The Goal

“I want to make the Olympics too”

As a young coach, I had a few swimmers tell me that. I would get so excited, and dream at night about them on the top spot of the podium, the National Anthem playing, then, like any proud parent (coach) listening to them in the interview afterwards saying, “I want to thank my coach…”

The more I worked with these kids, the more I saw that light fade. The more demanding I made this path, the less they enjoyed it, and in the end, everyone ended up sad. I blame their failure on my exuberance as a young, inexperienced coach. My JOY in hearing what I wanted to hear, caused me to place too much work too soon, and I didn’t sell the entire package at the beginning.

At the beginning of a race, everyone is happy and excited.
Only those willing to deal with the pain can endure to the finish and reach their goal. This boy won his age-group in this 5k by 4 minutes.
I would talk to the swimmers about the training, and make it sound NEAT. I would talk to the swimmers about the races, and make them sound exciting. What I happened to leave out was the entire commitment of my family, and friends. I forgot to tell them that my Mom and I got an apartment close enough to the pool so I could sleep as long as possible, and still make it on time for the start of 5:15 am practice. I forgot to tell them about how training at this level is as much a test of your psychological toughness, as your physically toughness. There simply is NO easy way to qualify for the Olympics, at least not in the United States.

The following is a letter I received after our kids’ camp. As I’ve matured, in years AND as a coach and teacher, I’ve realized that what must come first in the conception of this goal, is the understanding of what the goal really means. Although this is the first in what I hope turns out to be a longer discussion, I try not to make it sound at all glamorous. I’m careful to point out the harsh realities of choosing the Olympics as a goal, and also what it means to the family.

When I left for college, my Dad gave me a sign to hang in my room. It was a quote by Jesse Owens which said, “It’s not the Olympics that make the Olympian, it’s the preparation.” This speaks of dedication and commitment, and reminds of one more reference, “Do you know that in a race all runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such as way as to grab the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Although the Bible is more than likely talking of something a BIT more important than a race, it means dedicate yourself completely to the prize, there is no grey area. You’re either IN or your OUT.


Dear Glenn,

I am writting to you to ask several questions about JO’s and the regular Olympics. First and formost is that my daughter had a goal to make JO’s and she did. My wife and I knew we needed to take her every night to swim for her to excel and make it to JO’s. She made it by two hundreds of a second which is great. Now her goal is to make it to the Olympics by 2008.

She will be 18 by then. I would like to know what kind of process we need to go through to give her the best shot to make it. Seeing how you have been there and done that, our daughter looks up to you we will trust your judgment on what we need to do. I would appreciate any feed back you can provide.

This is a huge undertaking, and one that does not come easily.

The right thing to do would be to find a program that would allow your daughter the opportunity to flourish. One that has no limitations on the coaches ability to push the envelope on discovering ways to make her faster. That’s the easy part, and for most people, does involve a relocation of either the family, or the athlete.

In the summer of my sophomore year in high-school, I moved away from home and lived with a family to try out a team in Cincinnati , the Cincinnati Marlins (I lived in Cleveland). I did so well by the end of that summer season, my Mom and I got an apartment and I lived there all year round. My Dad stayed in Cleveland, and drove down every weekend for those final two years of high school.

The program I was with was, at the time, the best team in the country. In 1980, we put 6 people on the Olympic Team, and won the Senior National Championship meet. The team qualified almost 40 swimmers for Olympic Trials. Most states don’t even have that many swimmers going, this was one team.

Swimming is the type of sport that can not be done alone. You need other people pushing you EVERYDAY. And the faster your team-mates, the better you’ll end up being.
None of this even begins to address the athletes understanding of TOTAL LIFE COMMITMENT. This means, no late nights, no bad food, of course no drugs or alcohol, no bad grades (you need to be mentally focused), good relationships with family and friends (a strong, understanding support base), and the ability to take MORE pain on a daily basis than a normal person can ever imagine.

There is no easy way to say it, but TRUE training to qualify for the Olympics in the United States is a full time job. Now that athletes are also making money for training, the average age is also rising, making the competition even tougher. Thus making the goal of 2008 a little MORE than just ambitious. I think a truer goal, if started now, would have a more likely potential of achievement, if the goal was 2012. I know that sounds hard to believe, but unfortunately it’s true.

If your daughter is truly committed to starting today, to work towards a goal that is 9 years away, then there is hope. If not, then as harsh as it sounds, the task is almost unreachable. I’m not saying she can’t be a great swimmer, but to be the best, and I mean… THE BEST, it takes MUCH time.

Just my own experience, which happened rather quickly, had me as the 3rd ranked 14 year old in the US, at 15 I qualified for Senior Nationals, at 16 I placed 6th at Senior Nationals, and then finally at 18, I was the best in the US. Once I reached the finals in a championship meet, it took me 4 more meets to learn how to race the best. To learn how they raced, and how to attack them to beat them. Much of making the Olympic Team is also about maturity, and the ability to handle fear, not nervousness, but fear.

If this path is chosen, I can guarantee your daughter, and your entire family years of suffering, sacrifice, pain, and sadness dealing with the daily torture she’ll be going through. However, once the quest is completed, and the goal achieved, I have YET to meet an Olympian who regrets what it took to reach that level of achievement.

It is THAT difficult, because to achieve something so few have, it is worth it.

How’s that for a soft sell?