Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Raj Bhavsar….and the Two-Minute Drill

As we embark on another summer Olympics and are in the midst determining the athletes that will represent the USA in London, it seemed like the right time to share this conversation I had with Raj Bhavsar, a 2008 Olympic men’s gymnastics bronze medalist.

Raj on the rings at the Olympics.
Raj has seen much success in his gymnastics career…from taking second in the team title in the 1999 Pan American Games, taking silver medals in the team event at the 2001 and 2003 World Championships, to a team title at the 2008 Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships, and, of course, was an alternate for the 2004 Olympics.
On the collegiate level, Raj competed at Ohio State, led them to a team title in 2001 and won the individual title on the parallel bars. In 2002, Raj won the all-around title, while the team lost out on repeating by the narrowest of margins (less than a point) to Oklahoma.
Raj is also known for two gymnastics elements, which are named after him. “The Bhavsar” on the still rings was created in 2003 and “The Bhavsar” on parallel bars was created and performed in 2009 at the Moscow World Cup.

After Raj reached the pinnacle…the Olympics and winning a medal…he faced the question that all top athletes ignore until it’s all over. What’s next?

I sat down with Raj to learn more about his experience at the Olympics and how he is dealing with his life after gymnastics.
PJ: How did your gymnastics journey begin?

Raj: It all started when I was four years old and not really by choice. I was an active kid and climbed all over the house…on furniture…and bookshelves. Kind of like a monkey. My parents took me to gymnastics class to get me out of the house…not with the idea of competing. I fell in love with the sport. It was awesome and the coaches instilled the love of the sport in me. A lot came easy to me. I had natural strength. So, the coaches said they’d like me to be on the team. I won state five times, regionals three times, etc. The results spoke to me…everything was telling me to take it to the highest level. Olympians would come and talk to us and I wanted to be the guy going to the gym talking to kids.

PJ: Tell me about the Ohio State gymnastics program.
Raj: It was the only school at the time that was consistently producing Olympians…Kip Simmons, Blaine Wilson, Jamie Natalie. It has a history of this. I just didn’t want to be a collegiate gymnast…I wanted to be an Olympian. The coaching staff was awesome [Miles Avery was head coach]. They worked well together not allowing me to settle just be an NCAA gymnast. They made sure that the level of gymnastics they kept us to was a high standard.

One-armed on the horizontal bar.
Of course, I was fortunate as all my coaches instilled in me the love of gymnastics and that it didn’t matter what scores I got, it was the journey. Being grateful to be able to do gymnastics was my foundation. I was coming from a place of gratitude for every meet…just having this ability, to come this far was humbling.

PJ: You were an alternate in both 2004 and 2008. In 2008 you got the call to compete. How did you handle being an alternate the second time around?
Raj: Yes, I was an alternate both times. It’s a lot for any human being to endure. There was a rollercoaster of emotions. It made my journey to the Olympics so special. I retired in 2005 and 2006 out of frustration. It was an up and down journey to the chapter closing better than I could have expected…winning an Olympic medal.

In 2008 after the excitement died down of being called…I realized it was a mission…the biggest job of my life. It was thrilling and nerve-racking at the same time. But, I was ready; I stayed on top of my game, which allowed me to perform at such a high level. I joined the guys on the team in San Jose for Olympic processing before going to Beijing. I remember going through so much and although I was very healthy I caught strep throat. I don’t know how, but I guess the range of emotions had something to do with it. Luckily we didn’t compete for two weeks, so I took medication and was OK.

PJ: What was it like to compete in the Olympics?
Raj: The Olympics are in a class of its own. However, when you break it down it truly is just a competition and I was very familiar with competition. Certainly I wouldn’t say the energy is the same. Being in the Olympic village, hanging out with other athletes and to be able to represent your country…is special. You have to use your tools to manage your nerves. There are a lot more chips on the line at the Olympics, for sure.

We had two injury replacements…we lost the Hamm twins, who were the front runners on the team. Alexander Artemev and I were both called to the team. So, we had six guys…all rookies. We were counted out by the general media and our own gymnastics community back home. We were reading this on the Internet. But, we had a team meeting and claimed this “Our own Olympics.” We formed a brotherhood and it was about sticking together. That spirit carried over as we competed. It was magical. We were having an excellent competition. We built so much momentum…the opportunity happened and we continued to stick together and clinched bronze. We went from the underdogs to getting bronze. For us it was gold!

When I get a chance to talk to folks about giving up on a dream…I tell them you never know. I almost gave up. My flame dwindled, but the fire was still there pulling me towards this.

PJ: What happened after the Olympics, after your career as a gymnast was over?
Raj: As athletes we are truly committed…usually so committed to that moment that you are not focused on Plan B, just Plan A. I remember starting to thinking about what I would do after this. I got sidetracked so put it aside. I had to be committed 100% to gymnastics to compete at that level. What is next is difficult to answer. I found myself still going into the gym, still doing it. I enjoyed it for the sake of it. I did some gymnastics shows, which I enjoyed—you could break the rules and were more like an artist. I thought about Cirque…what was it like? Would it be a fit? It seemed like an adventure.

I continued to do speeches, clinics, and promotional work after the Olympics. I was riding the wave…it was not what I wanted to do forever. I wanted a career I could fall in love with like gymnastics. So, I put together a reel and submitted it to Cirque. I knew I wanted to live/work in Los Angeles. I loved it there. They [the folks at Cirque] came back and wanted me to be on the team for the Iris show in Los Angeles.
One dream, the Olympics came true, now another one was staring me in the face. I had to make the decision…so I joined Cirque and went all in with them. It is an incredible opportunity…hanging out with artists. It is the most creative experience. I know this has a shelf life and I still am left with the question of what’s next. I am lucky to be with Cirque now, but I still ask myself almost every day…what’s next?

PJ: I know you have been working with Kurt David, a counselor and advisor, who helps former athletes in determining what to do when the cheering stops. Tell me about what it’s like to work with him.
Raj: I was referred to Kurt in 2008 by a dear friend and trusted confidant, Robert Andrews, a sports performance counselor [founder and director of The Institute of Sports Psychology®]. Robert gave me an objective view when I was too emotional. He has helped me immensely. I wouldn’t have achieved my title without him. As I am no longer competing, Robert thought I should talk to Kurt. It was exactly what I needed. I was living in Houston in an apartment in a nice area, traveling the world and doing great things, but something was missing. Sometimes I would sit in my apartment and be very introspective. Kurt reassured me that what I was going through was normal. I was confused. I thought the medal would bring me happiness, but you have to work for it, it’s not just there. In no way was I different from other athletes. He shares stories of other athletes who have been through this. I have a lot of faith in Kurt.

It’s not Kurt’s job to tell you here’s what you should do, he’s not career placement. He’s a guide, an advisor. You ask specific questions and use your previous athletic life and channel that into what is next. It’s remarkable what he’s doing. When athletes finish playing is when most people their age have it all figured out. So it can be daunting. What Kurt does is immensely powerful and all athletes can benefit from it.
Every single athlete I’ve talked to misses sports to a degree. It’s who they are, what they did in sports. Kurt facilitates what to do post-glory days.