Winning an Olympic gold medal is an achievement athletes seldom experience, even fewer on home soil (or sand!) – but Kerri Pottharst is one of the lucky ones, or so I thought. After chatting to the triple Olympian it turns out it was a manicured manifestation and there was actually very little luck involved.
As the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games approached, Kerri Pottharst and Natalie Cook were driven by an insatiable hunger to win gold – to the point it wasn’t enough to be in perfect physical shape, they needed to be laser-focused too.
To complement the “best beach coach in the world," Steve Anderson, Kerri and Natalie also enlisted the help of a success coach, who had them literally tasting gold (or perhaps that was the gold toothpaste they were using as part of their success training!). Nevertheless, it worked.
"Stepping up onto the dais in Sydney was one of the most incredible feelings I’ve ever experienced,” says Kerri. “You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for a long time and I think I slept with my gold medal under the pillow for about a week!”
Profile Magazine meets Olympic Gold medalist Kerri Pottharst.
What drew you to indoor volleyball when you were 15?
Kerri: I actually started playing volleyball by accident, my (older) brother asked me to fill in on a social team and I really liked it and he saw I had a good body type for volleyball and he invited me to his club team and everyone went, ‘Wow, a 6ft tall 15-year-old, let’s teach her how to play.’ I had one of the best coaches in the country who happened to be my team coach, so I got off to a really great beginning.
Was it unusual to have that natural ability?
Kerri: Not really, I was kind of always able to play most sports, I was pretty coordinated but I never found anything that I was overly interested in but volleyball really clicked for me. I really loved the team aspect and making new friends and we always went on trips interstate and eventually overseas and that was fantastic to be able to see the world.
In 1992 you were struck down with a serious knee injury, but rather than leaving the sport behind, you changed to beach volleyball?
Kerri: I played indoor volleyball for Australia for 10 years, I had barely even sprained a finger, I had never had an injury and had a devastating knee injury on that 10th year. I was planning on going back again and playing another year professionally overseas because I had just played in Italy, so that fell by the wayside.
When I was trying to rehabilitate my injury I realised I wouldn’t be able to play, it was too difficult on the hard floorboards to twist and turn and jump and land, so I thought I’d try beach volleyball and not really knowing where it would lead, and at that time they’d just announced that beach volleyball would be an Olympic sport at the next games. That was 1993, so it was three years until Atlanta.
I started playing with one of my best friends and then realised I could go further with Natalie Cook, so I teamed up with Nat against most people's advice. People thought myself and my friend had a good partnership, we were the third ranked team in the country at the time and I wanted to make it to the Olympics and only two teams would go, so I knew I had to do something different and I had a gut feeling that Natalie was going to be awesome. She was still pretty young, but there was something about her that I really loved, so we teamed up and were the number one team straight away.
Tell us about winning gold on home turf.
Kerri: Most athletes don’t get to go to an Olympics, most athletes that go to an Olympics don’t get to win a medal, most athletes don’t get to win a gold medal, and very few get to do it in their hometown and home country, so we were incredibly lucky; I say lucky, but we made our own luck because we planned everything.
We planned for after we won gold, we planned a family and team BBQ for after we won, we planned what we were going to say to the crowd on the microphone after we won, we planned all that in our heads to the point we had so much belief it was going to happen that day nothing was going to stop us.
That kind of shocked the Brazilians who had won most events for the two or three years leading up to that, we’d never actually won an event, we’d come second and third many many times and were ranked third in the world but we still hadn’t cracked the win against the top team under pressure.
So it was the absolute pressure not only on ourselves, but pressure of the home country on our shoulders as well, but we learnt to deal with that all before it happened, instead of trying to deal with it in the moment.
We had a fantastic volleyball coach and a fantastic success coach that helped us together get the right mental attitude, the strength of mind to be able to do that. So we did all sorts of different things.
How did looking at the ‘whole picture’ improve your game?
Kerri: It was 90 per cent mental on the day, because there are so many skills involved in our sport, all of us could do each skill as well as the other, but it really came down to who was able to perform under pressure and perform at their best under pressure.
You’ve heard of being ‘in the zone’, well we were right in that zone; I often describe it as a cone of silence, it’s like a big dome around our court and we’re inside and it was just us against them, although we had 10,000 people screaming outside of the dome I didn’t focus on that, I focused on the moment. And that’s what we learnt to do, we learnt to narrow our focus in on what we were doing in the moment and not let outside things distract us.
How have you introduced that into your real life, post retirement from the sport in 2004?
Kerri: Every single lesson I’ve learnt is ingrained in me and what I love now, what Natalie and I both do is a lot of speaking and inspiring other people, that was one of our reasons why we wanted to win a gold medal was so we could use that as a vehicle to then go and help other people and inspire, motivate and coach other people.
How often do you get out on the court these days?
Kerri: I coach occasionally, at the moment I’m coaching the Under 21 girls for the World Championships later this year, but that’s just a few camps here and there.
I play occasionally and that’s more embarrassing than enjoyable, after six knee surgeries, the legs just don’t quite work the same, then it becomes very frustrating when you know what you’re supposed to do (and the body doesn’t follow through).
I always said I’d retire if my knees couldn’t go anymore or if I got pregnant and pretty much both of those happened at the same time. That was at 39 – I played again after I had a baby just to see if I could, so I pretty much hung up the bikini at 41.
I still have it tucked away and bring it out every now and again just for my talk, I make a joke how little the material is, how did we possibly run around in front of thousands of people in it – whatever brings them to the beach!
Kerri will be on the Sunshine Coast on Friday, 5 February as part of Premier Speakers and Events’ Breakfast of Champions and VIP Luncheon – she promises both events will be motivating and a lot of fun, provide an insight into what it takes to be the best in your own field; and provide ideas to take away and apply to your own life and career.