Honorary doctorate recipient Silken Laumann shares message of courage to nursing grads

Chancellor Greg Sorbara, Silken Laumann and Provost & Vice-President Academic Lisa Phillips

By Ashley Goodfellow Craig

Even for a three-time Olympic medallist, published author and motivational speaker, there is still fear in life to overcome. This was the message that honorary doctorate of laws recipient Silken Laumann shared with the Faculty of Health’s nursing graduands during York University’s convocation ceremony held June 14.

Laumann is an advocate for mental health awareness and uses her personal experiences to inform and promote mental, physical and spiritual health. She overcame a career-threatening injury in 1992 when 10 weeks before competing as a rower at the Barcelona Games, an accident in the water caused her boat to shatter, driving more than 200 pieces of wood into her lower leg. She was told she would never compete again – but, less than three months later, won an Olympic bronze medal for Canada.

“Our dreams are so powerful,” she said.

She acknowledged the unique position of today’s graduates, earning a degree during a pandemic and missing out on experiences of university life.

Honorary doctorate recipient Silken Laumann
Honorary doctorate recipient Silken Laumann

“I know that this university has worked hard to make that experience positive and enriched for you, but you have missed out and I am sorry for what you have missed in your university experience,” she said. “You are amongst the most adaptable, resilient, tough-minded graduating class in recent history. And today, you are all realizing a dream.”

With dreams, she reflected, can come fear.

Reflecting on her own dreams, which sparked at age 11, she recalls being inspired to become an author, athlete and humanitarian; however, with the vision she designed for her life, fear came in equal measure – fear of not succeeding, fear of falling short, fear of not being worthy.

“Fear is something we all experience; fear comes with the experience of being human,” she said. “And there are so many things that we call fear – we call it laziness, we call it lack of motivation, we call it not good enough, but it’s fear, and we face fear with courage.”

She shared an important observation that courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to feel the fear and challenge it.

At the starting gates of the Olympic finals, her knees were shaking and she felt fear knowing that everything she trained for over 10 years could be over in seven minutes. Fear, she said, tells us that our old beliefs about ourselves, and what we can accomplish, are coming forward.

“Every day that we can challenge that fear and meet it head-on is a day that we have won. You are winning today.”

Fear can also get in the way of moving forward, she said, and encouraged graduands to embrace the possibility that there is no perfect path ahead. Instead, the most important thing is to keep moving. Consider what the next best thing might be, whether that’s an internship, travelling the world or focusing on mental health.

Seven years ago, she shared, that she found the courage to write her personal memoir Unsinkable, a story of growing up with a mother who had undiagnosed serious mental health challenges and how it affected her life, her beliefs and her self-worth. In the book, Laumann also gets earnest about her own struggles with clinical depression and anxiety. Publishing this book was terrifying, she said, but she found the courage to be vulnerable and share her experiences because what she learned is everybody has a story, and everybody has something to overcome.

“You, the next generation of nurses, are going to be the generation to have the courage to have authentic conversions, conversations that have meaning, conversations that help one another – not only with your mental health but with your happiness and joy as human beings,” she said. “As you search for your next path, remember to start anywhere. Start with action, find and explore your passions, take risks and have the courage to care, to care about other people when you are tired and overwhelmed, to take that extra moment to listen to one another, it matters.”