Someone Else's Goggles


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

"I’d rather lose all the national championships that I swim in as long as I’m ready for the big races." Michael Phelps (medium)

--Michael Phelps


Last week, one Phillips 66 Nationals morning following prelims, I spoke with a friend, both of us wondering: "What would it feel like to be Michael Phelps competing at Nationals?" Neither of us had ever competed at Nationals. To us, as athletes long ago retired, to attend Nationals would be the pinnacle of achievement--to stand beside a few hundred other of the country's best swimmers and compete would be the ultimate reward. 


"To swimmers like Phelps," I said, "I wonder if they see this meet like I used to approach high school dual meets. After so many wins and races, I wonder if a guy like Phelps sees Nationals like I saw high school meets on Thursday nights." My comparison wasn't necessarily fair to elite swimmers like Phelps--and I wasn't intending to insult or insinuate that Nationals aren't a big deal for some athletes--but after you win so many national titles after 14 or 15 years of racing that you no longer refer to Nationals as "big races," like Phelps said last week, you are clearly in another competitive perspective.

We humans are hard-wired to want. 99% of younger age group swimmers in the stands last week want to be like a Phelps, or a Franklin, or a Ledecky. Some turn that want into success by capitalist definition. Others succeed by bringing someone else a laugh or a moment of comfort. But we all want. Every one of us. 

At no other stage can you see this desire more abundantly clear than poolside at a national competition. Athletes want to win, and they make that want clear, through actions and approaches. Swimmers want a best time. They want a perfect race. 

But in sports, athletes cannot get too wrapped up in wants, either. There's a need for detachment at Nationals, to separate yourself from anxiety and worry. In Buddhism, the detached self is not only the most present, but also without want. Many athletes seek some balance between wanting and living in the moment, allowing their minds to chase goals and their bodies to simply race. Just before one of her races, I saw Natalie Coughlin close her eyes and take a deep breath, perhaps trying to settle nerves, calm the mind, and detach from want and worry. 

Wanting, of course, keeps us in sports. Without a want, there'd be no desire to get up, practice, push ourselves past limits. You want to win. You want to improve. You want to be faster. 

But constant wanting can produce constant worrying, which can also burn. Many swimmers email me after failing to achieve a goal and want to quit, burned by bad swims, bad seasons, and bad experiences. 

It's easy to want to be like Mike, to want 18 Olympic golds, to want to approach a meet like Nationals as though it weren't even a "big race" like it's a high school meet in January. What's difficult, though, is accepting our limitations and accepting what we have. Appreciating what we have instead of constantly wanting what we don't. 

The final night I was at Nationals, two teens approached me and said I'm the reason they quit swimming.

"You mean kept swimming?" I asked. 

"No," they said. "You're partially the reason we quit. Something you wrote a while back. It's okay. Seriously. We are both much happier now. We competed and realized we just weren't enjoying the sport anymore. It was great while it lasted." They smiled. 

I sat that night by myself and watched a relay. The lights blazed and fans had already trickled out of the stands, heading home. The California night was clear and cool, a light Pacific breeze hanging in the air, salty and ancient. You or I or anyone else will likely not be the next Michael Phelps, though it's fun to sometimes imagine what that would be like. I watched the race and contemplated the dichotomy of want versus happiness. 


A relay team in front of me finished 6th. But they looked like they had won. They were younger, wearing smiles and fist pumps and post-race hugs like gold medals. One of them took off his goggles and looked around, taking it all in, savoring the beauty of the night.