The Hidden Variable

One of my coolest races ever was the 1983 NCAA Championships. What I remember, specifically, is standing behind the blocks, waiting for the introductions, and just feeling HAPPY. It was one of the strangest experiences of my career. I was so confident of what was about to happen that I couldn’t WAIT to get in the pool.

The year before, I had swum so poorly in NCAA prelims that I failed to make the Championship Final for the ONLY time in my entire career. I had never swum in consolation finals; even my scoring debut at Senior Nationals was a sixth place in finals. In 1982, I simply had a bad year. I didn’t train hard enough, I wasn’t focused, and I was doing poorly in school. It just wasn’t happening. I remember talking to my Mom and Dad after winning the consols, and questioning my future in the sport.

I had such wonderful parents. Their response was something along the lines of, “We’re very proud of what you’ve done, and if you want to stop swimming, we’ll support you in your decision… BUT! We do understand that it’s better to stop when you’re on top than when you’re down.” I thought about it for a couple weeks, and decided to continue.

The next year, I worked VERY hard. I started to focus intensely on my walls, my turns, and my pushoffs. I was determined NEVER to swim in consols again. The culmination of all this effort and preparation was my standing behind the blocks at the 1983 NCAA finals, feeling totally confident of what was about to happen. Long story short, I won the race, and accomplished one of my goals — becoming an NCAA Champ.

But the REAL story is HOW I made everything come together. In 1983, I had one of my best years, academically. I was so focused on my swimming that the intensity and concentration poured over into every other aspect of my life. My grades were better than normal. I seemed to have more friends. I was even eating better.

I now wonder — did I have such a good year because I was training so hard OR was I able to train harder because my mind was clear of other distractions? Like GRADES! The hidden variable.

I always seemed to struggle with studying. I never really enjoyed it, and it didn’t come naturally to me. Even today, I’ll open a computer manual only after I’ve exhausted EVERY possible twist I can think of within a program. I was the ONLY member of my family NOT to make National Honor Society, and I struggled with school when I first moved to Cincinnati… simply because they actually expected me to STUDY! Imagine that!

I had convinced myself that I just wasn’t that smart (no comment from my friends here). I had given up many times on school, only to be FORCED into studying to keep myself out of trouble. It was during these times that I discovered I wasn’t so stupid after all. Many people would call my lack of scholarly effort laziness, but I’d challenge those same people to train the six hours a day I was training, THEN make that same comment.

I know many kids these days with the same trouble. Some have actually CONVINCED themselves they’re just not that smart, and that they deserve poor grades. It’s funny how these SAME kids can look at a swimming stroke, or another athletic move, analyze it, study it, break it down to its finest details, and determine whether its a productive move or not. TO me, that takes a very special type of intelligence.

The stereotype of the “dumb jock” is just not valid anymore. All forms of athletics have become a science, and to reach the top, one must STUDY all the different aspects of the sport. This study begins with an understanding of so many academic disciplines. Here are some examples for our sport. MATH. Who better than a swimmer can add and subtract based on a 60-base scale, or figure out splits in their head, or not miss a single sendoff on a descending-interval set? GEOMETRY. Who better than a swimmer knows that the shortest distance between two points is a STRAIGHT LINE! Or that the pitch of your hand as it moves through the water makes a huge difference in how fast you go? PHYSICS. Who better than a swimmer knows that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, or that if you’re swimming with your head too high, your feet are going to be too low and that it will take a whole lot more energy to drag them through the water? SOCIAL STUDIES. What swimmer couldn’t benefit from knowing his competitor’s culture – or understanding what winning means to him and how he might go about trying to beat you? SCIENCE. Oh, come on…this is the BIG ONE. What swimmer couldn’t benefit from knowing how the muscles work, or what happens when they don’t get enough oxygen…or the right nutrition, or the right training?

You get the idea. Every course offered in school ties SOMEHOW into athletics. Academic knowledge can make you not only a brighter person but also a BETTER ATHLETE. It’s up to you to find the connections that make your studies relevant to your life and your sport. There is no such thing as a dull subject once you find the links that have meaning for you. And the links are everywhere.

I regret only a few things in my youth, but one of them is the way I approached schoolwork. Grades may seem insignificant at the time, but when you’re in school, you’re preparing for the race of life. Every day in school is like a practice session at the pool – only more important. I began this article with my 1983 NCAA race to show what total preparation can do. The same goes for getting good grades. Good grades will lead more self-confidence and to a better life, just as good training will ultimately lead to a better performance. Great training allows you to make decisions about your race strategy. Great grades allow you to make decisions about what you want to do with your life.

I totally understand how many young athletes feel about studying, but treat your grades like you treat your preparation for athletics. Start by learning each step, and then move on. Read slowly and re-read until you understand the subject matter. Don’t look at your homework as just a task to finish, but as an opportunity to some day be able to buy a nicer house, or drive a better car, or to be able to decide to lead a more simple life filled with great family and friends. Or as a way to go faster.

Why am I writing this right before a holiday weekend? Because many of you just received your first report cards of the school year. Because many of you have five long days to gear up for the start of a new school session, and there is no better time to change how you feel, and think about schoolwork than RIGHT NOW! Don’t hesitate. Remember: Not having to worry about your grades while you’re training will ultimately make you a better athlete. It’s that simple.