Friday, April 13, 2012

Swimming: Phelps & Pride

I’ve (inadvertently) had a swimming-themed weekend. For the last few weeks I’ve been reading Micheal Phelps’ memoir No Limits: The Will to Succeed. The book charts his journey to swimming success, starting off from his childhood in Baltimore, Maryland in the US to his astounding feat of winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

I’ve always had a lot of respect for sports people and kind of regretted that I was not more of an athlete (but that couldn’t be helped – I was useless at virtually every sport I tried in school). The only thing I was sort of okay at was swimming and even that, I didn’t develop with any seriousness. So, it was interesting to read what it takes to become an Olympian and more so a gold medalist. The other sports memoirs and autobiographies, which I’ve read (Dara Torres’ Age is Just a Number and Andre Agassi’s Open) also gave a powerful insight into the demands on the athlete’s body, mind, will and lifestyle.

I think that participating in sports is a very good way to develop discipline, the ability to work hard, and learning to work in a team but yet be an individual (for instance, choosing to swim laps or practice your shots when everyone else is sleeping in). It is also a wonderful way to learn how to handle life’s vicissitudes. Sometimes you will win and other times, you will not. This fact is taken for granted in sports: today’s champion might have been yesterday’s underdog and almost surely will be knocked off their pedestal one day by a younger, faster and stronger challenger.

Anyway, back to the book by Michael Phelps, it was an engaging read. I was not impressed with the writing quality in the first chapter, but it became smoother with each page.

Each chapter is named for each of the events in which he won eight gold medals in Beijing and for a quality that helped him to the top e.g. “Perseverance: The 400 Individual Medley” and “Will: The 100 Fly.” Phelps is detailed in his description of his workout routines (I gasped at how much he swum each week). At 12 years old, a typical set could include 1,200 meters (1 length of an Olympic sized pool is 50m, so going one way and then back is 100m). When he started taking swimming more seriously in his mid-teens, a workout could comprise of 12,000 meters.

The physical preparation is obviously key. A champion has to be willing to go that extra step and do what all the others don’t. So, for instance, if other swimmers rested on Sundays, Phelps trained every blessed day of the week. However, what really differentiates a champion from everyone else is mental toughness: the ability to take loses in one’s stride (yes, learn from them and then put them out of your mind and move on). No Limits showed Phelps to be the type of person who didn’t allow mistakes to consume him, but to put them aside and to focus on the job at hand. This is a trait summed-up by his coach Bob Bowman’s acronym: What’s Important Now (W.I.N).

This mental strength was a strong feature in the 2007 film Pride. Directed by a first-time director Sunu Gonera and starring Terrence Howard and Bernie Mac, Pride tells the story of a college swimming star Jim Ellis (Howard) whose dreams of sporting glory are shattered by racism. Following a disastrous swim meet, when his Caucasian competitors refuse to participate in a race with a Black swimmer, he is ordered out off the pool grounds by the police. He explodes, lashes out at a policeman and is arrested for assaulting a police officer.

Fast forward a few years later and he finds himself, by a series of accidents, the coach of a group of teenagers in one of Philadelphia’s roughest neighbourhoods (the team is later known as PDR, named for the Philadeplhia Department of Recreation, but also suitably standing for Pride, Determination and Resilience). The swimmers, Ellis takes charge of have none of the advantages that Michael Phelps probably did. For many of them, swimming is not a sport that is highly regarded in the African American community (in fact, a common statement made about Black people is that most of us cannot swim).

So, Jim Ellis starts from the basics and gradually builds-up the physical strengths of his team. The bigger task, though, is getting their minds in the right state of discipline, self-respect and fearlessness. Youthful exuberance aside, these teenagers display very little sense of purpose, probably in part as a result of a lack of real-life mentors and role models.

It is unrealistic to expect that such a rag-tag bunch would win at their first swim meet and thankfully this film avoids the tendency for any unbelievable Hollywood-type triumph. In fact, you could say that their first experience of competition is downright disastrous with almost all the PDR swimmers coming in last in their races. One of them (Reggie) is unable to accurately gauge when he should turn and hits his head on the pool wall. The swimmers refuse to wear the swimming briefs provided by Coach Ellis and the result is embarrassing for another of the swimmers as his denim shorts, which he insists on swimming in come off mid-swim.

Gradually though, the swimmers start to take the sport more seriously, develop a stronger work ethic and coalesce into a team. They practice harder and get better at taking instruction. Slowly, the medals start trickling in. At the climax of the film, PDR participates in a major regional swim meet in Baltimore (hey, this could be the pool that Michael Phelps trained in). Although they are intimidated by the size of the competition pool (50 meters compared to their 25-yard pool), by this time they’ve started to learn the lesson of facing your fears squarely.

It’s obviously a feel good film, but one which is based on the real life story of Jim Ellis. I think swimmers would enjoy it for, aside from the swimming sequences, the film is replete with beautiful shots of glistening swimming pools.

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