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Having Fun Again in the Pool

3/9/2011

By Mike gustafson//Correspondent

Michael Phelps smiling in 2009."One of my teammates even said I look happier in the pool," Michael Phelps said, standing near the bleachers where tens of smiling, giggling swim fans were watching his every move.
 
He answered each question, and took a little longer than usual in the media zone, perhaps savoring last weekend's stellar performance.
 
Phelps let the moment simmer like a piece of candy, slowly letting it soak, that 5-for-5 conquest of the Indianapolis Grand Prix. We’ve seen success from Michael Phelps.
 
But we haven’t always seen smiles. Last weekend, however, Michael Phelps was smiling – and coincidentally, swimming fast.
 
Flash back last summer. Phelps scratched the 200IM from the Pan Pacific Championships. He took a long time getting in the warm-down pool. He walked around with that look in his eye, perhaps saying, “Maybe I’d like to be doing something else right now.”
 
I won’t pretend to know the inner-workings of Michael Phelps, North Baltimore, or Bob Bowman. But I do know the inner-workings of burnout. The importance of fun.
 
It's hard to do anything – anything -- when it stops being fun.
 
I remember when swimming stopped being fun. My sophomore year in college. Swimming became a job. A chore. Swimming became this elephant in my day. I'd agonize and stress, then mope around the pool deck. I’d anxiously count down the seconds until swim practice was over. Swimming became this “thing” of despair for me. It stopped being fun. I stopped smiling. I wanted to quit.
 
A few months later, a coach told me (I’ll paraphrase), "Don't worry about being the best. Don't worry about the times. Don't worry about winning or losing. Just spend five months of your life. Have fun. Be a leader. And graduate as a captain."
 
So I re-tuned my attitude. Didn’t happen at first. It was a slow process. Literally, I said to myself, “Today I am going to have fun. Today I am going to love the water.” It seems silly. But it worked. Speaking like that to myself actually changed my attitude. You know what happened?
 
The water seemed less cold. The workouts less hard. The races less daunting. Slowly, day by day, swimming morphed from this elephant in my day to this event, a rock concert, where I couldn’t wait to get back to the pool. The process took two years, but it happened. And that adage “happy swimmers are fast swimmers” proved infinitely true: By the end of my senior year, I was swimming lifetime personal bests – times that two years ago seemed unachievable. (I went from a 4:11 in the 400IM at Big Tens to 3:54 two years later.)
 
Sharing first names is about the full extent of the similarities I share with Michael Phelps. But I know the feeling, the sights and sounds and body postures one goes through when he’s not enjoying the sport anymore. I know how you look at the warm-down pool with dread. I know the way you stop kicking as hard in that last final 50 meters. I know these feelings. I’ve been there.
 
In comedy, they say people will laugh when they hear/see other people laugh. If you walk past a park, and see tons of people smiling and laughing, suddenly you smile and laugh, too. Happiness is contagious – the best kind of diseases.
 
Michael Phelps accomplished everything. He has given swimming most his life. But for me, it’d be nice to think that in 20 years, he’ll still be swimming laps – not because he has to, but because he wants to.