By Dana Vollmer//Correspondent
As any of you who have been reading this diary know, I was on the 2004 Olympic Team as a 16 year-old. In 2008, I failed to make the team, which at the time felt like a personal tragedy. However, I came to realize that this view of personal tragedy was a bit self-centered. The eventual outcome of missing the 2004 team was that I came to understand myself better and develop a new appreciation for swimming.
In the past months I have come to understand the power of language. While at Cal (2006-2010), one of my undergraduate classes was taught by professor Robin Lakoff, who, with her husband George, is part of the renowned husband-wife team of linguists and authors. In reflecting on my experiences in swimming, and on the things that I learned in professor Lakoff’s class, I realized the power of motivational slogans in our sport.
Many swimmers with a legitimate chance to make the USA Olympic Team will suffer the disappointment of trying to make the Team but failing to do so. This same scenario of disappointment is played out in Olympic selection meets throughout the swimming world. A close friend of mine, Noriko Inada, missed her 4th Olympics after coming back from a six year break - by seven one-hundredths of a second! - in the recent Japanese Olympic Trials. For every happy and excited newly qualified Olympian, there are many, many people like Nori who try just as hard and are just as committed and deserving, but do not make the team. We focus our attention on the winners and learn their stories, but rarely do we hear the stories of the people who miss the team.
This flip side of success, failure, is the necessary essence of sport. In fact, without failure, there can be no measure of success. This tension between success and failure provides much of the drama of sport. In swimming in the United States, this drama is demonstrated with the highest intensity every four years at our selection trials for the USA Olympic Team. Because the USA selects 2 athletes per event and our country is historically deep in quality swimmers, our Trials are unrivaled in emotion and pressure. It has famously beensaid that at the USA Trials, first place is first place and second place is also first place, but third place and 40th place are the same. Many Team USA Olympians have said the Olympics were nothing pressure-wise after having been through Trials.
At USA Trials, previous achievements mean nothing. Many standing world record holders, former Olympians (like Noriko), and defending Olympic medalists have failed to make the team; your level of celebrity means nothing. In 2008, the fact that I had previously been on a team as a high school teenager in 2004 meant nothing. Similarly, the fact that I am a current World Champion will mean nothing in the 2012 Trials. Titles, status, popularity, socio-economic status, and self-perception do not win you any favors on “The Day”; you get one chance, one race that matters, to make the Olympic Team. What you have done to prepare, and how you execute, is all that matters. Personally, this lack of guarantee is something I love about swimming because it so ultimately fair and so ultimately real. It is a fairness and a reality that can be gratifying and pleasurable regardless of the outcome.
Dream, Believe, Achieve!
Many of the slogans and inspirational phrases, such as the familiar “Dream, Believe, Achieve” in swimming are useful in getting people pointed in the right direction, and help to create enthusiasm. However, a slogan is no substitute for really understanding and then really engaging in the work/process it takes to achieve. I think many swimmers mistakenly carry the emotional expectation part of slogans into their races. Dreams help to form an intention, but dreams are no substitute for reality. A successful process takes a profound understanding of its elements, a profound commitment to execution, and the awareness required to make changes or adjustments. Similarly, a belief, by itself, does not guarantee an outcome. A belief has to be coupled with reality to produce real outcome.
I think much of the heartbreak in sport, like that we see at Olympic Trials, comes from getting stuck in the slogan mindset, where dreaming and believing can eventually take the place of the real and necessary actions needed to achieve an outcome. There is no reality in our sport like the disappointment of missing a time standard, failing to make a final, or failing to make a team when you have assumed that all you had to do was show up on the day to find that what you had dreaming about was already a given accomplishment.
I am training hard to make our team with the vision of representing my country again, but so are many others who are serious and talented athletes. And it is in my face as a daily reminder. I train with people who want the same thing that I want. These are talented and determined elite athletes who are preparing for the same events as me. They intend to fill spots on the team that I want to fill. I see what these teammates and friends do every day, and realize that same level of intention exists in swimmers in pools all over the country. Many gifted and talented athletes are turning their dreams into action. No amount of assumption on my part is going to help me beat these competitors who are working hard to do what I want to do.
As I move towards the Olympic Trials, I carry the experience of the 2008 Trials with me. In addition I am fortunate to have many truth-tellers in my environment who remind me that there are no guarantees, and that assumption is a dangerous thing. I have learned the skill of turning off the cozy and comforting voice that has been in my head since childhood, telling me that if I “Dream” and “Believe” I will “Achieve”. I have a new personal slogan that is part American and part Australian that goes something like this: “Imagine, Prepare, and then Have a Go!” My hope is that this new slogan will serve me by reminding me that, in the end, all I can really do is have an honest go in Omaha.