How to build Olympian perseverance

Imagine the feeling: You have dreamed of this moment since you were young. You have trained until every muscle in your body has ached. You have pushed through disappointments and overcome obstacles. You’ve hung on through uncertainty and setbacks. Now you are finally here. You enter the brilliantly lit Olympic arena with your teammates, flags flying, smiles beaming. This is it!

The Games show us what’s possible

I love the Olympic Games. I love how people from all over the globe become united by the joy of sports and the thrill of competition. I love being reminded how strong the human spirit can be.  Perseverance is a key element of the creative mindset, and the Olympic athletes have it in spades. Olympians embody the creative edge of pushing past what is possible in terms of human performance. They remind us what we are made of.

There’s another reason the Olympic Games are special to Celia and I; our mother is an Olympian! Our mum, Susan Leuner (nee Roberts), won a bronze medal at the 1956 Games in Melbourne for the 100m freestyle medley. She has always loved the water. She swam so much when she was young, she tells us that at one point her hair went green! Her training schedule leading up to the Olympic Games was gruelling. In the months before the Olympics, she had to take a long journey on a ship. Not wanting her to fall behind on any preparation, her coach had her train on the ship in a plunge pool with strong elastics bands for resistance. An innovative solution in the fifties!

Our mother, Sue Leuner, front left, with her Olympic team mates and coach. 

Mum's Olympic perseverance has not wavered over the years. At 82 years of age she still competes as a Masters Swimmer with Phoenix Swimming Club, coached by her sister, Anne Jones. Her other sister, Jane Hulley, is also swimmer. The three sisters, who say they have 'chlorine in their blood', have competed in many national and international competitions together. Whilst I've been under my duvet on chilly mornings this winter, they've been in an open air (but heated) pool training before the sun is up.  They show the rest of us what real perseverance looks like!  

Sue Leuner (middle) with her sisters, Jane Hulley (left) and Anne Jones (right), following the FINA World Masters Championship in Montreal where Sue won a gold, two silvers and two bronze medals.

Since the Tokyo Games opened on Friday, I’ve spent as much time as possible glued to the TV with my family. We have our classic favourites like swimming, artistic gymnastics and synchronised diving but are also intrigued by sports we are not familiar with, such as speed climbing and handball.

This year’s games are particularly inspiring, given the trauma that the world has been through together. I am in awe of the tenacity of the athletes who have pushed through with their training throughout the pandemic and are now having to compete without fans to support them at their events.  We have something special to take part in as a global community that has the power to elevate our minds and lift our spirits. According to Olympic President Thomas Bach, the motto of the Tokyo Games, ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together’ aims to “give humanity faith in the future."

The Japanese way to build perseverance

Okay, so what if, like me, you are not an Olympic athlete? How can you build perseverance into your life and by so doing improve your propensity for creativity?

Perseverance is not my strongest suit, so this is a mindset that I have been focussing on. I like to think that I persist with the most important things in my life (e.g. my faith, key relationships), but when it comes to other things (e.g. keeping fit, doing admin), I tend to give up too easily. I often get frustrated when I don’t see results, or the improvement isn’t fast enough for me. Little things can bump me off course or distract me.

I have learned a great deal from the Japanese concept of kaizen. Kaizen, which literally means, ‘good improvement’, describes the notion of incremental improvement over the long term. The approach is slow, steady and consistent. When you adopt the philosophy of kaizen, you focus on the small details and build sustainable habits into your life. What I love about kaizen, is that no step is too tiny to be part of your improvement journey. What I’ve learned is that it is in the little things that we build our perseverance ‘muscle.’ When you persevere with the tiny steps, that is when you start getting closer to your goals.

Pause and think:

  • What do you desire to achieve, experience or have in your future?
  • What are the smallest units of action that you can take to work you towards that goal?
  • What tiny action can you begin today?

Be inspired by these people who persevered through rejection

I find it helps me tremendously to learn about people who had to persevere to create something. I’m not alone when I struggle. Here are some stories to inspire you too:


Vera Wang failed to make it into the US Olympic figure-skating team in 1968. She later became an editor at Vogue, but he editor-in-chief position went to someone else. So at age 40 she started designing wedding gowns. Today she is a leading fashion designer and her business is worth over $1 billion. She found a way back to her passion for ice skating, by designing skating costumes.


Soichiro Honda was a Japanese engineer and businessman. He challenged the Japanese business culture which prized teamwork above individualism. This approach alienated him from the business community. His engineering genius, perseverance and willingness to step outside the norm lead him to fearlessly take on the automotive industry in America and lead the automative revolution in Japan in the 1970s.


Miriam Makeba overcame huge challenges to become one of the first African musicians to receive international fame and popularise African music amongst Western audiences. Makeba was forced, as a child, to find employment as a domestic worker to support her family. She married an abusive husband when she was 17 and a year later, shortly after the birth of her daughter, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Makeba over came these personal difficulties as well as those imposed by the apartheid government to become a world renowned singer and activist.


Theodor Seuss Geisel intended to burn the manuscript for his first book after it was turned down by twenty seven different publishers. He had a change of heart and persevered with his writing becoming one of the most celebrated authors of children's books. His pen name was Dr. Seuss. He wrote and illustrated more than 60 books which have sold over 600 million copies.



Renowned actor, Sidney Poitier, had a disastrous first audition. The director at the American Negro Theatre savagely told him to stop wasting his time and to find a dishwashing job. Poitier had blundered his lines and at the time spoke with a heavy Bahamian accent. He was also tone deaf and unable to sing. Poitier was not put off. He persisted, honing his craft and went on to achieve stardom and win an Academy Award for Best Actor ("Lillies of the Field," 1963). Poitier also paved the way for other actor of colour by breaking down barriers in the American film industry at the time.

There are many examples of Walt Disney’s tenacity. One of my favourites is the story of how the the book Mary Poppins came to be made into a film. Disney's daughter recommended adapting the Pamela Travers novel into a film in 1944. When Disney approached Travers with the idea, she refused to sell him the rights. In order to persuade and charm Travers, Disney visited her at her home in England repeatedly over the next 16 years. Travers was eventually won over and the resulting in the classic movie loved by audiences around the world.


If you you want to develop a mindset of perseverance and see your creativity to soar, we invite you take our 5 Day Creative Wake-Up.   In this online mini-course, you'll get: 

  • 5 video lessons  
  • A simple process and practical tried-and-tested steps to follow.
  • Take the lessons when it is convenient for you, ideally do them over 5 days.
  • Daily exercises and optional resources to develop your creative intelligence.

Gear up for a future that requires new solutions.
Find out more here.

What people are saying:

“Thank you Nina and Celia for a such a wonderful course. I have thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it. For months I have struggled finding motivation to work on my doctorate and thanks to this course I realise now that I have allowed a lot of bad habits and procrastinating to put me off my studies. Now that my creativity has awoken, I am excited and cannot wait to get going again. Thank you for arming me with so much positivity :)! ”


Senior Researcher at University of Johannesburg

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