Friday, October 11, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: British Olympic cyclist Nicole Cook's retirement speech

Because she isn't Lance Armstrong, you may not have noticed British cyclist Nicole Cook's retirement speech back in January. In fact, it occurred in the same week that Armstrong sat down with Oprah Winfrey for a "tell all" interview. Her London press conference to make the announcement didn't even yield video of her speaking, but the speech was powerful enough to be reprinted in full in The Guardian and in Cycling News.

Cook's statement came at a time when cycling was getting the highest level of visibility, not for the magic of the sport, but for the excesses of cyclists found to have taken performance-enhancing drugs. Her approach is fierce and fearless as she talks about standing up to teammates who were doping themselves in order to protect her reputation, and in her indictment of doping athletes. "I am appalled that so many men bleat on about the fact that the pressures were too great. Too great for what? This is not doing 71 mph on the motorway when the legal limit is 70. This is stealing somebody else's livelihood. It is theft just as much as putting your hand in a purse or wallet and taking money is theft....When Lance "cries" on Oprah later this week and she passes him a tissue, spare a thought for all of those genuine people who walked away with no reward – just shattered dreams. Each one of them is worth a thousand Lances."

With three themes--the difficulty she faced as a woman cyclist, the doping scandals, and the need for future protections for girls and women in the sport--Cook balances often damning revelations about the sport's governance, fellow riders and sponsors with support and praise for those who did the right thing. She holds up examples of cyclists who didn't use drugs, thanks officials for admitting they erred in excluding her from races, and offers thanks to the dedicated family, friends and organizers who helped her career move forward against all odds. But she does not stint in sharing her challenges, drawing clear pictures with well-chosen detail, as in this story about winning a race without much support:
Again the BCF and the lottery funded coaching structure was embarrassed that I won and beat the funded riders on their expensive equipment and resources, on my cheap bike. They had a British Cycling Team car and back up. I had dad on his bike with a saddlebag of energy bars and drinks to hand out!! 
What they did not know was that in the weeks before, I had spent the summer riding over the Grand Cols, including over the highest road ever taken by the Tour — the Cime de La Bonnette at over 2700m. I had ridden over this with mum, dad and my brother. I had put the hard work in and in my world, hard work counts for an awful lot.
What can you learn from this famous speech?

  • Don't delay your actual announcement: This speech was a statement given at a press conference, with a purposeful audience of reporters there to get the story. While Cook had plenty of commentary to make, she delivered the news in the second sentence, while indicating the nature of her remarks to come: "I am here to announce my retirement and in one sense that is a simple thing to say and a simple story, but given that the sport I have given my life to has become more 'fantastic' than any soap opera...I thought it appropriate to share with you some of my experiences and, importantly some ideas for the future." Don't forget the purpose of your speech and bury the news.
  • Use detail to make it real: Cook doesn't speak in generalities about doping. Instead, she speaks of opening the fridge in the team house and finding the drugs there. When she speaks about winning a race without support, we can see her dad on his bike with that saddlebag of energy bars, so different from the well-funded team support car. Judicious details make these stories pop and stick in our memories.
  • Don't hold back: If you can't say it when you're retiring, well, when can you say it? There's not an ounce of sugar-coating in this statement, helping it to stand in high relief against the Armstrong spin-control efforts going on in the same week as this statement. Cook takes the role of witness to history in her sport, assuming a duty in the task that keeps this statement from being too sensational or self-promotional.

Oh, how I wish I had this one on video, but do read the full text. You'll learn much about how poorly supported women's sports are, and come away with admiration for Cook's persistent over her 11-year career. Special thanks to London reader Lucy Gregg for pointing me to this speech--I appreciate the chance to share this find-of-a-speech with all of you.

(Photo from jenscer's photostream on Flickr)

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