My Conversation

With Sarra Lajnef

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My next guest is brains, beauty and a beast wrapped into one.

She should have you reframing your mindset in the sense of what you can actually achieve, if you set your mind to it.

My guest leaves her home at the tender age of 15.

She studies in France for her baccalaureate, graduates with honors, and is then  then recruited by the University of Florida and swims for Florida for four years.

She graduates with a degree in political sciences and an under grad certificate in international relations – with the highest distinction- Summa Cum Lade.

She then graduates with a master of business from the University of Wollongong in Dubai.

Brains aside, she’s also a beast. 

She’s an Olympic swimmer, the first Tunisian female swimmer to qualify for the Olympics. 

She’s a 2015 and 2019 Master Swimming World Champion. 

1 Gold / 3 silver & 4 Golds / 1 Bronze respectively.

She then picks up rowing, and within two years becomes the national champ in both Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. 

And now, it’s the triathlon.

Are you kidding me?

My guest is the kind of person who chooses to continuously and consciously redefine herself.

This young lady is absolutely inspiring.

You never know you’re good at something, unless you try it.

Sarra always gravitated to water. There’s nothing she loved more than to jump in, and feeling the coolness of the water against her skin. She was only 8 years old when she started to compete, confident in her goal to become an Olympian Swimmer.

It’s a constant misconception that because Sarra was an Olympic swimmer, that her next sport to conquer (rowing) would be a piece of cake. That assumption was of course incorrect … at least at the beginning of her rowing journey.

Nothing is automatic. You’re not born with it. You learn it:

  • Her rowing coach looked at her (as a 27 year-old) and said, “What are you doing here?”
  • He assumed she couldn’t do it.
  • Initially he remarked, “You’re old. You’ve never been on a boat. How are you going to learn how to row?” (Clearly not wanting her).
  • Rowing was a transition, because she didn’t make the Rio Olympics.
  • Most people would have called it the end of their career.
  • Instead of letting the disappointment stop her, she decided to rebuild herself.
  • She couldn’t swim anymore.
  • She looked for something different that would be of interest to her.

Her choice of sport wasn’t random:

  • She picked rowing because it was a water sport, and it an element of endurance.
  • Both of which were skill and ability she had developed through swimming.
  • Her father has videos that show Sarra falling in the boat and flipping into the water.
  • She was not a natural.
  • When she started, she had no rowing co-ordination.
  • She said, “It was impossible at first(rowing). But it’s amazing what you can do when you put your mind into it. Lead with the mind, and the body will follow.”
  • Within one month. She became National Champion.
  • Her coach went from a non-believer to a believer.

Her motto and her hope – To inspire one person at a time:

  • Every time she slipped. She would swim back. Get back on the boat and say :
  • “You will do it. You will get better next time”.
  • In her mind, once you flipped, it couldn’t get any worse than that.
  • “If you don’t fall from a bike, you still have the fear of falling …
  • When you fall, you release the fear …
  • Falling is just the start.” (Sarra Lajnef)
  • After a few falls, she became comfortable with falling.
  • That helped her then focus on getting better.
  • Once you put your mind into something.

Our mind is very strong. You just need to give it the chance to be strong:

  • It’s easy to say, “I can’t do it”.
  • It’s fine to fail.
  • But if you don’t try, you’ve killed what you could have done even before you even start.
  • In 2016, She faced a hard blow of not making the Olympics.
  • Sarra wasn’t ready to give up on sports, even though she faced the lowest point in her career.
  • She decided to do something different.
  • Instead stopping or getting depressed, rowing is what saved her mentally.
  • It was a way to stay in the sport and not completely out.
  • At first, there was no plan to win the national champions or win the seven rounds in the United Arab Emirates.
  • She started rowing to get back on her feet.
  • She started to learn it.
  • Then she liked it
  • Then she loved it.
  • Then she started challenging herself.
  • One of the reasons the coach didn’t want her to do it was because they were one month away from the championship.
  • Sarra told her coach, “I will participate in that championship. And you will see, we will win.”
  • She had this vision (while she was getting on a boat and flipping into the water)

She’s a fighter by nature:

  • The secret to her success, and not falling off her boat, was going to the national champion in one month.
  • Set up a target
  • Announce it.
  • Now you can’t back out of it.
  • You’re committed.
  • She also has a mad work ethic.
  • She was there at the clubhouse every day.
  • Every single day.  Twice a day.
  • Weekdays. Weekends.
  • She was there ready for practice every morning, before the coach even arrived.
  • She would run.
  • She would row on the machine.
  • Then get on the boat and do longer distances.
  • Leave for lunch and then come back.
  • Rest.
  • And then, do more sessions.
  • Sleeping for recovery – 7 hours.
  • Good Nutrition.
  • Not just good training, because training alone isn’t enough.
  • It’s also everything around it (physically, mentally)

Consistency is key:

  • She showed me pictures of her blistered hands. They were bleeding. Hurting. Barely holding the oar when it came time for the competition.
  • She worked hard to get her teammates to believe in her and
  • It was also a privilege to row with her teammates.
  • When I asked her if she was talented? She said, “Talent is a start. But it’s not going to get you to where you want to be.”
  • What makes her wake up every morning? 
  • Having a goal.
  • The secret to being consistent and committed is “having a target”
  • What does she say to herself in the mornings to get out of bed?
  • Two words – GET UP!
  • Sarra says, “You feel amazing when you do what you need to do and didn’t give in to “being tired”.

She aims to be positive:

  • She surrounds herself with positive people.
  • She’s always been target driven, influenced by the fact that her parents are from the military.
  • Her mum was also an influence, showing Sarra, through example, how a female was doing things in a male dominated world
  • In her own words, her badass mum inspired her.
  • From being in a tight knit family, at 15, she moved to France and started living on her own.
  • Waking up at 5am to go and train.
  • It was difficult. And she struggled.
  • For the first 3 months. She was crying.
  • Not in front of her parents. But when on her own.
  • Giving up was out of the question.
  • These were thoughts and decision she was making at 15.
  • A 15-year-old girl in a foreign country.
  • She’s grateful to the fact that her parents gave her the opportunity to decide on her on.
  • She CHOSE to leave her comfort zone of being the best in Tunisia, where should could have stayed.
  • Instead, she wanted to get better.
  • If it meant that she needed to push herself out of her comfort zone to go to France, and be away from her family, she was willing to do it. And she did.
  • Ordinary doesn’t cut it for me.

Qualifying to becoming an Olympian: 

  • It took Sarra 8 years of hard work, discipline, and preparation, changing coaches and changing routines to get to the London Olympics.
  • Sarra speaks great English.  But for the records, it’s her third language.
  • For her first English exam in Florida, she needed to have a translator with her.
  • When does she realize things must change?
  • When you don’t feel comfortable with what you are doing.
  • When you know something is wrong, that’s when you need to assess things, and make changes.
  • She changed coach because she was not getting the level of attention and supported she needed in order to grow.  She was not doing her best times.
  • This was a decision she was making at 16/17 . She researched schools and coaches to find one that would best suit her plans and growth.
  • The effort, decision and discomfort of moving proved rewarding.
  • She started winning.

How she sustains her energy? :

  • She gets energy from the water.
  • She has a sweet tooth.
  • However, she knows herself well enough not to surround herself with sweets.
  • She admits to not being perfect.
  • As a focused athlete, having a relationship has been challenging.
  • She also feels the pressure is a lot more on female athletes.
  • Not that it’s easy, but it’s easier for male athletes.
  • She’s is often surprised as to why would people want to put people down instead of be inspired by them
  • She finds support and strength when she talks to her family.
  • Sarra isn’t a nagger. She accepts the challenge of whatever is put in front of her.
  • She believes that whatever is meant for you will come to you.
  • Sarra: Your journey will be filled with people who don’t understand you or people who will try and stop you, at some point or another, in one way or another.
  • A phrase Sarra lives by:
  • “Avec Les Moyens Du Bord!” (Make the Most With What You Have!)

At this point and time, Sarra is not sponsored:

  • She is self-supported athlete. I have to work (job), to do what I love (sport).
  • She doesn’t cry about it. She knows it’s the reality of the situation, and the region, where its far more challenging to gain sponsorship in the middle east compared to being in the States or Europe.
  • She understands what she needs to do.
  • She tells herself: “Deal with it. Do the best that you can do”.
  • You have to prove yourself. And then, you have to prove yourself.
  • And then, you have to prove yourself yet again.
  • She doesn’t let situation stop her from moving forward.
  • I just go and train and do my best with what I have.
  • With the capabilities of what I have.
  • I won’t pretend that I have more.
  • I’m not going to say, ”When I get a sponsor, I will train”:
  • If you are waiting for a sponsor before you start, you will never start.
  • It’s easy to think – I didn’t have enough time (Relating failure to not having a sponsor).

Sarra has a ‘No Excuses’ mentality:

  • You will always have time to train.
  • You might not be able to train with the best (because of not having the money).
  • But you can train your best, wherever you are.
  • Do your best with what you have.
  • Compete at your best
  • And hope for the best.
  • She had food poisoning in the middle of a championship.
  • But that wasn’t going to stop her.
  • She goes to hospital. Comes out. Swims, and wins gold.
  • Then goes back to hospital again. Comes out. Swim, and wins gold again.
  • Be truthful and realistic with yourself about your limitations, potential and resources.
  • I’m a fast learner, but I won’t use that as an excuse or reason not to work hard.
  • Sarra’s thoughts: When I want something and when I put my head into something, I’ll work as hard as I can to reach where I want to reach.
  • It’s not about being a fast or slow learner.
  • If you really want it, you will do whatever it takes to get that thing. Whether it takes you one hour, one month or one year.
  • Everyone has a different pace for every thing.
  • Being at a different pace isn’t an excuse to not work hard.
  • It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to learn and master whatever you want to do, but you need to put in the hard work and effort to get to where you want to get.
  • Her journey has been filled with accidents.
  • She doesn’t focus on the accidents, but how she’s dealt with things after any accident.
  • Finding excuses is the easy way.
  • Giving up is the easy way.
  • Working hard.
  • Doing what it takes to get back, and to get and do better, is the hard way.
  • It is possible.
  • Anyone can do it.

Incidents & Accidents can be valid reasons for most. Not Sarra:

  • 3 weeks before the 2012 Olympics, she finds out that she has a hole in her lung.
  • She had a hole. In her lung. Not a metaphorical hole. A real hole.
  • She decided, “I’m competing”.
  • At that point she remembers telling herself:
  • This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and it may not come again.
  • Even if you need to go in a wheelchair. Hole or no hole, you’re going.
  • It was out of question for me to give up on the Olympics because I had that hole (In her lung)
  • While cycling, she gets hit by a car.
  • She saw her life and career flashing by.
  • In pain. And in tears.
  • She went to Tunisia for surgery.
  • They had to re-break the collarbone, and plate it with four screws.
  • A month later she was rowing.
  • She couldn’t raise her arm.
  • She had limited arm movement.
  • All this time. She is thinking… “I’m not losing my championship”.
  • It wasn’t easy
  • It wasn’t her best performance.
  • She even passed out on the beach on the last day.
  • But in her mind,
  • Her team needed her
  • He wanted to keep her championship title.

She is unstoppable – In mind:

  • Regardless of her body giving away.
  • Regardless of having to fast during the Holy Month of Ramadan.
  • Regardless of the fact that she couldn’t walk.
  • She shows to herself that everything is possible.
  • Our minds are very strong.
  • Our bodies are even stronger.
  • She pushes herself beyond limits. She knows that.
  • So when her body tells her ”you need to rest” – she’s learned to listen
  • “I don’t know how to coach you because you don’t show pain.” Sarra’s Coach.
  • Every time he gives her a hard drill, she just smiles and does it.
  • I won’t show pain.
  • I won’t show you my weakness.
  • I cry. But you won’t see it.
  • Her coach knows that she is not the type of person that will say, “You’ve broken me”
  • When I’m given a task.
  • I do it.
  • I do it right.
  • I do it well.

At Low Points:

  • When feeling down or not wanting to do anything, Sarra sits by the water in Jumeirah Beach and listens to the waves.
  • It’s her place to relax, empty her mind and not think of anything.
  • The water and waves is where she gets her strength.

More on Sarra:

  • She likes to go to the cinema. She does prefer to go alone so people don’t talk to her while watching a movie.  So if you do go out with her, make sure you don’t bother her while watching the movie.
  • Loves to go 2/3 countries a year.
  • She’s lived in 5 continents.
  • Latin America is on her list.
  • She speaks Tunisian/Arabic, French, English and Spanish. In that order.
  • English is a language she had to learn in Florida.
  • Because until that point, she only studied English one hour per week. 
  • Which means, her English was weak.
  • Listening to music and watching movies helped her with learning English.

About her having to learn English:

  • At that point in time though before going to Florida. English was a barrier.
  • A huge discomfort. But it wasn’t going to stop her.
  • Her coaches in the States had to speak to her real slow.
  • Her new roommates had to speak to her real slow.
  • She couldn’t understand many things in class.
  • She was allowed to have a translator.
  • Sarra believes English is an easy language to learn.
  • Her simple answer: “I had to!”
  • I made a decision and had to live up to it.
  • I wanted to do it.
  • I had to do it.
  • She made the effort because she had to.
  • She paid attention to how her American friends spoke, and started speaking like them
  • You need to let yourself be uncomfortable.
  • She chose to face and feel discomfort and go to the US from France instead of staying somewhere closer or local.
  • She was willing to deal with the discomfort in order to grow and move towards her goals.
  • Learn from those who have gone before you.
  • Copy from those who are doing it.

Decision making process:

  • She thinks out her decisions. Even though she feels it’s automated, she’s still calculated.
  • She brainstorms.
  • Visual. On paper.
  • She doesn’t just consider an option.
  • She thinks things through. Options A, B and C.
  • She writes the pros and cons for each option.
  • Then weighs then up and goes for the best option.
  • She takes her time to think over things before making a decision.
  • She builds her decision on facts, on realizations, on what she wants to achieve.
  • The best option for her isn’t the easiest option.
  • It’s the option that gives her growth towards her goal.
  • She makes decisions based on strong reasons.
  • She was offered two jobs.  Following her decision-making process, she didn’t take the “stable” one, she took the option that would “challenge but build her up”
  • She wanted a role where she could get the experience of being a decision maker.
  • She made a choice based on being challenging, something she didn’t do before, and an opportunity that would give her the experience of building a business so that she could feel and realize what it takes to have/run a business in the United Arab Emirates. 
  • She doesn’t regret any decision, regardless of the outcome..
  • Even if the decision led to a failure.

Her attitude:

  • I will do better. I will learn from the mistakes.
  • Crying about a bad decision is easy
  • I take ownership of a bad decision.
  • Even if it was a bad decision, there was something good in it.

Sarra is clear and strategic in her approach:

  • You have to be realistic (with yourself)
  • You have to be honest (with yourself)
  • For example: her strategy on how she picks sports that are based on skills or attributes she has built already. 
  • This gives her a better chance at learning, growing and winning.
  • Her skillset and experience is in line with the business she set up.
  • Not say in the restaurant business, but sports services (SL SPORTS SERVICES).
  • Something that’s within her core experience and skills – having lived through it from start to finish. 

Sarra is so focused:

  • She was focused even as a child.
  • It’s evident. In how she thinks and what she’s done so far.
  • She sets the limits for her distractions.
  • About having down days, she says: The downs in life helps you go higher.
  • Sarra has a great feature- her radiant smile and sunny personality.
  • If she is sad. She keeps it to herself, so she doesn’t give those negative vibes to others.
  • She finds her space until she feels better.
  • She likes to make others happy.
  • So she smiles to make you smile. 
  • And in turn, she feels better.

Self-talk:

  • When it feels like the world is having fun and she may feel like she’s ‘missing out’, she says: It’s about setting your priorities.
  • You have to give up things to be able to get what you want.
  • Those things aren’t going away.
  • The beach, the hotel, the sunset, that drink, will always be there.
  • The world championship however, won’t be.
  • It’s every 2 years or every 4 years in case of the Olympics.
  • It is hard, even for Sarra, to see her friends having fun, while she has to sleep early at nights and wake up at 5am. 

Sarra can handle disappointment:

  

  • Mentally strong. And high on self-love.
  • She can shrug it off pretty quickly.
  • She accepts the failure.
  • Little period of closing off.
  • She then either sets up a new challenge/goal or goes back to her higher goal, which helps her shrug off the disappointments and get going.
  • She learns from her disappointments.
  • She is hard on herself.
  • Even when she wins an event, she critics herself on the mistakes she made, so that in the next competition, she can improve.
  • Sarra says: Dwelling on disappointment – Coz you want to – It’s the easy way. It’s comfortable.
  • You can’t do anything about the past. But you can change the future.
  • Why would you cry over the past, if you can change what will happen?
  • If you keep the depressing mood, your life won’t change.

Best piece of advice she received:

  • “Take your time, and don’t rush things”
  • A reality she has to work on, because she sometimes doesn’t give herself enough time.

Best piece of Advice she didn’t follow: 

  • “Overtly trusting others”
  • Why would anyone want to hurt me? (On trusting people who unfortunately aren’t deserving of her trust).

Worst advice she received:

  • Different versions of “Stop sports. Why are you torturing yourself? Get a life!”

Sarra says:

  • Don’t blame your parents for anything.
  • Even if they didn’t get many things right.
  • It is how it is. Be grateful.
  • People give you bad advice not because they don’t like you.
  • But based on their own beliefs and what they know.

Sarra has a playlist when she works out:

  • Songs like “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”
  • She loves “The Champion” by Carrie Underwood & Ludacris.
  • She relates to what is being said in the song.
  • It puts her in a good mood.
  • These songs can change her state.
  • So much so that she ends up ‘seat dancing’ while driving
  • She also values the important good night sleep.

Beside her parents, her coaches have helped her thus far:

  • Her coach in France knew how to work with her and help her become her best.
  • Her academic advisor in the US and coach helped her.
  • Sarra doesn’t generally ask for help.

Advice to her future kid:

  • Never let anyone tell you that you cannot do something.  If you set your goal, don’t let anyone discourage you.
  • A person trying to discourage you is noise. That’s all it is. Noise.
  • 500 years from now, history will read that Sarra Lajnef was … A fighter.

Final thought:

Being a female athlete is a privilege. It’s an advantage. 

Make the Most With What You Have!

Avec Les Moyens Du Bord

If you haven’t done so already, Follow Sarra Lajnef on

Her websites and links

Music that motivates her amongst many is “The Champion”

LEARN MORE ABOUT SARRA LAJNEF:

▸ Insta: @SarraLajnefOfficial

▸ LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarralajnef/

▸ Facebook: @SarraLajnefOfficial

▸ Website: https://www.SarraLajnef.com

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