In March of my senior year in high school, I found myself on a plane to Europe – to compete in the World Cup Tour, representing the United States of America. My first time doing so on foreign soil. When we arrived at the pool in Imperia, Italy, my nerves and excitement waned. My focus shifted and I became obsessed with all things out of my control. The water was cold. The pool deck was dark. The lane lines - massive and sharp. The gutters were ridiculous. Spectators were smoking on deck. The Chinese swimmers had muscle mass unlike anything I had ever seen before. They swam in the opposite direction – even the toilets flushed the wrong way. Holy F. My head was spinning.
I swam like garbage.
The epic failure that was this meet offered me the biggest lesson of my entire swimming career – and there have been MANY.
The moment came after Jenny Thompson’s 100m butterfly - at the time, she was the world record holder in the event. I watched her get out of the pool after a not-so-great 100 fly – and smile. SMILE. Laughing and jumping her way through the freezing cold warm down pool. I swear my world stopped spinning in that very moment. I was obsessed with the gutters, the size of lane lines, water temperature, toilets (not kidding) – and every.single.thing that was out of my control – and here she was, world record holder and my childhood idol – smiling after swimming a shitty 100 fly.
A few days later, we were in Paris, France. A year-and-a-half out from Olympic Trials – this meet was a major turning point for me. Quite the turn-around. I can’t tell you about the lane lines, lighting or the toilets at the pool in Paris… I was back in the zone – back in my lane – and focusing on the things I could control. I let go. And. I soared. I won my first international gold in that pool in Paris.
I flew home with my new hardware, but even more powerful than that – I flew home KNOWING that how we respond to failure is everything.