Mike's Mailbag: Determining Determination


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every week I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com


Dear Mike, 

I have been swimming since the 5th grade for my local club, and I love swimming because it is the only sport that I am good at. But come high school, my parents sent me to a private school that has a swim team that doesn't compare to the local high school teams. It doesn't even have morning practices. I still swim for my club in the summer, but when high school season comes, my endurance drops because the practices aren't hard enough to keep up at a high school level. I don't know what to do anymore: Should I keep swimming for a team that isn't good enough, or should I just quit swimming altogether? 

-Losing My Endurance


Hey L.M.E.,

A few years ago, I wrote a feature article for this website about a brother and sister who, due to their lack of pool access, trained, mostly, in a short, shallow hotel pool. You know: one of those standard hotel pools, which are usually warm, over-chlorinated, overlooking a parking lot, less than 25-yards long, and about half the size of a normal pool in width. 

The story wasn’t so much that they were training in a hotel pool; lots of kids around the country, I’m sure, train in warm, over-chlorinated, short and shallow pools. The story was that one of these swimmers eventually became a national-caliber backstroker, cranking out lightning-fast times that were very, very good. And when you consider that she achieved those times in the context of training in a hotel pool, the performances seemed jaw-dropping.

To be blunt: You’re focusing too much on what you cannot control, Losing My Endurance. You’re focusing on what you’re losing instead of what you could be gaining.

Okay, so your new high school team doesn’t swim mornings. Does that mean you can’t go outside for a jog, or find a lap pool that’s open where you can swim some laps? Does that mean you can’t wake up and do some stretching, yoga, sit-ups, or core-body exercises? No one is stopping you from working out in the mornings. Sure, you might not be getting the same experience as you would training with your club team, but it’s not impossible to achieve some level of exercise in the mornings. 

Your endurance level may be taking a hit by training with this high school team, but instead of losing sleep over it, why not focus on other aspects of your swimming? Like your sprint speed. Or your turns. Or your pullouts. Or your sprint finishes. Or your technique. While you may be losing some endurance, the high school season is only a few months long. Ask your high school coach to give you a few longer, harder distance sets a week to keep that endurance up, and focus on other aspects of your swimming in the meantime. You could become a great sprinter. You could have the fastest, longest breaststroke pullouts in the world. You could focus on your freestyle kicking, choosing to kick when other swimmers are swimming. 

My point is: Don’t quit. Instead, get creative.

Think back to that girl training in the hotel pool. Could she have been better competing under Bob Bowman or Teri McKeever? Sure. Could she have been better training in a 50m pool? Probably. Did the fact that she had to train, part time, in a hotel pool stop her from being one of the best swimmers in the country? Nope. 

I’ll tell you one other story: The other day, I was listening to a radio interview with one of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson. In the interview, she explained the genesis of a book she wrote several years ago, Gilead, which eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Robinson admitted in that interview that her first sentences of that book, one of my favorites, one of the President’s favorites, and a beloved and nationally-recognized and acclaimed book among many, was actually scribbled in a hotel room on one of those hotel pads of paper using one of those cheap, plastic hotel pens. Not on a fancy Macbook. Not on some 40-dollar French paper journal with some expensive pen. But with, likely, one of the more humble origins a piece of writing could have. 

We think, sometimes, that we need the most expensive equipment, that we need the best facilities, the smartest coaches, the fastest teammates. “I cannot succeed because my high school team does not train mornings.” Or: “I can’t win this race because I’m not six-foot-six.” Or: “I’m never going to be an Olympian because Bob Bowman isn’t my coach.” Or: “I’ll never…” 

Instead, what we need is a dream, passion, and the creativity, courage, and perseverance to follow-through. It is often not the most beautiful, the most expensive, the most powerful, the most physical, the tallest, the strongest, or the fastest who succeed, but the most passionate, the most creative, and the most determined who will ultimately succeed. 

I hope this helps.