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Leaders In Sports Highlight Path To Success

Heights Staff

Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 19:02

Boston College students, faculty, and neighbors packed the Murray Function Room on Monday to hear a panel including Olympic swim coach Bob Bowman, Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long, and ESPN announcer Beth Mowins. Held as part of the Chambers Lecture Series under the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics the event took the form of a casual discourse, with Mowins as well as audience members questioning Bowman and Long on their Olympic careers and the secrets to their longstanding success.

For Bowman, this success is most famously evident through his mentee, Michael Phelps, the current most decorated Olympian of all time, with records for the most gold medals in one Olympics and the most medals overall. Bowman also served as a U.S. Olympic team assistant coach in 2004, 2008, and 2012, and coached a number of Olympic and world-class swimmers, winning a host of coaching awards.

Long has accrued accolades as a Paralympic swimmer—currently holding 20 world records, she most recently won five gold, two silver, and one bronze medal in the 2012 Paralympics and has won the ESPN Best Female Athlete with a Disability ESPY Award twice. Long also received the Amateur Athletic Union’s James E. Sullivan Award—the first Paralympian to do so.

Although both used swimming as the source for their knowledge and advice, much of what they had to offer can be interpreted on a universal level. Pressure on the Olympic stage emerged as an early theme, and both Bowman and Long shared similar tactics for dealing with it.

“Toughness is one of the keys to performance at the top level,” Bowman said. “I want my swimmers to be able to perform in any environment. You need toughness to do that, and the only way you build that toughness is to practice it. Can you stand up and give your best effort, one shot, knowing that if you don’t do it, you don’t have a chance for another four years? That’s the definition of mental toughness.”
For Long, minimizing that self-pressure helped her to perform her best. “For me going into London, it was my third Olympics, and I didn’t put pressure on myself,” she said. “I really wanted to take it all in and have fun with my teammates. You train yourself to stay focused. It’s just another swim meet when it comes down to it, there’s just a lot more people watching.”
Both agreed that planning ahead is vital, both for calming nerves and setting goals.  
“Olympic competition is doing something you’ve been trained to do, day in and day out.,” Bowman said. “Swimming the race isn’t the hard part, it’s doing it in a very abnormal environment. Routine is very important. Those things are decided ahead of time so that you don’t have to invest any energy into them, and that really helps. The key is not to expend emotional energy beforehand.

“I think planning is key,” he said. “I don’t like to waste time. Every minute is accounted for. I have a plan that fits into not only what we want to do today, but what we want to do tomorrow, and six months from now. I always say, you don’t manage time, you manage yourself. There’s always time, and plenty of it. You have to figure out what is important to you, and focus on that. If you’re really passionate about it, you’ll get it done. As long as a swimmer, or anyone really, has goals that are meaningful and exciting to them, they never have a motivation problem.”
Long emphasized passion as well. “My best advice for getting there is to really have to love what you do,” she said. “If you love something, you really have a passion for doing it and can be successful. But not only do you have to love what you do, you have to work at it. It takes a lot of passion, hard work, and disappointment.

“I love what I do,” she said. “I still feel like that 10-year-old who jumps into the pool and is a mermaid.”
Ultimately, they acknowledged, their work amounts to more than swimming. “I’m giving my swimmers an experience that is more than just going up and down a box of water, because in the end, where does that get you?” Bowman said. “It’s the process of success: learning where you are, figuring out where you want to go, making a plan to get there, and going through with that plan. The medals aren’t important, it’s the process it takes to get there.”

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