demma (19:41):
Hmm. That’s such an interesting play on the idea. And I, I love that you went that way with it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it, it even got me thinking about this idea that like, you could be so prepared, right? Like the fastest runner in the world may have never mm-hmm. <affirmative> ran on a track and we just don’t know it yet. Like there could be someone who’s faster than Ussein Bolt who is better at swimming than Michael Phelps and Yeah. And, and we just don’t know it. Why? Because maybe they’ve never been presented with the opportunity to swim or run or mm-hmm. <affirmative>, they didn’t even know it was a thing and they haven’t asked for help. Right. You know what I mean? Like, I think it’s oh hundred percent. That’s such an interesting perspective. So asking for help and the mindset piece aside, what does your schedule look like back when you’re like full out training for the Olympics? Like, what does the work look like? Because I’m, I wanna make sure everyone listening knows, like despite the fact that you asked for help when you had opportunities, you still had to show up and like give your heart out to the training process every day.
Sarah Wells (20:40):
Yeah, absolutely. It was a ton of work and, and you have to be putting in, you have to be willing to put in that work. and I certainly was, my coach would probably tell you that there was workouts. I would come cause I would be so like if I had a bad workout the previous day or I had a bad race, then to me, like the only way to get better is like, you just push your body like crazy. Like I just wanna give it everything tomorrow, <laugh>. And so like there was days I showed up to the track and I would be like, I wanna run today till I throw up. I was just so committed to the thing. He’s like, okay, you crazy person. and of course we had a program and the way that program was lined out is we trained like five or six days of, of the week depending on time of year.
Sarah Wells (21:20):
So if it was base training season, we might, we trained six days a week with one day off. If it was closer to race time, we would, we would take two days off because you wanna have even more recovery to be ready for your race. So in, in the fall, I’ll paint, I’ll paint you kind of that picture, but so Mondays would be like speed. We would be doing like fast, like 60 meter sprints, 40 meter sprints, like block starts, like super, super speed. and that’s really about pushing the glass ceiling of your ability to go fast. You’re recruiting more muscles. you’re learning how to connect your nervous system to develop power and be like quick outta the blocks, kind of that stuff. So that day is speed and it includes weights and stuff. Tuesday would be lactic threshold. So if you’ve ever tried to run as hard as you can and your muscles start feeling like goopy full of like a burning sensation that’s lactic acid <laugh>.
Sarah Wells (22:15):
It’s like a milky kind of substance that goes all over your muscles that prevents oxygen from being able to like get inside of the muscles. And so as you run your hardest and fastest, your body develops, lactic it, it produces lactic acid, it starts making your muscles kind of milky and you have to train the system to then say, as it gets milky, take that milk and then turn it into energy. <laugh> learning that system is a it, you have to train your body to learn how to do that. So Tuesdays are brutal because all I’m trying to do is teach my body how to deal with that misery and pain and uncomfort and like discomfort. And like, my goodness, it’s a rough day tho those days I would hang out in your garbage cans over top of ’em a lot. So Tuesdays was terrible. Wednesdays would be like weights, like it would be pretty light, really focused on strength.
Sarah Wells (23:01):
Thursdays would be speed based, but this time it would be long speed. And so it wouldn’t be about 60 meters. It wouldn’t be about 40 meters, it would be about 220 meters. So it would be half my race, but all out. And so, you know, it would be a a rough, you’d, like, you’d still be put in a lot of work. You’d, your nervous system would be exhausted by the end. Friday, again a very like kind of light day because we wanna prepare for Saturday, which is another day, like Tuesday, which is the muscle milky, get to a garbage can and throw up at the end like, and not <laugh>. Now I’m making a picture like as if like two times a week I’m constantly running, but like certain times of the season that was the case. but yeah, you followed this, this and then Sunday off recover.
Sarah Wells (23:48):
You know, and for me, anyone who knows me knows I’m a treats fanatic and so I’d be like eating chocolate chip pancakes or breakfast on Sunday and <laugh>, you know, eating dessert at dinner and like ice cream galore and you know, it wasn’t the best fuel ever, but I, I couldn’t eat garbage on the day I had to do a workout because I would feel worse and, or I would throw it up <laugh> and so it would be Sunday I was like a yeah sleep, do schoolwork and try to like eat the food that I wanted. so that’s what a, a overarching week would look like. Now in a four hour practice, five hour practice, it would be my warmup alone takes like an hour where you’re doing jogging and drills and ankle mobility stuff and just getting ready, primed to go. And then once you’ve done that hour long warmup, well now you do a few biometrics to work on recruiting muscles and, and fast off the ground kind of stuff.
Sarah Wells (24:46):
Then you would do sprint drills so that you start training your body because when you’re running really fast, it’s hard to rewire the way you move your body. So we’d do sprint drills before we’d even sprint to try to like anchor in the way you should be sprinting. And then I would do hurdle technique drills because I’m a hurdler, so there’s a whole technique side around that. And so then I would have to do those drills. Then I might start doing reaction time stuff out of the blocks. I’ve just done my plyometrics. I’ve just rewired my brain of like, this is how you should be sprinting so that I do my out of the block stuff. Now I might actually start my runs. And so I would do things that we call strides, which would be at a certain pace. Cause whatever workout we’re about to do, we wanna start priming our body to prepare to run at a certain pace.
Sarah Wells (25:29):
So we do strides at a certain, like, okay, if I wanna be running 13 second one hundreds or cuz I’m about to run a 300 that I, I wanna be able to run 42, 41 seconds with like, and I need to be doing that. So I would do strides. Then we’d take like five to eight minutes recovery to like, almost just reset that your heart rate kind of come back to normal. And then after that five to eight minutes, now you start the actual interval training. And now the interval training is the like, you know, run milky body, you wanna die curl up in a corner. So like, depending on what the workout is like that can take, it could take an hour, take an hour and a half, like who knows how long that ends up taking depending on what the workout is. and you’re not running for the whole hour, an hour and a half, but the faster you run, the more recovery time you need.
Sarah Wells (26:17):
But that recovery time isn’t spent like just chilling on the sidelines because if you ran really fast, you’re, you’re in cheetah mode, right? So you run super hard, you throw up, you curl up in a corner, you feel like you’re gonna die, you’re waiting for your heart rate to come down before you have to walk to the start line and do it again. And I’m painting a very like dr. Dramatic picture and it’s not like that all the time, but I wanted to like give you the, the a day that we would go through more than one time a week.
Sam Demma (26:41):
I love that. It’s awesome.
Sarah Wells (26:43):
<laugh>. Then we’d finish the intervals and now we would do our like cool down jogs. We’d do med ball circuits. You’re throwing around that really heavy medicine ball. And then you go down to the weight room, finish your weights, then you get into a cold tub where you go above your belly button, full tub of like ice, icy covered water. Stay in there for 10 minutes and then you try to warm up, like get back, get your muscles back to like normal temperature and go fuel protein, carbohydrates. Like get ready for your next session.
Sam Demma (27:14):
Sarah Wells (27:14):
Sam Demma (27:16):
<laugh>. You can write a whole book on it <laugh>. That’s so cool. what would you tell someone listening right now who has been told that what they wanna do with their life isn’t possible? Like I’m sure that, you know, when you don’t believe in yourself, you have little chance but mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, when you don’t believe in yourself and other people are telling you it’s not possible, but you know, there’s a student listening who still wants to do something. Like what, what would you tell them? What pieces of advice could you share?
Sarah Wells (27:44):
I would say find someone to show you what’s possible. Hmm. And what I say, what I mean by that is I had this perception in my brain. I wasn’t good at sports, right? I wasn’t good at sports. So how am I ever gonna be an Olympian? Like Olympians, they’re superheroes, they’re people that have perfect seasons and they never get injured and they’re, they win every race and they’re the best in the world. You know, they, they can’t have a bad day. They’re the best in the world. If you’re the best in the world, you don’t lose to Sally on your team because Sally on your team isn’t making the Olympics. And if you lose to Sally, you’re not going to the Olympics. And guess what, Sarah, you’ve been sitting out for a year so there’s no way you’re going to the Olympics and all of that.
Sarah Wells (28:24):
I believed all of that had to be perfect, had to be flawless Olympians pedestal. And then in 2008, four years before I made the Olympics, I had a teammate who I trained with day in, day out. I saw him get injured, I saw him miss training. Sometimes I saw him lose races. Guess what happened? He made the Beijing Olympics on a not flawless season on a you know, moments of defeat, moments of whatever. And he still made it. And he showed me what’s possible. Hmm. He helped me realize that you don’t have to be perfect and it’s, you have to work hard. You have to like want it, you have to do the thing, the things that you can do, but doesn’t have to be perfect. And as impossible as it may seem, cuz halfway through the season, I don’t think people thought he was gonna make it either.
Sarah Wells (29:13):
And then he did. And so it was like he showed me what’s possible. And so the next four years it was like, head down, let’s do this. And then when I got rocked <laugh> the year before, it was like absolutely. People told me it was impossible. I thought it was impossible at times. But I also just like tried to keep reminding myself of this thing of like, what he had shown me, how much like you did not have to be flawless. And of course like that, that sense of self-belief, like, okay, and mom, I don’t need you to believe in me. I believe in myself right now, you know, <laugh>. Yeah. And so while it’s hard to see and people are telling you it’s impossible and you yourself might feel it’s impossible, I would encourage you to just like, you know, we, we have such privilege and opportunity to have access to so many resources online through social media like YouTube, like podcasts that show you what’s possible. And so if you feel right now your goal is impossible, like go research someone who’s done what you wanna do, because I bet you there’s someone out there that maybe hasn’t done the exact thing you wanna do, but has done something in that ballpark, has done something in that arena or has reached the same height in a different industry or capacity in some way. And it’s just like by, by fostering a bit of that, that spark, you remind yourself what’s possible.
Sam Demma (30:30):
Hmm. I think what’s so unique is that you’ve now created an entire organization that gives that feeling to thousands of young people like <laugh>, like if they don’t believe in themselves, like you come in and you like, you like shove the belief in them <laugh> if that’s the right way to put it. But like, tell me about the Belief Initiative and what it looked like when it started, what it looks like, what it looks like right now mm-hmm. <affirmative> and why you’re super passionate about it.
Sarah Wells (30:59):
Cool. So I mean, yeah, the Believe Initiative came about for, for a few reasons. Like one I, that high school teacher that saw me in gym Classon told me to do track and field. That teacher believed in me before I ever believed in myself. And so the Believe Initiative can really play a role in being that coach for as many people as possible because of what we talked about. Resources are important, having access to opportunities are important and not everyone’s gonna have that coach or teacher in their high school. So how can I come into as many high schools as possible and be that teacher for them and say, Hey, try out for that thing. Go do that thing, pursue that passion. Show yourself what’s possible kind of thing. So it, it really, it has like an spark in an essence way back from the first time I ever even explored the support of check meal.
Sarah Wells (31:44):
It also comes from, I told you the story here and now about how I made the Olympics. but there’s another story of how I, four years later don’t make the Olympics. Hmm. And it was shocking to me because I was in the best shape of my life and as I had mentioned previously, I had just come off winning a PanAm game silver medal. And so I was supposed to, and I’m using air quotes right now for the audio listeners, I was supposed to win a medal. And so when I didn’t even make the Olympics <laugh>, it was, it was I don’t know, like I felt completely defeated and I felt I had failed and I thought I had lied to people because previously I had been telling people, if you believe in yourself, you achieve your goals. Hmm. And now I believed in myself and I did not achieve my goal.
Sarah Wells (32:27):
And so when this happened, I actually took a whole year off sport. I quit sport for a year. And in that year off I did a ton of reflection and thinking and I realized you don’t build self-belief through achievements. You build self-belief through action. Mm. Because I actually believed myself more strongly after not making the Olympics even more so than when I did <laugh>. And I think that’s cuz you build it through, you build self-belief through action. And I was willing to go to the Olympic trials a like in the 2016 year when I ended up not qualifying. I was willing to not let my circumstances define my outcome to go for it anyways. And so I was like, oh, okay, like you build self-belief through action. How can I help other people build self-belief through action? And that’s when the Belief Initiative was founded and I was like, I wanna help students connect a passion they have and a problem they wanna solve and they can use that passion to solve that problem and build self-belief through action.
Sarah Wells (33:23):
Hmm. And so we started this out by just going into schools and doing like one-off assemblies. Like, okay, this is how I believed in myself, this is how you can believe in yourself here. Let’s talk about ideas that you have that how you can build self-belief through action. And it started like that and then it grew and it grew and we signed a corporate partner that allowed us to do cross country tours. And we’ve been in like most provinces in Canada and a handful of states. And we went way up in Northwest Territories in like, you know, 40 degrees north of the Arctic Circle. We did authentic Dogsledding. It was so cool <laugh>. but you know, it’s been so, I’ve been so fortunate to travel all over and get to inspire young people everywhere. And when Covid hit, we couldn’t go into schools and we couldn’t do what I had been doing, which was more of these like tour based summit experiences.
Sarah Wells (34:13):
And teachers were also completely overwhelmed and did not want to, nothing did not have time or energy or resources to be able to deliver this program with their students. And so I totally get that <laugh>, I completely understand. It’s like been a wonky year. And so what we’ve decided to do is actually say, okay, if teachers are overwhelmed, well there’s some pretty awesome students out there that they can, they can lead this. Like why do we need the teachers? We don’t need them. And so, you know, if you’re listening to this and you are a student and you are a student leader looking for a leadership opportunity, like we want you, because the way that this works now is we have students apply to become a Believe chapter head. And you lead that chapter and we give you the training and resources and everything you possibly need to run a successful chapter.
Sarah Wells (35:03):
You have other peers, you get access to chapter heads from all across the country, actually all across North America. Cause we have some US chapters as well. Nice. And you can run this belief chapter at your school, you get a leadership opportunity. We actually provide you different training and access to mentors and things like that. And then you get to empower your chapter members to build these believe passion projects, which helps them connect that passion. They have problem they wanna solve and they use the passion to solve the problem. So the chapter heads, they really become the champions because while we enable them and equip them, they really are the the ones that help gather these members and then empower them to do really great things in the community. And it’s a great story for them to tell as a leader to say, Hey, university applicant application.
Sarah Wells (35:48):
Like, here’s what I’ve done and here’s how many students I’ve inspired as a young person. And it’s been so cool to see on my end because I used to be limited by how many planes I could get on and days I could be in a school and how many, you know, days I could spend overnight in an airport. But now it’s like with being able to empower these other, these amazing student leaders and I’ve no doubt, whoever you are listening on the other end of this you student leader. Yes. You, I would like you to apply <laugh> to become a chapter head because it’s this incredible group and it’s been so cool to watch the chapter Heads from All Over, connect and support each other and share best practices. And so you know, personal plug here, you can go to believe in aship.com and if you hit the Believe leadership tab, you’ll find where you can apply and become a belief chapter at your school or in your community.
Sam Demma (36:40):
I love that. And I just wanna plug you times too <laugh> you know, not only will you be able to have awesome stuff on your resume and you know, build an awesome initiative in your school, but like your peers will look at you like a freaking hero for <laugh> for bringing something together during a time where everyone is so far apart, you know Right. Physically and emotionally. yeah. So I feel like this is needed now more than ever. And so if you’re listening to this, like take it as a sign, take it as a signal to go to Believe initiative.com, sign up become a chapter ahead, spearhead an initiative at your school and also meet Sarah Wells, the freaking Olympian <laugh>, you know, it’d be pretty cool. so I love that. That’s amazing. And you’ve impacted 120,000 students so far, is that, is that right?
Sarah Wells (37:32):
Yeah, 120,000 students. we’ve had like approaching 10,000 students who have initiated projects. Yes. we haven’t been able to track impact of projects on everything, but we just started tracking it in the fall. And so just, you know, 2020 fall we had projects that impacted 19,000 people. And so that’s, that’s only tracking the projects we had in the fall <laugh>. And so I know it’s gonna go far and wide from there and we’re gonna start tracking and reporting that more so bigger numbers to come
Sam Demma (38:03):
<laugh>. All right, cool. Sounds good. Believe initiative.com Leadership tab?
Sarah Wells (38:07):
Yep. The Believe leadership tab.
Sam Demma (38:09):
Okay, cool. Sounds good. And if anyone wants to reach out to you, send you a, a note or a comment or a message, what would be the best way for them to do so as well?
Sarah Wells (38:18):
So I’m on Instagram and Twitter @SarahWells400mh, which is like Sarah Well’s 400 meter hurdles, which is a really big regret and I really should just change my social media handle, but I don’t think is that bad, like <laugh>, will you change your social media handles? Does everyone just be like you’re gone? But yeah, @SarahWells400mh on Instagram and Twitter and then you, you can contact me through the website as well, so.
Sam Demma (38:42):
All right. Awesome. Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time to come on here and share a little bit behind the scenes about yourself, your story, your initiative. I really appreciate it and I wish you all the best in the future.
Sarah Wells (38:53):
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The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education. By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators. You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.