by Erika Kinsey

It’s a piece of advice I hate: be patient.

As an athlete, it’s the most annoying thing to hear. We do all the work and we want results – now.

But if I could say one thing to young athletes, it’s that: play the long game, because getting sucked into short-term obsessive thinking is the way to end your career before it’s really begun.

Trust me, I’ve been there.

I was European junior high jump champion in 2007, and two years later I was finished, walking away from the sport that meant everything to me.

Here's why.

As a teenager, everything came easy, the sport was never a struggle, but I under-estimated the size of the step up from junior to senior. I wanted to be the best in the world, so I put so much pressure on myself, training ten times a week, trying to do everything perfect.

Go for a walk in the city? No, that would just tire me out for training. Eat something nice, but full of sugar? No, that’s not what champions do.

This was how I thought at 19, 20, and only now do I realise how wrong I was.

At the time I was too skinny, unable to put on muscle and get stronger, because I wasn’t eating properly and I was training too hard. My performances suffered – soon I could no longer jump over 1.90m.

And so I quit.

I was 21 at the time, and was like: that’s it, I’m done. I put too much stress on myself, and I couldn’t handle that pressure any more.

Erika Kinsey ()

I stopped training and moved to Norway. The only person I knew there was my brother and after a while, I started to wonder what to do with my life. As a way of meeting new people I found a local ice hockey team, a league where men and women played together.

It was fun: no pressure, no pain, just what athletics had once been.

But my competitive gene was still there. After a while I switched to a better team.

That's when I got hit with a tackle that changed everything.

I broke my ribs, punctured my lung, and getting hit like that made me re-consider things for the first time: I needed to go back to track.  

In 2013, I moved to America and enrolled at the University of Central Missouri. It was there that I began to realise there was a different way of doing things.

In Sweden when you want to do something, you try to do it perfectly – it felt like everyone was a perfectionist. Maybe it was the era we grew up in, looking up to all those greats like Kajsa Bergqvist and Carolina Kluft.

They inspired me a lot, but because I was always putting so much pressure on myself to get to that level, I was never satisfied.

When I moved to the US, I realised they had a different mentality. They believed they could achieve big things, but the athletes weren’t obsessing the way I did – trying to do everything perfect. They prepared well, but didn’t have those obsessions. They could go and have McDonald’s after competitions whereas in Sweden it was like, you have to eat this healthy if you want to be good.

It made me more relaxed about food, about training, and helped me find a better balance in life. Being in the NCAA system also allowed me to broaden my horizon, to try the multi-events and long jump more often.

The end result of was that I was improving in the high jump – I cleared 1.97m in 2015 to finally break the personal best that had been unchanged for seven years.

Erika Kinsey (Matthew Quine)

At times, people have told me I need to focus only on high jump, that I can’t keep doing the long jump, that I can’t still play hockey.

And I’m like, yeah, I can, because that’s what makes me happy.

Now that I’m older, wiser, I don’t care what people say, but when I was younger it was hard to not listen. You think everybody else’s opinions are everything and it feeds into your mind that you’re not serious about the sport, if you’re doing it another way.

I may not be quite as good at the long jump, but I’m jumping off the other foot so it’s actually helped my penultimate step in the high jump. In little ways like that, you learn there’s not just one right way to succeed.

It’s the same with hockey. When I quit it as a teenager I always had so much pain in my knees and feet so I’ve decided to make time for it ever since. Even in recent weeks, while competing on the Diamond League circuit in Oslo and Stockholm, I made sure not to miss my weekly game.

I play with a team in Akron, Ohio, where I live with my husband, Daniel, who’s also my coach. It’s a men’s team, but checking isn’t allowed and the guys are all nice so there’s no danger of what happened years before.

And even if it did, I’m a lot stronger these days.

I weigh almost 20 kilos more than when I was younger and was trying to do everything perfect – and I’ve never jumped better.

Erika Kinsey ()

But it makes sense: when you look at all the multi-eventers, they can jump really high even though they have more muscles that us. If you’re stronger, that extra kilo is not going to hurt you, and over time I realised it’s better to think about food as energy and fuel rather than something to be rationed.

When I was younger and not getting enough energy I was miserable and the truth is, if you’re happy and have a good life outside of track, you’re going to have more fun and get better results on the track.

And looking at my summer so far, I think it’s time for another PB. My current one (1.97m) is four years old, but I’ve been over 1.96m a few times this year so hopefully it’s coming.

I’m 31 now, but there’s still plenty of time left to achieve what I want. Over the years, I often regretted the period when I quit, wondering what might have been if I didn’t. Now I realise I probably wouldn’t still be jumping had I not taken that break.

I don’t feel as serious all the time about the sport these days, knowing that when I go all in, things tend to backfire badly. Of course, I still put everything into my training, but outside of that I make smarter choices.

And because of that, I enjoy it more than ever.

Photography: Matthew Quine