But in her new memoir, Unsinkable: My Untold Story, Laumann describes little known facets of her life: struggles with depression, an eating disorder and emotional abuse as a child.
Laumann sat down for a studio interview with CBC Radio's Rick Cluff on The Early Edition. This is a condensed and edited version of that interview.
Q: Why did you want to write this book?
"I've always shared my life with others. I wrote an article about divorce when I was divorcing, and I've done so much healing work that parts of my life were just leaking out during my keynote presentations. I really felt it was time to tell the whole story and for me it's a catching up on authenticity and to present myself more authentically to Canadians."
Q: People didn't know you were going through this. How hard was it to cope with all of that and being an elite athlete?
"I think we don't usually know what happens behind closed doors. But in a lot of ways, the struggles I had as a kid made me who I am today. I had a lot of positive influences in my life, and my mum had tonnes of energy so there was that piece. But there were also the dark things and they all shaped my character and made it possible for me to push myself."
Q: As an Olympian who's always exuded such strength, was it scary for you to challenge that public image?
"Yes. Absolutely. Having that public image of being someone who goes out and gets things, is totally positive and can overcome any obstacle and then of course I share the other side. But it's what makes me more human and we only connect to individuals on that human level."
Q: Your difficult relationship with your mother is a key part of this book. How did that shape you?
"I think it made me very independent. It made me look for ways of achieving. I wasn't getting positive reinforcement and unconditional love from my mom. So in my early life, I tried to prove myself and achieve athletically, but of course what works in your teen years and in your 20s doesn't work when you have to parent your own children."
Q: Your parents, and your sister Daniele, have written an open letter, saying that much of this book is either untrue or exaggerated. Here's a quote from that letter: "We acknowledge the challenges in our family; however, one should consider that sometimes a challenge becomes larger than life with the telling and retelling." What's your response to that?
"I think we all have different ways of coping with our past. One of the ways my family has coped is to reduce and stuff, and those mechanisms didn't work for me. Just because I'm ready to tell the story, to come to a place of peace with it, doesn't mean that everybody in my family is."
Q: How has sport helped you deal with the challenges in your life?
"I think it's hard to separate. What are the lessons that come from sport? I think at one point in my life, I took all that energy, self loathing and all that negativity and turned it into a positive direction. To be able to focus on sport and get a sense of who I was outside of the family unit was survival, when I was in my late teens. So I feel incredibly grateful for my experiences in sport, not only for what it taught me, but for the sense of self I have in my life."
Silken Laumann speaks at a Vancouver Writers' festival event at the Alice McKay room at the Vancouver Library Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. P.T. Admission is free, but space is limited.