It was the summer of 1988. I was an active, but small, skinny 15-year-old high school boy without a sport I felt a passion for. Greg Louganis was a highlight of the Olympics that year, so I was naturally drawn to watch him during that famous 5 Gold Medal summer of his. The first thing I noticed was his nicely built body since I was so self-conscious of my own lack of muscular form. And then I became intrigued by the atmosphere and skill of his sport. It was that time in my life where I wanted to find the sport that really fit and start putting myself into it. My childhood practice of baseball, basketball, soccer, and golf just hadn’t won my heart, even though I showed promising talent in a couple of them. But a spark of hope hit me that summer to consider something different.
I can’t clearly recall all the reasoning that went into it, but a couple months later I found the courage to show up at the first day of practice for our top-league, state-champion swimming/diving team. Only then did I learn that the diving coach and team were not going to be there that first week so the swim coach put me in the water with the rest of his swimmers. There I struggled to survive the first few days. I also cannot recall why I did not get out of my misery and join the diving team when they did finally show up. But it was within those first few weeks that I saw my first muscles form and found a sport that deeply resonated with me. And now 23 years later, I am still in the water, loving swimming even more than I did back then… and I never did join a diving team.
However, the name and image of Greg Louganis are what I associate with that turning point in my life. So while I was browsing the NYT online this morning, I ran across an article entitled “Louganis Is Back On Board” and was instantly triggered with nostalgia and curiosity. Indeed, I had not heard anything about him in years.
It was a positive article. I really appreciated the glimpse of Louganis on his journey at this point, in how it was portrayed by NYT reporter Karen Crouse, and through several points described in this article I found that he has become an encouragement to me once again as I am blazing a trail with TI into a new profession and new region of the world.
Wouldn’t you know it? The caption below the title of his website says, “Peak Performance Is Meditation In Motion”.
Here are some exerpts from that article and the inspiration I drew from them:
“Louganis accepted [an offer to coach] after gaining assurances from Mitchell that he would be free to follow his building-blocks philosophy, which is at odds with some American coaches who stress acrobatics over mechanics.”
“Louganis emphasizes practice over competition and the whole person over the athlete. He encourages his divers to keep daily journals in which they write their intentions for each practice, then critique their performances.”
I believe in the superior results of patiently, perfecting form before power in a swimmer. And I believe now, 23 years later, that practice is far more important than competition- actually, it is the secret of ‘deep-practice’ in our practices that creates the life-long satisfaction from engaging in the sport- even after our youthful peak in speed is gone. But this is greatly at odds with the dominating paradigm of ‘more pain, more gain’ in swimming, and the win-at-any-cost mentality taking over sports all over the world. As a result of this paradigm, only the most injury-resilient, naturally intuitive (and YOUNG) swimmers rise to the top- only the most ‘sacrificial’ athletes rise to the top- so many sacrificing their relationships, their character, the longevity of their bodies, sacrificing critical aspects of their soul and spirit to get some fleeting prestige.
It is true that the best athletes don’t necessarily make the best coaches. Louganis was the best at his sport in his time. I wonder why he did not consider coaching right away as so many ‘retired’ athletes do? However, he has finally started 23 years later with encouragement of those who have noticed his ability to disect a diver’s performance with precision, and emotionally connect to his students and bring them along into the intuition he knew himself. And one of those people who believed in him gave him a great chance. When I stumbled onto swim coaching with TI- it was not a new idea for me; I had tucked it back on the shelf of rare-and-likely-passed-possibilities for my life. It took the encouragement of a few believers to get me to see the potential in myself and a few more to invite me into my first opportunities.
“This emotional connection [that he makes with his students] is important. The best athletes do not always make the best coaches because their genius is so ingrained or intuitive that they find it hard to express it in words. Even if Louganis has the answers, his style is to ask questions, to make his athletes feel as if they are co-pilots on a journey.
“I want them to understand I don’t know everything,” Louganis said. “I don’t have a magic wand. We’re in this together. A lot of times I’ll say: ‘How can we get you to make this adjustment? How’s this going to make sense to you?”
It is also true that some of the best coaches were not necessarily the best athletes themselves. Where I struggled to thrive as a young competitive swimmer and triathlete, finally succumbing to chronic joint injuries, I developed a passion to understand why and how to overcome them. More importantly, I developed a conviction to develop my whole being, for my whole life- rather than blow it all on fleeting gains in youth.
In the years to follow I continued to swim on my own, while I wandered out of competition and out of those athletic communities to give my attention to new fields of study and practice. I found and developed my skills for teaching and empathizing with my students, and gained a wider range of knowledge and experience to draw from. Then when I [discovered TI], it began a 10 year revolution, not just in my swimming, but in my attitude about training body, mind, and spirit. Over the last few years I have gotten more and more involved in training others with the TI approach and am more than ever confident in the superior results of this technique. I know that I have found that I am uniquely suited for this role as a coach. I don’t have swim medals on the shelf, or years of assistant coaching for some swim club. But I have spent decades deeply tuning my sensitivity as a careful swimmer, as an intuitive learner in all my activities, as one who has faced his fears and found positive ways to overcome them. And as I have jumped in and gotten involved with TI I have quickly proven to myself and my students that I have a knack for guiding and encouraging- my excited students and their eager referrals spur me on.
Furthermore, my empathy is more deeply rooted in the fact that I, like all TI coaches that I know of, actually practice and prove what we teach. We are not theory-based ‘deck-coaches’ ; we’re in the water with our swimmers as much as we can be; demonstrating what we are teaching. A critical difference in the TI coaching community- we are not just coaches but also students ourselves, always learning, always improving our own swimming as we help others improve theirs. We ‘keep the common touch’ as Rudyard Kipling once exhorted in one of my favorite inspirational poem “IF”.
I see my TI coaching as a creative process, a collaborative relationship with the student. My student and I are develping something together, constantly problem-solving, discovering new ways to communicate, new ways to make a bridge to understanding and practice.
If I could ever get the chance I would like to meet Greg Louganis and hear more of his inner personal journey- he’s been through great highs and lows: peak performance and Olympic victory; the post-performer years of retirement; the inevitable social storms of revealing his homosexuality; of discovering he had HIV, then learning to live with it; how he took his heart and skills into other quiet fields of practice; now returning to coach the sport he had unprecendented skill for; facing the fear and jealousy and admiration of the public once again. I have a feeling I would like him as a coach and as a person.
Greg Louganis has his niche now- being able to give his very special attention to those divers with great hope that they can be their best, and even be THE best. I think I have found my niche too- being able to give my very special attention to those swimmers who have little hope that they can be good at swimming, let alone be one of the best. But I know they can. Like Louganis, I can take this ‘building-blocks’ like TI approach, mix it with the perspective and skills and HOPE I’ve developed along my journey, and help my swimmers be far better than they ever thought possible.
Thanks, again, Greg.