Mark Spitz had to swim 21 times in the 1972 Munich Olympics en route to winning his seven gold medals -- all world records. Nobody, not even Michael Phelps, has won seven golds on seven world records before.
Towards the end of Spitz' record-setting performance, going into his seventh gold medal final, he was exhausted mentally and physically. The problem though was his last performance needed to be his best, in his least-preferred event: the 100 freestyle. In fact, Spitz finished last in that very event in the 1968 Games. As Spitz arrived to the pool that day, he noticed a column of arched balloons, which reminded him of almost the exact same sight he had in Mexico City where he suffered in the 100 free. His mind was racing, and he considered pulling out.
Spitz' coach had other plans, telling him that if he didn't swim the 100, people would question his toughness and he would't be able to say he was the fastest swimmer in the world. Typically, the 100 freestyle is the marker for that honor.
On the pool deck before the finals, Spitz had a flashback to how fast he swam the 100 free in Sacramento during the US Olympic Trials heading into the '72 Games. At our Tower 26 beach swim earlier this week in Santa Monica, Spitz said the pool was basically surrounded by a cornfield. And that's just what he pictured in his head in the moments before the swim. He took himself someplace else mentally. The race was in Germany, but Spitz felt he was in California.
During the finals race, Spitz told us he felt terrible, "like a grand piano had been dropped on me." But he realized that if he felt that way, "everyone else probably feels like they have three pianos on them." So he surged forward and ahead towards the final wall. Nobody caught him, or came close. He won gold. Again. And retired.
I never would have known that story had I not dragged myself out of bed early to hear Spitz speak at our sunrise swim. What a reward! What valuable information! I'm a big believer in training the brain for success. Every day. I'd say my biggest gains in triathlon are not physical in nature at all, in fact. But that comes from constant mental training. I try to keep my mind "open" for every workout, trying earnestly to only allow in positive thoughts, sounds or images that staple themselves to my subconsciousness. I don't always succeed, especially if you read my post heading into Ironman 70.3 Silverman. But I have at least learned how to block out the negative and focus on the positive. It just takes some time.
To that end, Tower 26 swim coach Gerry Rodrigues relayed a story he's telling his kids about two wolves that live within all of us. The Good Wolf, and the Bad Wolf. Obviously, the Good Wolf protects you while the Bad Wolf tears you up and down. Gerry said his son asked him which wolf wins in a battle, to which he responded, "whichever wolf you feed."
I have fed both wolves in the past, and I can confidently say that after five years of ups and downs racing...the good wolf is here to stay. One way to feed the Good Wolf is to employ what Gerry calls the "three-second rule." Don't let any negative thoughts stay with you for more than three seconds at a time. Sounds easier said than done, no? I've got an Ironman Arizona build weekend tomorrow and Sunday with a long swim, run and ride. I'll have plenty of time to feed the Good Wolf and fend off the other one who shall not be named.
What's your cornfield?