It’s been a long time since I took a moment to reminisce about my days on the high school swim team and the best race I ever swam, but it all comes back to me me so easily: the summertime smell of chlorine in the air; the short walk of fame across hard, gritty tiles from the bench to the starting blocks; the squeezing heart of pre-race jitters; the adrenalin of the start; the satiny feel of water sliding along bare skin; the bulging pain of overexerted muscles; the exhilaration of the best finish of my life. I was 18, and full of a senior’s requisite feelings of uncertainty and insecurity about my future career. What should I do? What did I want to do? What was I good at? Did I have what it takes to succeed? Or would I end up a failure at whatever I tried? This was the day that I would realize, beyond any ripple of doubt, that my hours of training had developed traits that would help me succeed in any profession I chose to dive in to.
I had always been a good swimmer, but not much more than average in competition. Out of six swimmers in a race, my finishes were almost always fourth- or fifth- place. Sometimes sixth. Never in the top three. But I had been working hard, and was hoping it would pay off soon.
“Excellence is in the details. Give attention to the details and excellence will come” (WorldofQuotes.com) is a drop of wisdom attributed to Perry Paxton, and it was the intricate details of competitive swimming that all came together for me in this race. I had watched videos of Olympic swimmers with underwater and above-water footage, studying every minute detail. Numerous dog-eared books and magazine articles on competitive swimming were splashed around my room. Lifting weights and stretching to develop strength and flexibility had become a regular, albeit unexpected part of my training regimen. Not so unexpected was the unfathomable number of laps up and down the pool to hone technique and increase endurance.
All this knowledge jammed the gym bag of my mind when the call came over the intercom for the 500-yard Freestyle. I got up from the bench and went through my routine of stretching exercises. I pulled my arms behind me, just enough to get a pleasurable, light burning sensation in my shoulders. I rolled my head to loosen my neck. I bent forward at the waist until I felt a warmth in my hamstrings, then pulled my elbows behind my head to stretch out my biceps. I slipped out of my green and white sweatsuit with the silhouette of a cougar on the thigh — the mascot and colors of the Niwot High School Cougars — and wrapped my towel around my waist to cover the skin-tight, dark green racing Speedo I was wearing. The suit was designed to limit the bagginess that would increase water resistance, not the embarrassment of the wearer. As I walked to the starting blocks, I pulled on my dark green nylon swim cap and my swim goggles. Some swimmers got so serious as to shave their arms, legs, chests, armpits, and even their heads to reduce the drag in the water from hair, but I could never bring myself to go that far. The rubber strap of the goggles encircled my head like a black tiara and intensified the pseudo-migraine I already had from the squeezing of the cap, but it was the closes thing to baldness I could take.
These were the tools of my trade. Like the soldier collects his weapons, the fisherman assembles his tackle, and the farmer buys his implements, I had taken the time to collect the tools I needed to succeed.
I continued the stretches to stay warmed up as I stood at the starting block for my lane, waiting for the rest of the competitors to arrive. The water lapped quietly around the edges of the pool and soothed the pre-race jitters in my chest, allowing me to focus my mind on the task at hand. Time seems to slow, almost as if I have entered a time warp.
“Swimmers. Take your mark!”
The starter bellows his directions with authority. I toss the towel on the floor behind me — ignoring the sudden feeling of nakedness — and climb up onto the starting block. The non-slip grit sands the soles of my feet. I stand right on the edge, facing the rippleless surface of the pool.
As the starter pistol goes up, I bend down and grip the edge of the steel platform, its semi-sharp edge digging into my fingers. I push the balls of my feet against the block. I curl my toes over the front, careful to not lose my balance and get charged with a false start — two of those meant disqualification and humiliation. Head tucks. Muscles tense. Mind focuses. Slight lean forward.
I explode off the block like a rocket launched by a mission commander.
Using the balls of my feet, I push off almost straight forward in a perfect racing dive. My body stretches out — tense, solid, fingers pointing — like a Roman soldier’s spear. For a moment, body and water are parallel planes. I’m an eagle swooping over a river to pluck a fish out of the water. At the last moment, I bend ever-so-slightly from the waist to dip my fingertips into the water, piercing the smooth shield of steel to soften the surface and prevent a bellyflop that would knock the wind out of me. My entry is perfect, virtually splashless and noiseless. No splash means no extra resistance. The only sound — inaudible among the cheers of the crowd — is a gentle “plunk,” like a small stone dropped into a pond. I ignore the shock of cold as I slice into the water, its silky smoothness wrapping around me like butcher’s paper.
I kick hard as I surface to maintain the momentum of the dive; I don’t want to waste an ounce of stored energy. I immediately get my arms into the job; every available surface I have for propelling myself down the lane must be utilized to its maximum — hands with cupped palm to form a human paddle; feet with pointed toes to maximize the top surface area for pushing against the water in a strong flutter kick.
It is a perfect start, one that I still try to emulate in my everyday life. I strive to make as few waves as possible with those I work with; life is always easier when you have fewer enemies. I choose to ignore the coldness of life. When I decide to do something, I dive in with everything I’ve got; I give myself fully to it. If I can’t do it right, I don’t do it at all. I try to make use of every resource I have at my disposal. And I keep my mind focused on the current task at hand.
With the singleness of purpose of an aquatic Roman soldier, my plodding march down a long, watery path has begun.
Never before has my mind been so focused on the task at hand. All I think about is my stroke. There is nothing else. No opponents. No clock. No crowd. Just pull, pull, pull; over and over. Splashlessly. Almost noiselessly — only the soft slap, slap, slap of my forearms as they enter the water behind the spear of my fingertips. All I do is go, go, go as best as I can.
Every wasted motion has been schooled out, every movement has been calculated for maximum utilization of every inch of wet real estate (Kumin). I stretch each stroke as far to the front as I can. I grab the water with cupped palm and PULL with all the strength of a professional climber in the ironic tactic of pulling water backward to propel myself forward (Kumin) — an athletic demonstration of the law of physics that every scientist knows: to each and every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I bring my arm straight down the middle of my torso; no wavering to either side. At my waist, I convert the pull to a push, all the way down to my thigh. When I bring my arm out of the water, I lift my elbow just high enough to skim my fingers across the surface. Too high, and I’ve wasted precious energy, energy I need for speed and endurance. Too low, and my fingers dragging though the water increase resistance and slow me down. Even that minuscule amount of drag converts to a loss of time. Football may be a game of inches, but swimming is a game of nanoseconds, and races are won or lost by hundredths of a second.
I keep my breathing to a minimum. Each turn of the head is costly, losing precious hundredths of a second by the increased drag and expending extra energy to make the motion, energy I want to conserve for a final surge at the end. Only every other stroke-cycle merits a breath. My lungs were trained for this. Breathing exercises had expanded their capacity, and endurance training had taught my muscles to function on less oxygen. With the rhythmic cadence of a machine as it churns out its hourly quota, I traverse down the lane.
Each breath is a gulp of maximum volume. What most people would consider barely enough time to get a sip, I had trained to get a gulp. An air pocket forms in the crook of my arm when it comes out of the water. Without slowing my stroke, I turn my head just that couple of inches to get my mouth into it and grab a breath. Skip a cycle, breathe; skip, breathe; skip, breathe… a smooth, constant, steady, consistent, repetitive, monotonous pace.
It could be said that the profession of the ancient American Indians was that of hunter-gatherer, and I feel a kindred spirit with them. Through centuries of practical experience plying their skills, they had developed uses for literally every cell of any animal they hunted. From antlers for bows and fishhooks to horns for cups and spoons; from tendons and gut for bowstrings to hide for moccasins and clothing; from fat for medicines and candles to bones for jewelry and whistles; they didn’t let a single bone, antler, muscle, organ, or tissue go to waste.
And neither do I. Every motion has a purpose. There is no wasted energy.
My feet kick beneath the surface. They churn the water like a propeller on a fishing boat working hard to do its job so the fisherman can do his. My heels don’t break even the skin of the water — I don’t want the tops of my feet to lose contact with the water for even a millisecond.
I keep my eyes focused on a line tiled into the floor of the pool with small black tiles. It marks my lane for me so that without turning my head to see the red-and-white buoy markers that float on the water marking the lanes, I can keep my path as straight as the flight of an arrow from a bow, allowing no deviation from a perfectly straight line of travel that would increase my distance and add milliseconds to my time with each drift.
The other swimmers are totally out of mind, I am concerned only with myself and my technique. I have no idea if I am ahead or behind. And I don’t care, not one drop. The only opponent I am facing is the clock. Executing the details as best I can to beat my best time, that was my goal. Their loss was just collateral damage. Their victory was not my loss, not if I bettered my personal best. The only success I needed was to improve. If you pay too much attention to your opponent, only one of two things can happen: either you work only hard enough to beat your competition, or you work so hard trying to beat an opponent over your skill level that you end up hurting yourself. The best plan is always to just do your best.
Looking back, I can see how this trait could help me succeed as the executive of a company. Ethical executives focus on leading their companies in doing the best they can with steady, consistent effort instead of always looking for ways to drown their competitors. Being competitive, but not unsportsmanlike. Always doing what’s right. Worrying less about wringing every drop of profit out of an already-squeezed wet towel and more about treating their customers and their employees like champions. Then the profits will follow as naturally as harvesttime follows the planting season.
So, for the next 8-10 minutes of my life, all I knew was details, and focus, and rhythm, and plowing through the water, one stroke at a time.
Back and forth across the pool.
Like a farmer plowing a field of water.
As I reach the end of the first lap, a card with a black number 2 hangs in the water from the end of an arm, indicating the number of the lap I was about to start. It’s my designated counter, the teammate who keeps track of my lap count so I can focus more on details but still know when to pick up the pace, and when to make my final surge. He waves it low on the approaching wall so I don’t have to lift my head.
A black plus-sign is tiled on the bottom of the pool near the end of my lane, and another on the wall in front of me. By lining them up like the crosshairs in the scope of an army sniper’s rifle, I can time my flip turn. At just the right moment, I lower my head, tuck my body into a ball, and flip my legs over my head in a somersault that ends with my feet touching the wall just as I come out of the tuck. Not so close that I’m still in a tight ball, wasting time to untuck; not so far away that I must reach for the wall with my feet, losing both momentum and time.
Just as my feet touch the wall, I spring back in the opposite direction with all the force of a professional basketball player leaping for a slam-dunk. I reach out, arms outstretched, fingers pointed like the cone of a formula one racecar designed by the best mechanical engineer. I kick my feet immediately to maintain the momentum of my lateral jump, surfacing as quickly as possible to resume my strokes.
Foresight and adaptability are good traits to have for any profession, and, like the executives of the longest-lasting companies, I keep my eyes on the signs that lay before me, ready to reverse direction at just the right time to maintain momentum. To remain successful for an extended period, a company must be flexible and adaptable, so their executives keep an eye on trends, always ready to make quick decisions for radical changes to stay relevant in a constantly changing customer environment and avoid last place. My flip turns are like the turning points in Nokia’s evolution. Starting out as a pulp-and-paper company in the mid-1800’s (Simpson), Nokia flipped its direction several times, adapting itself to changes in customer needs throughout the decades, ultimately becoming a giant in the mobile telecommunications market (Monaghan).The first of twenty laps is gone. Nineteen more laps to go, each twenty-five yards long for a total of five-hundred yards, the length of five football fields stitched end to end by the spinning bobbin of my flip turns like the work of a professional seamstress.
So the cycle begins again.
Tuck, somersault, plant.
Spring, stretch, kick.
Over and over.
Swim. Flip. Jump.
Swim. Flip. Jump.
Lap 6 goes by. Lap 8. Then 10. 12.
Swim. Flip. Jump. Only now a little faster, pushing myself just a little bit more.
14. 16. 18…
And now it’s here!
The number on the card — the number 20 — has turned red and grown huge.
The final lap!
It’s time to go, go, go!!
Like a professional jockey taking his horse down the home stretch, I push myself all out. As hard and fast as I can. My arms are screaming, but I ignore them. My lungs are burning, but I ignore them. My legs are weakening, but I force them to go on.
I’m now skipping two cycles before taking a breath.
It makes my muscles burn even more, but I can’t afford to waste any effort or allow any drag, not even to breathe.
I’m sacrificing myself in every way I can.
Like an emergency room doctor sacrificing himself, racing time to save a life. My life. My swimming life.
I’m spending every last ounce of strength I have. I’ll rest when it’s done. When the end is reached. When the goal is accomplished. But not now. Now it’s just go, go, go, expending every last droplet of energy my muscles can muster.
The adrenalin is kicking in now, increasing focus, helping me ignore the internal fire that the water can never reach to put out, no mater how good the fireman might be.
My arms are churning like paddlewheels on a turbo-charged steamboat, my feet pistons in a turbo-charged racecar.
I time my finish to reach the wall at the end of a stroke — I don’t want to lose any momentum by having to glide in; nor do I want to lose time by catching the wall mid-stroke. My hand slams into the pad perfectly, just at the end of a stroke, and stops my timer.
I grab a gulp of air and let myself sink to the bottom as time settles back into a normal flow. Blowing air through my nose and mouth, I sat and rested on the pool floor, reveling in the water enveloping me, watching the bubbles float to the surface, trying to regain some strength. My arms felt paralyzed. My legs were lead, and their weight seemed to be holding me on the bottom.
I knew it was one of my best swims ever. I didn’t care if it was just another of my usual fourth- or fifth-place finishes. Everything had come together. All the details for success, details relevant to any profession — study, preparation, focus, tolerance, frugality, foresight, adaptability, self-sacrifice — had brought me to a satisfying conclusion. It was enough. I knew I had succeeded, and, without even looking, I knew I had beaten my personal best.
My lungs were empty and the urge to take a breath was becoming unbearable, so I made a wobbly attempt to stand. The water tried to help, lifitng me with invisible, buoyant arms. Once up, the water, my old friend, supported me as well, taking some of the weight off my feet. To the left, a swimmer was just gliding to the wall. Two more were just coming out of their final turn, their strokes frantic and splashy — the strokes of a beginner struggling to finish, trying not to let their feet touch the bottom and be disqualified. I looked to the right, and, gradually, incrementally at first, then exponentially, my chest expanded, tight and pounding, with alternating pride, and disbelief, and elation, and promise, all in tandem with a growing realization, that, with all the traits I had developed, I had succeeded in achieving…
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, I invite you to check out what I think of as my best work on “My BYOB List (My Personal Favorites)”.
Perry Paxton Quotes. WorldofQuotes.com. WorldofQuotes.com. 2013. Web. 3 February 2016.
Maxine Kumin. 400-Meter Freestyle. Web. 3 February 2016.
Aquila (Roman). Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia. 10 December 2015. Web. 3 February 2016.
Simpson, Stephen D. “5 of the Most Adaptive Companies.” Investopedia.com. Investopedia, LLC. 22 March 2011. Web. 3 February 2016.
Angela Monaghan. “Nokia: the Rise and Fall of a Mobile Phone Giant.” TheGuardian.com. Guardian News and Media Limited. 3 September 2013. Web. 3 February 2016.
“American Indian Archery Technology.” Archeology: The University of Iowa. The University of Iowa. n.d. Web. 3 February 2016.
Keoke, Emory Dean and Porterfield, Kay Marie. Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations (Facts on File Library of American History). New York: Checkmark Books, an imprint of Facts On File, Inc, 2003, 2002. Print.