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Friday, October 31, 2008

Going For a Swim With a Hollow Holiday Untopic

I heard that today is some holiday, but I don’t have time for that sort of thing. Dressing up in macabre costumes has always seemed like an open invitation for closet exhibitionists and voyeurs to be spontaneous (ironically through formalized activities), while being prompted by their need to conform and be accepted by society… but then it is also fun for the kids. It’s a very confusing holiday. I don’t think holidays were meant to be this confusing. Nah, I’m not going to talk about ghouls and goblins. But I do want to address overcoming our demons — which is no more than our own selves. When someone comes to trick-or-treat at the door of your soul, it's you.

Historically, I’ve motivated myself through goals, then by having people there to catch me if/when I fall, winding me back up again and pointing me in the right direction, reminding me how to keep chugging away. Keeping my sights on the target, even if I happen to still be far from it, allows me to focus on the fact that the work I’m doing will come to fruition and be worth it all.

Let’s go back circa August 2008, and you can interpolate from the photo (superimposed to show the swimmers right next to each other) that Michael Phelps (left) won the 100m butterfly final in Beijing in part because he had the right form. He kept his body lined up and kept churning away. He trusted the process, honed it, and made it work for him. It works the same whether you’re ahead or trying to catch up. There are no substitutes for a full effort. Shortcuts for these things don't exist.

Watching the race, you can’t come away from it thinking that Phelps could have tried any harder than he did. He put forth a total effort. He had to. Anything less, and it would have been silver. Every little bit makes a difference in our lives. Phelps and Serbian swimmer Milorad Cavic were 1/100th of a second apart. Phelps was merely a bent finger away from not getting those 8 gold medals. Go ahead, bend your finger and see how easy that is to do. Now project that on a race where you’re moving all parts of your body continuously for 50 seconds, and you’ve just swung your arms over the top of your head, with adrenaline going full speed. There was no room for error in this race. One twitch anywhere and Michael Phelps would have lost. In fact, he was trailing in the race up until about the last .02 seconds of it. Look at all the ground Phelps had to make up when Cavic was less than 2 feet from the finish. How was it possible? Why did he even keep trying?

But Phelps didn’t panic. He just stayed with the plan. Observe the next frame below. His arms are still straight, his legs still aerodynamic, and he still hasn't started coasting. His face is down, and he’s not looking for the wall. Instead, he trusts that it will be there, and he’s not slowing down until he goes through it, not just to it. He didn’t give up merely because it looked impossible. Everything is impossible until it isn’t. Notice in this shot that Cavic is only about 4 inches from the end, while Phelps has about 2 feet to go.

With all this in mind, it's important to note that at no point was Phelps intimidated. He met the challenge head on, knocked it down, and beat the living tar out of it. He was unflappable.

I watch that race over and over, and I can’t figure out how Michael Phelps managed to win it. Cavic didn’t exactly slow down, and even though he had to reach at the end, it’s not unusual. Cavic ran a nearly perfect race. But Phelps did run the perfect race. Coming down the stretch, you can see Phelps gaining, yet the nearer they get to the end, it seems like Phelps just doesn’t have enough time to make up for the deficit.

Even when the race was over, it didn’t look like Phelps had won. It was an optical illusion. There’s no way someone could move their arms over their head from three feet away before someone else could swim six inches. The eyes can’t process an event like that and believe it in real-time. So everybody was ready to say that it was a valiant effort that came up just short. And then his name was flashed at the top of the scoreboard, his mom’s knees collapsed up in the stands in disbelief, and everyone was covering their heads, overcome by what they’d just seen… believing but not believing. The announcers were incredulous, trying to convince themselves it was true. That ‘1’ in Phelps’ lane apparently just couldn’t be willed away. It belonged to him. He owned it.

Michael Phelps would've made Winston Churchill proud, who once said in a speech, "Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty. "

To be inspired by others like this, who do their best and overcome obstacles to come out on top, is what it’s all about. We’ve all had some Michael Phelpses in our lives who show us how it’s done, and may be a source of encouragement for us to try harder. If they can do it, so can we, because there really are gold medals in all of us. It might not be in the 100m butterfly while the whole world is watching. It might be in the back yard playing with a 3-year-old and making them feel loved, or coming to terms with your own weaknesses, or smiling when you don’t feel like it, or expanding your mind to new possibilities, or being there for someone who’s having problems in the race. In large part, we get to create our own venues for where our races are run. We can’t do everything, but we can many times pick and choose those areas we deem most important, and then tell the starter that we’re ready to compete.

We also have to remember that although life is like a race, when it comes down to it we’re just racing against ourselves. We don’t really have to beat anyone else. When we’re in those lanes, it’s a bunch of other of our own selves — no Cavics to try to overtake. We’re striving for our best self. It’s true that all of our selves could take the easy route and just coast in, eventually finishing the race and making it look respectable. Or we could even appear to be trying hard but hold a lot of our energy in reserve since it requires so much. Or just maybe... we could reach deep down inside and give that extra effort that only we know whether we’re giving or not. That is what we’re competing against.

Is your life going to represent a gold medal effort, or something else? In life’s Olympics, we can all end up on the top step of that podium because anyone who wants to can be up there. Don’t be satisfied with anything less than gold. Awake your inner Olympian. This is your mission, Mr. Phelps, should you decide to accept it…

Video of the ending

(in this view, Phelps is on the far end and Cavic is closer to the camera)


Anonymous said...

No matter how many times I watch that, it looks like Cavic won. Unless there is a sensor on the wall, I don't now how they can say it was Phelps.

And another thing: Phelps has a freakish body. Is it so much a triumph that he won 8 medals when he has the bonus of a freakish body? What about all the other guys who have NORMAL bodies and lost by 1/100th of a second?

Anonymous said...

He really is an inspiration...not that I'm going out and becoming a swimmer and wearing those "horrible" swimsuits but it does inspire at least get off the couch now and then!!

Joy G.

SeaGull said...

Yeah I am pretty much a Cavic... I am just happy to race my pace and bless the moment i finish. I am not so full of hubris to think I could Phelps it. And frankly sometimes I just need chocolate to swim the last half of the freaking race.
I guess I am a rest on your laurels kind of woman...Either way its not like Cavic hasnt gained more fame from this moment than any other of his life. I could be happy being a part of someone elses success, go for it! I think too many people think the path to heaven and happiness is a race, and it just isnt.
Sometimes its not about racing at all its about enduring and attempting to be something greater!

Anonymous said...

Phelps is a product of his own hardwork and training, in addition to his obvious genetic gifts. He made thousands of conscience decisions over several years to give him the opportunity to succeed.

That being said, if Cavic used to chew his fingernails, I'm sure he no longer does.

Doug and Laura said...

You are amazing! A blog is a perfect place for your brain to explode. Sure love you!


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