There is something to be said for having no other option but to succeed. Consider a situation in which success is not the most important thing, but the only thing. That’s true commitment. It’s rare, but when recognised it demands my respect.
I caught up with Bryan, a longtime teammate, now retired, who is still a current United States record holder. Our lucid conversation drifted to touch on the moments in our swimming careers when we had each been faced with the possibility of an untimely forced retirement.
Bryan encouraged me to recount occasions when I had absolutely no other option but to make the finals, win the swim off, get on the podium or be forced to hang up the suit and goggles for good.
Those outcomes were absolutely necessary to justify the past sacrifices and future ones required of being a professional athlete. In those incredibly stressful instances, the finality of losing the way of life that I had grown to love was confronted face to face.
Each of them they found me without a backup plan, leaving me no other option but to succeed.
However, Bryan explained that when he faced the end as he touched the wall at the finish of his race at the Olympic Trials, his back up plan was there waiting and ready to go.
He immediately continued on to pursue his MBA. He said that before the stressful final race, he was comforted by the notion of continuity that his plans presented, and that it helped to reduce the pressure.
Today, he still wonders if the outcome of the race would have been different without the safety net of the MBA back up plan. He asked me about my back up plan for Rio. I laughed. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist and philosopher famously noted in his acclaimed work, The Art Of War, that simply having the option for retreat greatly weakened an army’s collective resolve.
Thus increasing the likelihood of a retreat when things became difficult. In his writings, he explained that when an army is faced with no other option but the attainment of victory or death, they were capable of incredible things that would surely be underestimated by the enemy, and so tip the scales favourably.
He advocated taking advantage of this phenomenon when necessary by fighting a pitched battle with a river, cliff or large body of water to the rear, so as to prevent a possible rout. This morning I grabbed a coffee with Dave, an Australian friend here. Like a duck swimming smoothly, Dave’s demeanour was calm on the surface, while working constantly with passionate, unseen intensity below.
Despite having recently had a fourth child, Dave had just quit a lucrative job in the tech industry to pursue a startup idea. His approach to this challenging endeavour was fascinating to me. Dave described his current situation as analogous to being besieged in bunker with a core group of commanders planning high stakes decisions while under the pressure of stressful time constraints.
It was interesting to me that he chose that analogy, as being besieged implied that there could be no retreat. He said to the victor would go the spoils, and the investors would remain on their side so long as they were winning. Dave said that he felt compelled to take the risk because he wanted to be part of something that he was proud of. He hoped that his kids would one day be proud of his creativity and vision.
I am constantly asked about what I plan to pursue after this swimming chapter. In hindsight, my plans for after professional sport have changed continually over the last few years as a result of my perspective on life changing as I grow.
I recognise that it will surely change again along with my plans. I too am working towards something to be proud of; the satisfaction of creating a dream and bringing it to fruition. I imagine being the first athlete from Trinidad and Tobago to compete in a fifth Olympiad with another appearance in the finals and atop the podium.
Like Dave, I too feel besieged, deep in my focused bunker preparing and planning for battles to come. I can relate to his supporters remaining at his side so long as he remains successful. Everything I do has the power of purpose behind it. It’s clear, and increasing real and detailed as we get closer, but this vision stops immediately after the race.
I don’t know with certainty what will be next, just possibilities. However unlike Bryan, on the night of the finals, there will be no thoughts directed towards contingency plans that might weaken my resolve. There never is. With nowhere to retreat to, there can be no retreat. Success becomes the only option, and as Sun Tzu recognised long ago, that makes you extremely dangerous!