There was still hope! The refusal of my fellow semi-finalists to race without me, provided the chance I needed to tear off my ripped “Jaked” body suit and frantically struggle into the outdated bodysuit that I had fatefully brought with me as a back up.
My frustration continued its crescendo, culminating when, seconds before being called to the starting blocks, I meticulously replaced my goggles securely deep into my eye sockets only to find my vision obscured due to smeared blood inside the lenses. The blisters on the first knuckles above my fingernails were raw and bleeding down my fingertips from tugging my skin tight suit up my legs and torso. Inability to clean and replace my goggles at that point only exacerbated my desperation.
If I couldn’t prove to be competitive at those 2009 World Championships by at least making the finals, there could be no justification for the incredible sacrifices required to continue swimming. I would be forced to retire then and there. The gravitas of the moment hit me as I solemnly stepped onto the starting block.
Gazing down the lane at the finish, I was faced with finality; the essence of my fear of failure. Still rushed and unprepared for the required breath hold, in an outclassed racing suit and with blood obscured vision I gripped the blocks with bleeding fingers determined to master what could be controlled.
The turmoil of the race churned my wants and fears together into a desperate blur, resulting in sixth place. The pressure had found my cracks and forced them open into gushing leaks. The second semi-final would soon follow and my chances of making the final were slim. In reconciliation of my fate and still gasping for air, I made the solitary return trip to the warm-up area languidly to get on with my life, never stopping to look back. The news of my impending swim off for the last place in the finals reached me with little time to spare.
The unpredictability and drama of a swim off between two athletes tied with the exact same time is relished by everyone except the competitors involved. The high stakes of one against one, win or go home, makes for a visceral, high stakes test of character on display for all to see. The fear of failure stared back at me from the other end of the pool, but this time I welcomed it.
How exciting it was going to be, and I had the privilege of having the best seat in the house. This second chance blessed me with the opportunity to transmute my formerly desperate approach into a new perspective of fun, gratitude, and enjoyment of the experience. I was determined to do this potential last 50m justice.
I rode that powerful wave of love and enjoyment to the wall first, securing a berth in the finals and a future in the sport in a new World Championship record time of 21.20. I inwardly wondered if such lows and highs had ever before been crammed into the same hour.
Under the bright lights of the warm-up venue the following evening, I mentioned to my coach at the time, Brett Hawke, that I was drowsy, and asked where I might obtain some coffee. Suddenly, an open hand at full swing caught me across my open lower jaw. I was shocked and struggled to restrain my instinctual impulse to strike back at Brett. It was to wake me up, he casually explained. However, my jaw began to swell painfully and I my top and bottom teeth would no longer meet.
As I went though my preparations for the final, I distilled my rage, frustration and pain, along with my desire to win, down into a thick black tar with which I caulked myself to prevent possible leaks from the pressure. Believing it would give me power and energy, I fully embraced my anger and sought energy from the limitless dark side of human nature until it consumed me.
Unleashing the tremendous hurricane of rage that had been worked up within me, I violently surged to the front of the race at the halfway mark. However, swimming fast requires having the composure to hold a slight pause in the stroke to glide forward, without which one cavitates inefficiently, pulling the same moving water twice.
The inefficiency of my fury quickly caused premature fatigue, manifesting in massive deceleration as we approached the finish. Seventh place! I had expended so much more energy, yet the time was significantly slower than my swim off the night before, which would have won the silver in the final.
The profound implications of that lesson could only have been learnt the hard way. Energy and motivation can be derived from both the positive and negative. If you are an up and coming athlete I implore you to learn from my mistake.
Don’t let yourself get desperate, avoid the frequent urge to cultivate that wild and violent anger which may feel powerful, but will consume you. Instead, have the composure to choose to see the fun, and embrace the positive sustaining power of doing it out of love and enjoyment, stay humble and enjoy the ride.