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My Worst Season

There are good years, and there are not so good years.  The difference comes down to just mere tenths on the clock, but by seemingly miles in your mind.

Since it’s just a couple years ago, it’s all still very fresh in my mind.  The year was 1980 (OK… I may have exaggerated how recent it was… feels like yesterday).  It was a great year for me as an athlete.  I won everything I swam.  A couple senior national titles, a couple high school state titles, Olympic Trials.  Yeah… if it wasn’t for the boycott, it could have been even better, but that’s another story.

I had focused and worked toward 1980 for nearly 4 years.  Everything I thought about, how I trained, everything I did… was all about the races I was going to swim THAT year.  While you’re going through it, you’re just going through it.  You’re so caught up in the training, in the racing, everything I visualized happening was happening.  It’s almost as if…I had thought about it so many times, I would have been surprised if there were any other results.  It’s rare that anyone has a year like that, so I’ve always felt very honored to have had at least one.

Reaching your goals, at a young age, comes with some drawbacks and added responsibilites.   One thing you lack in youth is long-term planning and perspective.  When you’ve accomplished nearly everything you set out to do, thinking beyond that is something adults do.

1981 was a far different year.

I thought I was training with the same intensity.  I wasn’t.  I thought I had goals that I felt as strongly about as previously.  I didn’t.  I thought I would just keep on winning.  I didn’t.  By the summer of 1981, I had fallen so far from my previous form that I barely snuck in to finals of senior nationals, and finished a distant 7th to Nick Nevid.  While the swimmers I usually traveled with got ready for a trip, I went back to Cleveland for what turned out to be my only break in my last 6 years of swimming… but what was nearly the end of my career.

I was so dejected by how I had performed that I was embarrassed and just sad.  There’s a big depression that comes over athletes who have been up, and then fall.  The last thing you want to do is to start training again.  You begin to understand how far away you are from reaching that form again.  Sitting at home for the first time in three years, I had begun to think about quitting swimming.

I really couldn’t face the uphill climb again, and didn’t think I’d ever get back to that level I once had.

I remember talking to my Dad.  I remember what he said to me until this day.

He told me how proud he and my Mom were of me.  That no matter what I decided to do, I had already accomplished things that I could be proud of for the rest of my life.  I had become an Olympian, which doesn’t go away, and I had reached goals that I set out to achieve.  He went on to say that he and Mom had always tried to teach us that it’s much better to go out on top, than to go out on the bottom.

For some reason, that’s what it took for me to decide to stick with the sport.  First, knowing that Mom and Dad were already proud of me, and second, knowing that ANYTHING I did from that point forward was gravy.  It was all a bonus for me after 1980.  

Had I not had such a bad year, I doubt I would have appreciated the things I was able to achieve when I worked my way back.  While I never had another year like 1980, I still had what most people would consider a pretty good career, and wouldn’t trade any of it for a cushy ride back to the top.