Over the past 25 years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting many Olympians and famous swimmers. When we correspond, or get together and kick back, we rarely talk about races or records. Instead, we always end up comparing the type of training that we did. We all dreamed of winning the Olympics, breaking a world record, getting the big contract. But, in the end, the thing we remember most — and take most pride in — was the training.
Why is that the daily grind of pain, sacrifice, and mental pressure leaves such an indelible mark? Why do we remember all THAT… and not the public fame and glory that comes with success? I think it’s because the training… the preparation… was a very private thing. It gave us a way, on a daily basis, to prove ourselves — not to our competitors or to the world, but to ourselves. We either passed or failed, and the scoring system was purely internal. And the tougher the training, the more it seemed like something you NEVER imagined you could do, the greater the sense of achievement at the end of the day. We may have secretly cursed our coaches… but we also secretly said, "Bring it on." t
Training memories are built on the least likely of days… the days when you least expect something good to happen… the days when you feel the worst. The memories that live with you for a lifetime usually come on days when you’re in such pain that you’re literally crying in your goggles. It’s on the worst day, the day you KNOW you can’t take another stroke, the day that voice in the back of your head starts looking for excuses to give to the coach, that you somehow take the next stroke and move forward. Memories happen on the days you look inside yourself, hear the chorus of excuses, and block it out, choosing instead to focus on that next wall, or the swimmer next to you, to take your mind off the pain, and get through it. Memories — and internal breakthroughs — happen on days when you can barely lift your arms out of the water, or hoist your body out of the pool at the end of practice. They come on days when your legs cramp off each wall, you swallow water at EXACTLY the wrong moment, and you somehow figure out a way to finish. Memories are born on days when you feel too tired or sick to be at the pool, but you go anyway and complete everything the coach can throw at you… with only YOU knowing just how tough it was.
THOSE are the days greatness is built on. When great swimmers celebrate their victories, you’ll see raised fists, huge smiles, and sometimes tears. They’re feeling not only happiness, but also a HUGE sense of relief that they made it through those bad days. Without those bad days, this good day would have NEVER come. Without that pain, that agony, that sadness, they wouldn’t know the joy of accomplishment. Without putting themselves through things they never thought they could, on days they didn’t think they could, THIS victory day wouldn’t have happened.
In all my years in the sport, I have found ONE THING to be the overriding opponent of athletic greatness (and by "greatness" I mean reaching your personal potential). That ONE THING is not poor technique, poor training habits, bad coaching, diet, lack of opportunity, etc., etc., etc. The ONE THING that holds athletes back is… self pity.
Feeling sorry for yourself in training is the EASIEST thing in the world. We’ve all been there. It’s the instinctual response of the body to tell you to stop. Your mind aids the body by making you acutely aware of PAIN, or lack of oxygen, or just plain tiredness. THIS is why there aren’t MORE great athletes… human instinct and physical reality guide you away from painful experiences. As athletes, however, we NEED to overcome those instincts in order to achieve greatness.
Look around you, read the news, DISCOVER what’s humanly possible. Being the geek that I am, I was deeply touched recently by the death of James Kim. While those of us who frequent websites such as cNet.com have watched his reports, others only recently became aware of him through the tragic events earlier this month. James is the father whose car was disabled on the snowy roads in Oregon. He walked almost 13 miles, in a huge circle, through ice-cold streams, over mountains and through forest, to do what he could to save his family. His efforts have been described by the family’s rescuers as "super human." Click here to see more about James.
The next time you’re in practice, and you’re presented with something you don’t think you can do, your instincts will IMMEDIATELY start giving you excuses for not making it or, heck, for not even attempting it. Before you give up — and before you groan the usual, "Aaww, Coach," decide instead to throw yourself at the challenge. Attack it. Don’t allow reasoning to enter your mind, because we can ALL find reasons NOT to do something we don’t want to. It’s only those select few who battle reason to do seemingly impossible things…who achieve greatness. Twenty years from now, you can either talk ABOUT the wacko who did everything (and more) that was asked of her in practice… or you can BE that wacko, sharing training memories with your fellow wackos.
I BEG you to try it. I promise, you’ll find something on the other side that you never knew was there. There’s no greater sense of accomplishment than doing something you didn’t think you could do — especially when you DIDN’T WANT TO DO IT. There is NO greater victory than the pride of completion.
With that said, a few of you have written to me and asked when I was going to talk about MY training. So, I’ll put one of my favorite stories here:
Training with Denny Pursley was a brutal experience. I remember my Mom asking me one day what it was like. I told her, "I’m not quite sure how they know us so well. It seems that every lap involves some sort of pain. When we’re warming up, we’re really still swimming out the last practice, and JUST when I start feeling good… the hard stuff starts all over again."
While our standard sets for the breaststrokers were 10 x 400s (long course) on 6:00, descending 1-5 and making sure #5 was below 5:20, my greatest day was accomplishing a freestyle set. A typical Denny Christmas set was 20 x 500 (long course) on 6:00. This meant I had to hold under 1:12s for long-course freestyle if I was going to get ANY rest whatsoever — something VERY tough for a breaststroker who was gifted with an awkward, limping freestyle. I remember making it to number 11. When I came out of my first turn, on my first stroke, my hand hit Danny Neimer’s hand (he’s a great swimmer, by the way). I didn’t just hit it, my thumb spiked into the back of his hand. Having broken my hand twice previously, I kinda knew that feeling… so I quickly turned around… and one-armed it back to the wall.
The "flow" of 40 bodies swimming was now broken, and Denny, who was standing about half-way down the pool, quickly saw my lame-duck approach to the wall. All I heard was his bellowing, then I saw him RUNNING to the end to meet me. I climbed out, and he was already there, asking what was going on. When I told him, he quickly ran into the equipment room and came back out with a roll of white, athletic tape. He quickly started rolling it around my thumb and hand, until my thumb was securely taped against the side of my hand. With that… these words came out of his mouth, "Get in."
I never gave it a second thought. He was my coach, and I was (thoughtlessly) doing what he told me to do. I always had faith in my coaches, and listened to what they told me to do. Had I thought about it, I would have sat out. But thanks to Denny, I jumped back in, having missed only 100 meters, and was able to finish the set.
I remember that practice being around 13,000 meters with warm-up and loosen down… which wouldn’t have been bad if it was the only practice of the day. However, I seem to remember the afternoon as being pretty bad, too. Or… should I NOW say… I seem to remember the afternoon as being pretty GREAT too. Thanks, Denny.