FORTUNE — So You Fail, So What. That’s the title of a Fortune cover story that I wrote two decades ago. The story still has legs (readers ask me about it to this day) and is more relevant now than ever: The global flow of ideas and money enables anyone to innovate, test, fail, pivot and try again.
If you haven’t failed, in fact, you may not be a leader at all. That’s what a cast of star athlete-businesswomen said during Playing to Win, a live webcast that I moderated for Ernst & Young on Monday.
“A great champion deals with setback with a comeback,” said Donna de Varona, who was a gold medal Olympic swimmer in the 1960s and knows from experience. De Varona set a world record at age 13, lost it at 15, got it back at 16 and retired at age 17 because back then, little funding existed for girls like her to train and compete in sports.
So, de Varona left the pool and went to Congress to push for Title IX, the 1972 legislation that changed the game for women by requiring equal opportunity for girls to pursue sports and other activities in any educational institution that receives public funding.
“Setbacks are just learning experiences,” added Beth Brooke, EY’s global vice chair for public policy, who led the 2013 creation of the firm’s Women Athletes Business Network to help elite performers in sports pivot into business. “It’s not the winning that teaches you how to be resilient. It’s the setback. It’s the loss,” Brooke explained. “It’s the knowledge that if I work harder, if I practice longer, if I’m more disciplined, I will do better tomorrow.”
Summer Sanders, who won two gold medals for swimming in the 1992 Olympic Games, agrees: “If you don’t fail, you don’t know who you really are at your worst moment.”
Here’s a short video clip of the EY conversation. Click here to watch the full 75-minute webcast, which also included tennis legend Martina Navratilova, Brazilian swimming champion Fabiola Molina, British track champ Dame Kelly Holmes and Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment Management and founder of the 30% Club, which aims to make UK corporate boards at least 30% female by 2015.