Sunday, October 19, 2014

Reflecting on the Mind of a Champion

Track Star Grinds Out a Bumpy Transition (NY Times)
Alan Webb holds the American
record for the mile.  He is currently
working with USA Triathlon to
transition to Olympic distance
"'Peo­ple gross­ly un­der­es­ti­mate the psy­cho­log­i­cal com­po­nent of what he did and what he had to live up to in the run­ning world...  That just wears on you. If he didn’t go out and give an in­cred­i­ble per­for­mance and set a record or win by an ex­or­bi­tant mar­gin, it was deemed a fail­ure.'

"Part of the prob­lem was that Webb did enough to make the ex­tra­or­di­nary look al­to­geth­er at­tain­able. In Ju­ly 2007, at an oth­er­wise sub­dued meet in Bel­gium, a se­ries of pace­set­ters guid­ed Webb through the open­ing laps of the mile be­fore he was left on his own, his stride some­how length­en­ing as his closed on the fin­ish line. His time, 3:46.91, broke Steve Scott’s 25-year-old Amer­i­can record by al­most eight-tenths of a sec­ond.

"In an in­ter­view af­ter­ward, Webb sound­ed eu­phor­ic — not nec­es­sar­i­ly be­cause of what he had ac­com­plished, but be­cause of what he be­lieved was still pos­si­ble. He was con­vinced that he could run even faster."

I remember those days.  I was never as fast as Webb, of course, but I remember hitting my first AAAA time in swimming as a high school freshman, placing fifth in  the San Diego CIF swimming championships, and then coming back the next day to face two guys who had just come off runs in the Olympics--and beating them!  Granted, the Jorgensen brothers were not butterfliers, and they probably also weren't at the peak of their season, but it was still quite a heady (if private) accomplishment.  At fourteen, I was already 5'10" and at the top of my sport.  The Olympics seemed like a real possibility.

I had no way of knowing that I was already as tall as I was ever going to get, and after setting that phenomenal time in the 100 fly, it would be another full year before I bettered it.  By that time my Olympic dream had already begun fading into the distance.  It would be another year and more before I started to face the reality of the thing in any kind of serious way, however.  In the end, I think I was lucky.  I realized that I was never going to make it to truly elite status early enough that I was able to change my course and use my sport to get an education.  Considering that there's not a lot of call for professional swimmers regardless, this was probably about as much as I could have hoped for.  My parents were disappointed--right up to the point where I was accepted at Harvard.  After that, they started to see what all that time at the pool had gotten them.

This is me as a high school swimmer, age 16.
At that age, I was just starting to realize that I
would never make the Olympics.
What I remember most about my swimming days is the single-minded focus that they required.  There was never time for anything besides swimming.  This is the primary reason why I focus on Olympic distance triathlon these days and why I don't compete as a swimmer much anymore.  Because I don't have time for that kind of individual focus anymore, and truth be told, I'm not sure it was ever particularly healthy.

I was happy to walk away from competitive swimming, happy to get away from the maddness of it and the expectations that came with being good at it.  I still like to swim, don't get me wrong, but those days of single-minded devotion to the sport are gone, and I don't want them back.  There's a lot more to life than just being successful at a sport.  Hell, there's more to life than just being successful, period.  But it takes a certain maturity and rationality to realize it, and frankly, if you have that kind of maturity, the odds are against your being wholly devoted to your craft in the way that you have to be in order to reach the ranks of the truly elite.

It's good to have something like swimming in your background, it's good to know that you can set goals and achieve them, and it's good to live a healthy and active lifestyle.  It's not good, however, to let your sport take over your life.  For that matter, it's not particularly good to let anything else take over your life, either.

Take control of your own life and live.

At the end of the day, this is what swimming taught me, and it is a lesson that was worth learning.

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