As I watch the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics, I keep thinking of the expression, “Swim your own race.”
For a competitive swimmer, it’s good advice that can be taken literally. Swimmers who put too much energy into worrying about the people they’re racing against are going to be distracted from their own performance. But it’s good advice for everyone else too, including dog paddlers like me. Whatever your goal is — whether it’s a promotion at work, a personal athletic accomplishment, or anything else — you’re best served by focusing on what you need to do to achieve your dream. Time spent brooding over people who got there before you can undercut your confidence, making you miserable without improving your chances.
Gold-medal-winning U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky epitomizes the virtue of swimming your own race. A tweet I saw today sent me back to the July 31 New York Times Olympics special, which said of Ledecky, “The question isn’t whether she’ll win but by how much.” Reporter Michael Sokolove asked Ledecky for her reaction to an interview given in April by Conor Dwyer, an American swimmer who won a gold medal in the 4-by-200 freestyle relay at the London games. In the interview, posted online by USA Swimming, Dwyer spoke about being at a five-week training camp with Ledecky:
“She’s no easy task to beat in practice, even as a male. I didn’t get broken by her, so I’m happy with that. If you’re doing a 3K threshold set, she’ll start beating you every 100, and slowly but surely, you get broken, and your morale goes down pretty quickly when you get broken by a female in practice. I saw a couple guys have to get yanked out of workout because they got beat by her. I’ve trained with a lot of good females in my career. She’s the best one training.”
Sokolove wrote in the Times, “When I asked Ledecky about this, she claimed not to have noticed.”
“I was probably just concentrating on doing my own work,” she said.
I die! Dwyer — who spent an awful lot of time thinking about Katie “beating” and “breaking” men — made it to Rio and did very well, winning a gold medal in the men’s 4x200m freestyle relay and a bronze in the men’s 200m freestyle.
Ledecky won four golds and one silver, and set two world records …
… and did it without giving an embarrassing interview.
While I’m on the topic of swimming, I’ve got to shout out a confident woman who didn’t win any medals. Making it to Olympics at all was an amazing feat for 18-year-old Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee who was part of the first-ever Olympics team of 10 refugee athletes. Last August, she left Syria on a small, overcrowded boat heading to the Greek island of Lesbos. When the motor began to fail, Mardini, her sister and two other good swimmers got in the water and pulled the boat along for over three hours in open water. The life-saving task required serious focus. As Mardini said in an interview:
“Everyone was praying on the boat and they were telling me like ‘You are really Courage Girl,’ and was like ‘Just shut up and leave me alone now.'”
She went on to crack me up by saying, “When you have [a] problem in your life that doesn’t mean you need to sit down and cry like babies. The problem was the reason why I am here, and why I am stronger and I want to reach my goals.”
She was swimming her own race even in the middle of the Mediterranean! I hope she makes it to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo to get another shot at a medal, but even if she doesn’t, she’s a winner at life.