By Chuck Warner//Special Contributor
This is the seventh and final article in a series of themes that we discovered in the research and writing of the book …And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence, a highly acclaimed book by swimming leaders around the world.
It is written for swimmers, coaches and parents to learn the steps to swimming excellence.
The book chronicles the development of eight great swimmers that collectively won 28 Olympic Gold Medals, in all four of the swimming strokes and most distances. Their careers are chronicled from their start in swimming in summer leagues to working their way to the top of the Olympic podium.
The swimmers are: Matt Biondi, Dave Berkoff, Mike Barrowman, Josh Davis, Lenny Krayzelburg, Ian Crocker, Grant Hackett and Aaron Peirsol.
…And Then They Won Gold, Theme VII: COMPETITIVE GREATNESS
It probably isn’t a surprise to anyone who follows sports or swimming that the best athletes tend to perform at their best under pressure.
The concept of “competitiveness greatness” might be described nicely in John Wooden’s famed Pyramid of Success as, “Being at your best, when your best is needed.”
However, the objective of our book is to see how this quality develops in champions from a young age to a mature athlete. The development of competitive greatness in any swimmer is seldom accomplished without failures. Each of our eight subjects in the book had challenges to overcome to perform at their best in the most critical situations. Some had many failures before having success.
Did these athletes get nervous? Yes! All of them! But they gradually became more comfortable at higher levels. Many were terribly nervous just before winning Olympic gold medals.
How did they deal with nervousness? Different athletes had different methods, but all developed their ability to establish a comfort zone in the most competitive situations.
What obstacles did they have in competitive situations? Injuries and health came up at inopportune times for some. Below is one of the most dramatic examples.
This excerpt is taken from the story of Australian Grant Hackett. A great argument can be made that he is the greatest male distance swimmer in the history of the sport of swimming to date.
2004 OLYMPIC GAMES – Athens, Greece
By February of the late Australian summer of 2004, as a result of pushing himself relentlessly in preparation for the Athens Games, [Grant] Hackett was suffering from breathing problems. He was hospitalized for a bronchial condition. The chronic problem did not abate, and between February and the August Olympics he had been through 15 rounds of antibiotics but was still unable to shake the problem. By the time he had landed in Athens, fluid had entered one of his lungs. The lung was partially collapsed and functioning at 25 percent of its full capacity. He and Coach Cotterell kept the extent and severity of his condition secret from the Australian medical team for fear that to protect his health or even his life they might not let him swim in the Games.
… (we pick up the story a little bit later)
Thus far in the Olympic Games there seemed to be little reason to doubt Grant Hackett’s health status based on his performances. But the 1500 requires the greatest amount of aerobic capacity in any of the events in pool swimming and far more than a 400 or 200-meter freestyle. (The efficiency of one’s lungs is critical to producing the energy necessary for success.) In the heats, he qualified third with a time of 15:01.89. There were two young guns, each six years Grant’s junior, Larsen Jensen (15:03.75) from the USA, and David Davies (14:57.03) from Great Britain who swam well in the preliminaries. They saw the target on the champion’s back, sighted on it, and were ready to attack. He would need to dig down deep to win the gold medal.
In an interview with Swimming World Magazine the previous year he had explained his mental toughness: “There is nothing better than practical experience to develop mental toughness—far better than reading about it in books … I’ve had to deal with competitive pressures—in particular, having to perform at the Sydney Olympics with glandular fever along with the huge national expectations. I was considered the lowest odds to win the 1500, and I’ve dealt with that and come out successfully on the other side.”
On August 14th, the 1500 was an intense race from start to finish. Afterward, reporters wrote of Grant Hackett: “It is the toughest race of his life, one that tears off the mystique enshrouding this event. Grant has to work for this one—hard. And the winner is in doubt until the final few strokes.” The scoreboard read 1 – Grant Hackett 14:43.40 Olympic Record; 2 – Larsen Jensen 14:45.29; and 3 – David Davies 14:45.95.
Grant Hackett’s emotional face at the finish was near tears. His body was wracked with pain. He was still the best in the world, even when he wasn’t at his best. He never mentioned his illness until November.
Over the next four years Grant Hackett pursued his dream of becoming the first swimmer to ever win three 1500s at the Olympics.
For more excerpts, check out Theme I, Theme II, Theme III, Theme IV, Theme V, Theme VI.
For more information or to order …And Then They Won Gold, go to www.areteswim.com (access Books * Media), Swimming World Magazine or the American Swimming Coaches Association. The author is Chuck Warner, who has also written the highly regarded book Four Champions, One Gold Medal, the story of the preparation and race for the gold medal in the 1500-meter freestyle at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.