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Local Olympian championing technology to combat fear

Olympian Silken Laumann has embraced modern technology to help others find the courage to overcome their fears.
Silken Laumann 2
Olympic rower and Victoria resident Silken Laumann conducts sessions to inspire confidence and overcome fear.

Silken Laumann, an athlete whose Olympic story has served as an inspiration to millions, has embraced modern technology to help others find the courage to overcome their fears.

Fear and courage are things Laumann, a Victoria resident, knows all too much about.

In 1992, the reigning world champion in single sculls rowing suffered a brutal accident that resulted in injuries to her right leg so severe that doctors told her she may never row again.

That was 10 weeks before the 1992 Olympic Games. Twenty-seven days, five operations, and countless hours of rehabilitation later, Laumann was back in her boat as the starter's pistol rang to signal the competition that would earn her an Olympic bonze medal.

It was touted as the greatest comeback in Canadian sports history and in 1998 Laumann was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.

“I was terrified throughout that whole ordeal,” said Laumann. “But I got angry and determined, and I overcame that fear.”

In all it created an aura of invincibility, courage and bravery around the young athlete but, as much as her courage was being touted as a function of her athletic accomplishments, courage she showed in other aspects of her life were even more inspiring. Her 2014 memoir, Unsinkable, detailed a dark, previously unknown past containing an abusive relationship with her mother, depression, anorexia, fear, anger and self-harm.

“Most people live life at some level from a position of fear,” said Laumann. “It’s a portion of our life that we don’t talk about enough, but we can't fix things that we're not aware of or won't acknowledge. The way you get over fear is that you do the thing that you're afraid of and you keep doing it until you get over it.”

Laumann's philosophy is one she has employed for years as a speaker and coach, but her recent association with technology designed to help ordinary people address and overcome their own fears has her excited about the future.

The system is called #BeFearless and it utilizes the Galaxy S7 and Gear VR head-mounted displays to create virtual reality scenarios to help users conquer their own fears.

“Samsung approached me in the fall and I looked at their application and thought it was very exciting. It uses the kind of visualization we've done for years as athletes, but the system is so much more effective in helping people overcome their own fears.”

At present, the #BeFearless system addresses two specific fears, public speaking and the fear of heights, but Laumann said the system's success opens the door for all sorts of other fears to be addressed. The virtual reality simulations start individuals at a very basic level and, through repetition, slowly advance to increasingly more stressful levels. Clients do not progress to more stressful situations until they conquer the level they are at.

“This system does what athletes have done for a long time,” she said. “There is always a fear when you're in the starting position, waiting for a race to start, but you get over it through repetition and visualization. You do that until you can manage the situation and overcome the fear.”

Laumann came to #BeFearless already experienced with the use of virtual reality technology.

“We have an autistic child and Samsung has also developed technology to help autistic children with facial recognition and the ability to recognize different expressions and the emotions they convey,” she said, adding parents of autistic children used to use flash cards to do this, but the virtual reality application is so much better.

“We have the opportunity to use technology to help people overcome their fears. When they do that, they can start to achieve their full potential and improve their whole lives.”