Like others, I’ve been riveted to the TV during the Olympics, particularly the swimming events as I was raised in Central California in a swimming family. I made my summer money from the time I was fourteen by teaching private swim lessons in our backyard pool. I started by playing games with kids, teaching them to blow bubbles and then hold their breath and then put their face under water to pick up pennies from the steps. Whatever pennies they rescued, they got to keep.
Some kids came to me during the week they visited grandma. Other kids took lessons from me every summer for years and moved from learning to float to learning strokes and turns. I swam on a summer league team, and then in high school made the Varsity swim team as a freshman, swimming Varsity all four years. One year during high school I swam on a year round team but I wasn’t big on swimming outside at 5:45 in the morning when its dark and the pool is lit by eerie yellow lights and steam rises from the surface as it’s 38 degrees and cold.
But swimming is in our blood. My dad swam. My brothers and sister swam. My youngest brother was a distance swimmer. My sister and older brother were strong in butterly, back, free and made great IMers. I was strictly a backstroker and freestyler and a short distance swimmer. Yes, I’d swim on the A relays, but I was always the third or fourth fastest on the relay, not the first. I was never a first place finisher. I liked practices, hated meets because the adrenaline was sometimes too much. I loved relays though because there was no start gun, just a rolling start which allowed me to swim faster and respond visually versus the pop of a gun.
My boys both swim. My oldest is a very good swimmer, too. The first time I saw him swim backstroke in a meet he was 5 and small compared to the other 8 and Under kids. But he swam like a champ and I had goosebumps watching. I could feel the ghosts of my forefathers watching with me. This is what we do. This is who we are. We’re not land athletes, but water people and I knew my dad was standing there cheering with me, proud of this grandchild he never met.
But life isn’t smooth sailing even for those born bouyant in water. Life and my divorce have thrown obstacles at the kids and we’ve struggled to get them on their feet and secure again. Sometimes the struggles have seemed all consuming but I see light at the end of the tunnel. The boys are stronger again, calmer, and we all have more confidence that we can weather storms. The biggest lesson now is to focus on doing your best—without excuses–and it’s a lesson I’ve heard repeated again and again this past week in Beijing.
American track and field star Tyson Gay failed to final in the 100 meters and after the semis he was asked if his injury was bothering him. He said no, he felt great. But everyone likes him and everyone was rooting for him so the interviewer pressed on, “was he maybe not 100%?” Tyson shook his head. “I’m 100 percent.” He just wasn’t the fastest that day. In short, he didn’t blame anyone or anything for performance. He didn’t make excuses.
Dara Torres later did the same thing when she took silver instead of gold. She swam her best. There were no excuses.
Phelps was questioned after one of the events about a swim. I forget the context but his answer was the same. He doesn’t make excuses. It takes away from others’ victories–and those are important–and it takes away from one’s self-respect.
This, I tell my thirteen year old, is a great lesson. This is a lesson modeled by champions, and maybe this is why they are champions. The blame game never works. We should always strive for our personal best. And if we have done our best, than we have won. Medal or not.
It’s not the ribbon, the ceremony or the time that makes us great. It’s how we choose to live our life.