By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Wednesday, September 12, 2018
At the 1996 Olympic Trials, I watched a very fast swimmer embark on a very slow warm-up. “Warm-up” is pushing it. That night, before one of the biggest swims of his lifetime, he warmed-up, maybe, 100 meters.
His warm-up “process,” though, was a half-hour long. While “actual swim time” was roughly the time it takes for me to eat a cupcake, his out-of-water routine was prolonged. He spent 30 minutes not in the pool, but alongside it: He put on goggles and stared at the water. He stretched. He was about to dive in, then backed down, adjusted his goggles, and stared some more. Stretch, stand, stare, repeat. For 30 minutes.
My father and I watched from the stands. It was funny at first — it appeared like this world-class swimmer just didn’t want to swim. As minutes ticked by, he walked to the gutter, backed away, put on goggles, took off goggles, stretched, did arm circles, stretched more, put on goggles, and was about to dive in… only to start the whole routine over. The process wasn’t just funny. It was hilarious. At 13-years-old, I realized I had more in common with this world class swimmer than I realized. Though that night he qualified for the Olympics while I, on the other hand, was barely able to finish a 200 butterfly without fainting, we seemingly had the exact same warm-up routine.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to ask that same swimmer about that specific warm-up. I’m sure I was the only person in the Natatorium to micro-analyze his warm-up. When I told him my memory of that night, he shrugged and said he was likely visualizing and warmed-up until he “felt ready.” That night, he needed several minutes of stares and 100 meters. He asked me: Why would anyone warm up longer if already ready?
If I warm-up 100 meters then sprint, my shoulders break, and my heart explodes. No warm-up theories I’ve heard include the words, “100 meters.” Most advocate for thorough warm-ups. Some intensity. Some yardage. Get the heart-rate up. Practice some dives. Get loose.
But more than once during my own swimming career, I warmed-up based on attitude and feel rather than quotas and heart rates. And while swimming itself isn’t 90% mental, racing might be. There could be “something” in that pool-stare-down be-one-with-the-water finals mentality. It’s not (necessarily) a slacker’s avoidance of cold and discomfort. At a certain point, at a certain kind of moment, readiness is a state-of-mind.
I’m not advocating every swimmer’s warm-up routine should be a 100-meter swim preceded by a 30 minute pool stare. But I have remembered what that swimmer told me. That once in a while, after a very long time of preparation, you will just know.
Twenty-two years ago, I watched a swimmer qualify for the most prestigious competition in the world with a 100 meters warm-up. I sometimes wonder what would have happened to that same swimmer that night had he instead actually warmed-up. You know, if he dove in and swam an easy three or four thousand meters. Like every other swimmer underneath those lights that evening. He might not have stared at the water for 30 minutes and made my father and I laugh or thought about his race while taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the Trials, or fused his mind, body, and soul together, or aligned all those important mental components together just so.
I wonder what would have happened.
I suppose, when you spend a lifetime readying for one moment, when that moment comes, you are ready, or you aren’t. Because it’s a process that starts much earlier — a process that starts in Septembers, when the morning air gets colder and you just don’t want to dive in for practice. It’s a process that starts the same, whether you’re at the Olympic Trials or you’re 13-years-old and just about to dive in for that second week of morning practice. You grab goggles and stand poolside. You look at the pool. You savor it. You drink in the moment. Then you dive in and swim one length, two, preparing — as you have every single morning before — for that one moment when you’re finally, at long last, ready.