What Will You Do When Your Gold Medal Moment Arrives?
I was a skinny 14-year-old high school freshman who played a lot of sports and liked to swim. It was a defining moment in my life that set me on a journey that, to this day, has affected my career and family. It happened one afternoon at the Madison East High School pool. I was goofing off in lane six; the lane where they put team members who were not serious, just getting by, going through the motions. But my coach at the time, Pat Barry, pulled me out of the pool grabbed my little finger and said “Jim you have more talent in your little pinkie than the rest of the swimmers in the whole pool combined. You have so much more potential – if you would just use it!”
That’s when I started to realize your potential has only two limits – your imagination and the commitment you are willing to make. That was the day I set my sights on becoming an Olympic champion – and seven years later I achieved my goal.
My message for you is simple; each of you has a gold medal moment ahead of you. Each one of you will face a time or times when you will have a chance to give your best and really make a difference! Whether you know it or not, right now you have an appointment with destiny.
From age 14 to 21 my life as an elite athlete was structured around meeting that appointment with destiny. I knew when it would arrive. I knew the exact day, hour and conditions of my greatest test. Mine came on July 25, 1976 in Montreal Canada at 7:00 in the evening. Winning the gold medal and breaking the 50-second barrier in the 100-meter came with a lot of support. Coaches, trainers, physicians, teammates, parents and fans all doing their best to help me succeed. I knew who my opponents would be and I had studied their strengths and weaknesses. I had rehearsed my race in practice and in my mind for seven years. In that respect, I had it easy because I knew exactly what mountain I had to climb to achieve my gold medal.
But most of us don’t have it so clearly spelled out. Whether we know it in advance or not, there are times in our lives when we each get at least one shot at the gold medal.
Some of you may be thinking, “Hey Jim, you were blessed with a talent. You had the top coaches in the world; you had supportive parents and the financial means to do it, but me, I’ve got no special talent. I don’t even know what I want to do tomorrow. How am I going to have any chance to win a Gold Medal?” The fact is – YOU WILL. You may not know when you will be asked to step up to the plate and bring your best stuff, but it will happen. So, how can you be prepared to meet your gold medal moment?
First – Build your resources. Everyone needs a support group. You need good teammates; people you can trust – people who are honest with you – people who are supportive of your dreams. To build your resources you need to recognize that life has limits.
When I graduated from high school it was time to go beyond the limits of living at home and my high school experiences. The word FREEDOM echoed through my mind. Throughout high school, I can remember my father’s favorite ploy when I ran into one of his limits. He would say, “Well James, the garage door can stay up and you can drive my car or the garage door can come down and you can walk. Which would you prefer?” So upon graduating I thought “Free at last!” No more Mom or Dad giving me a curfew, telling me what to do. I had earned a full swimming scholarship to Indiana University; I thought I had it made!
But much to my surprise, I encountered a whole set of new limits. How do I swim fast, live in the fast lane and still maintain good grades like I did in high school? Well after three semesters of very mediocre schoolwork it dawned on me that I did not know how to study properly to be successful in college. I needed a resource. That resource came from my swim coach at Indiana University Doc Counsilman. Doc explained to me it was simple. Jim, he said, “All you have to do is three things: First; you have to go to class. Second; pay attention during class and take great notes. Third; after class organize your notes and digest what you have learned.” Doc said if I did that, I could cut my study time for exams in half and still get an A. You know, he was right; I became an excellent student. Doc was a great teacher and a great resource for me, one of many that helped me along the way. So, build your resources.
Second – Focus on your race. In swim competition, every time I starting thinking about who I was swimming against and how they were going to swim their race, I always seemed to end up in third place. That’s what happened in the Olympics. In the 200-meter Freestyle I missed the gold medal by two-tenths of a second. I missed the silver by five one-hundredths of a second. So I took a bronze because I was thinking about how two other competitors were going to swim their race. But in the 100-meter Free I was totally focused and prepared for how I was going to swim my race. I focused in on what I needed to do to win and took charge saying, “this is my race, this is my time to excel, it’s time to win!” Your primary focus should be where you are going and how to get there.
Third – Get into the Crucible of Achievement. By that I mean, get into the big game. If you don’t challenge yourself to do something difficult, that lies a bit out of your reach, a stretch, then you may not be ready for that gold medal moment.
At 14 I decided if I was going to swim like the big boys, I had to TRAIN with the big boys. I had the opportunity to start training with one of the best swim coaches in the country and the University of Wisconsin men’s swim team. That first summer I felt like I was in way over my head, but I knew if I wanted to be the best, I needed to train with the best. I kept saying to myself; “there are only two limits to my potential – my imagination and commitment to succeed.” My imagination told me to get in and train with the fastest swimmers in the State of Wisconsin. My commitment made me stay.
- Use your imagination to challenge yourself,
- Then get in a group that is swimming faster than you,
- And commit yourself to catching up with them!
Remember this: you have an appointment with destiny. Think about the challenges and decisions you have faced during your life reaching for your own dreams and goals. Have you prepared yourself to bring your best stuff every day? Are you ready for your gold medal moment? If you are, then GO FOR THE GOLD!