Work Life

Take it from an Olympian: Life advice from a canoeing gold medalist

He may have won an Olympic gold medal canoeing on a river at age 21, but Joe Jacobi looks at the life path as a mountain. Or many mountains.

Whether you are working a corporate job, training as an athlete or navigating the college curriculum, Jacobi said, “We always feel like we’re climbing this mountain. I don’t believe mountains were designed to be stayed on endlessly.”

Yes, you go up. You may even get to the top and win a gold medal in the Slalom Doubles Canoe event in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain. Jacobi did. But once you reach the peak, you’re not obligated to stay there.

Jacobi said he got to the top of his athletic career and said, “Hey, great view. I want to get back to where I can reinvent myself.”

He let go of the whitewater competition shortly after he placed eighth in the 2004 Olympics. He was 34. Since then, his label has gone from athlete, to CEO of USA Canoe/Kayak when it was headquartered in Charlotte, to entrepreneur, to ambassador for Nantahala Outdoor Center.


Yes, he has jumped around with jobs. Yes, that same pattern is seen in the greater work force, with younger workers tending to switch jobs more frequently than older workers.

But does our sense of self and satisfaction have to change with our labels? Jacobi, now 45, says no.

The tricks:

(1) Find your purpose.

Jacobi grew up in Washington, D.C., near the Potomac River. That fortuitous spot led him to discover whitewater sports and join a training group at age 12. By age 19, he left home to train at Nantahala Outdoor Center, where the founders sought to serve the outdoors.

In that space, Jacobi said, “They gave me that opportunity to serve the outdoors by trying to do my best competing on the river.”

(2) Stop setting goals.

Jacobi describes himself as being process-oriented versus being results-oriented. Realistically, he said, “A good process yields good results.”

He added that, on the water, “You’re trying to better yourself through the process, but you’re only as good as the ability to align yourself with the force of the water.”

(3) Stop seeing others as competition.

When competing in slalom canoe, Jacobi said, “You can’t control how the other guys are going to paddle that day. You can only control your performance and your response to what’s happening around you.”

(4) Take care of yourself. 

Jacobi has left his CEO position to become an entrepreneur, inspiring holistic approaches to health. He writes a weekly newsletter promoting purposeful lifestyles and has created an enrollment-based, five-week health and wellness program to engage companies and individuals. It tackles physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.

“People are going to be in a better position to serve other people, to serve their work, to serve their community, to serve their relationships — only if they take care of themselves,” he said. “It takes healthy people to run healthy systems.”

(5) Know why you wake up.

“If I have an outcome for others,” Jacobi said, “it’s just trying to help people wake up for themselves as opposed to waking up for someone else or something else.”

Photos by Katie Toussaint

Katie Toussaint
Katie Toussaint @katietoussaint