Olympic Champion Duncan Armstrong: Dream Big, Train Bigger

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. You can join his weekly motivational newsletter for competitive swimmers by clicking here.

Duncan Armstrong was having the meet of his life at the 1986 Commonwealth Games. The 18-year old Australian had won two gold medals. His coach, the legendary Laurie Lawrence, pulled Armstrong aside at the end of the meet, being held in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“Are you happy with that?” asked Lawrence.

Armstrong replied that yeah, he was happy. Lawrence pushed—what would make the young swimmer ultimately satisfied in the sport? Well, replied Armstrong. Winning a medal at the Seoul Olympics, being held two years later, would be great.

“Fantastic,” said Lawrence. “I’ll see you at the pool at 5am.”

Over the next two years Armstrong was a monster in training.

Lawrence’s philosophy was old-school and simple: they would outwork and out-prepare the competition. This meant Armstrong regularly did 20,000m a day in the water. When Lawrence learned that the swimmers would be walking a few kilometers a day between the pool, accommodations and the athlete’s village in Seoul, he added 6 kilometer runs to their training regimen.

“Laurie manufactured tension on a daily basis,” Armstrong said. “It was antagonistic, eyeball-to-eyeball stuff that toughened you up for competition.”

Lawrence’s coaching style was in-your-face, but it was endlessly energetic. Something that Armstrong recognized as being key to his ability to endure the tough training that developed him into a champion.

“He just sells it,” Armstrong said of his coach. “He sells passion… In swimming, where you have to do hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of laps, passion and enthusiasm are very important.”

The competition Armstrong would face in Seoul were two of the great swimmers of the 1980’s.

West German Michael Gross had been the star of the Los Angeles Games, and American Matt Biondi was projected to match Mark Spitz’ record-setting haul of seven gold medals in Seoul. The two were also giants in the literal sense, Gross at 6’6 and Biondi at 6’7, towering over Armstrong at 6’0.

“Why not me?”

Lawrence had done some recon of Biondi’s swimming and noticed that the wave that followed the American was massive. With the skinny lane ropes and the big wake Armstrong could hitch a free ride, conserving his energy for the back-half of the race.

With the preparation completed, and a race strategy in place, Armstrong stood up for the final of the 200m freestyle in Seoul believing that he belonged there and that these legends of the sport were beatable.

“You look down your lane and know you’ve done everything you possibly can and you’re prepared for this race. Someone has got to win it. Why not me?”

Armstrong dove into the water and immediately locked on to Biondi’s hip as the “California Condor”—so named for his nearly seven foot wide wingspan—surged out to an early lead.

In the stands Lawrence was pacing manically, a heat sheet rolled up tightly in his fist. Biondi used his big arm-span and early speed to turn in the lead with Sweden’s Anders Holmertz out in lane 8, with Armstrong tagging along, half a body length behind.

The Australian turned third at the 150m and made his move, swimming off the lane line. By the time they hit 175m, Armstrong had surged into a clear lead. He sailed into the wall, crashing in a flurry of white water in a time of 1:47.25.

Armstrong had won gold in world record time.

Up in the stands Lawrence was going bananas.

This was the second Olympics in a row he’d coached a swimmer to gold from lane six. Four years earlier at the Los Angeles Games Jon Sieben had won the 200m butterfly, upsetting the favored Gross to win gold. Just like Armstrong had.

“Lucky lane 6!” Lawrence bellowed from the stands in Seoul.

When a reporter tried to pin down the erupting Lawrence for a quick interview, the coach’s response was classic Lawrence. “Mate, we just beat three world record holders! How do you think I feel? What do you think we come for, mate? Silver? Stuff the silver! We come for the gold!”

What makes great swimmers great?

Laurie Lawrence believed that with enough hard work and self-belief that anything was possible. Height didn’t matter, past performances didn’t matter. Lawrence’s enthusiasm and unwavering belief in his swimmers was infectious and infused them with the idea that they could be world-beaters.

The recipe for success is as simple as it is timeless: good things happen when you enthusiastically do it better and harder than the swimmer in the next lane. The physical preparation will sculpt you into a faster swimmer, and enduring and conquering the training will give you the confidence to believe that you can beat the Biondis and the Gross’ of the world.

Does this mean you should go to the pool and start dropping 20,000m days of training? Running six kilometers a day too? Not necessarily.

But this does mean you can take that same all-in approach to the focus levels you bring in practice. You can take that same ambition and apply it to your lifestyle habits outside of the pool, whether it is doubling down on getting a full night of sleep or cleaning up your nutrition habits. You can take the all-in approach and focus it tightly on the things that have the biggest impact on your performance.

Don’t be afraid of dreaming big.

We all need a little more of that.

Just make sure that when you dream big you are willing to prepare and train bigger.

ABOUT OLIVIER POIRIER-LEROY

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer. He’s the publisher of YourSwimBook, a ten-month log book for competitive swimmers.

Conquer the PoolHe’s also the author of the recently published mental training workbook for competitive swimmers, Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High Performance Mindset.

It combines sport psychology research, worksheets, and anecdotes and examples of Olympians past and present to give swimmers everything they need to conquer the mental side of the sport.

Ready to take your mindset to the next level?

Click here to learn more about Conquer the Pool.

COACHES: Yuppers–we do team orders of “Conquer the Pool” which include a team discount as well as complimentary branding (your club logo on the cover of the book) at no additional charge.

Want more details? Click here for a free estimate on a team order of CTP.

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Swamzer
2 years ago

Swimming Heritage Minutes are a great idea. Do all of them have to glorify pounding mileage? Apparently ending posts with a list of heights is my thing now.

Armstrong 188cm
McEvoy 185cm

Meeeeee
Reply to  zee
2 years ago

classic draft.

Bo Swims
Reply to  Meeeeee
2 years ago

“Let the animal out!” This inspired the “animal lane” on our team.

BaldingEagle
2 years ago

I remember watching that race. I was obviously rooting for Biondi, my fellow American. My feeling then, and still now, is that the win by Armstrong was great race management and positioning. Great recon work by his coach, and great use of the resources available. Of course, Armstrong had to swim the race, and execute on his own, NTM do the training ahead of time. This is a great lesson that races can be just that: races. Ultimately, it comes down to how the conditions are used, and just straight-up racing.

I used the lane-drafting technique a few months later on a teammate in a race. He was so flustered that he quit and got out of the pool… Read more »

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  BaldingEagle
1 year ago

Of swimmers who could not close out swims for which they were a huge favorite in and instead get posterized, Biondi was the greatest.

Mikeh
2 years ago

“This meant Armstrong regularly did 20,000m a day in the water.”

I wonder what that volume and pace of training impacted his health and long term career. A quick Google scan suggests Hunter attended U of Florida and won SEC titles, but no mention of NCAA wins or even participation. According to Sports Reference he was quite a bit slower in 1992.

One must wonder whether Hunters body was simply used up from day after day of 20 km high intensity days. Just speculation on my part.

Not
Reply to  Mikeh
2 years ago

Duncan Armstrong is his name

Texas Tap Water
Reply to  Mikeh
1 year ago

Who is Hunters?

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  Texas Tap Water
1 year ago

That dude mixed up in Ukraine somehow.

ERVINFORTHEWIN
Reply to  Texas Tap Water
1 year ago

lol lol lol

Verram
2 years ago

I think Simone manuel drafted off Cate Campbell as well in Rio and Dara Torres drafted off Libby Kenton in that 4c100 medley relay in. Beijing in 2008 .. so Americans do it as well

Not
Reply to  Verram
2 years ago

Yep

Aquajosh
Reply to  Verram
1 year ago

It’s how Nicole Haislett won gold in the 200m free in Barcelona. Franziska van Almsick was swimming too close to the lane rope. Also how the US women beat China in the 4×100 free relay that same meet.

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  Verram
1 year ago

How can you not mention Lezak if you’re talking Americans who drafted? He drafted Bernard so hard he de-pantsed him.

ERVINFORTHEWIN
Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
1 year ago

lol , exacte , Bernard experienced the biggest upset imaginable in swimming – specially at the Olympics . Angel also drafted on Lochte’s wave to win that 400 free relay in London …

Olivier Poirier-Leroy
Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
1 year ago

“He drafted Bernard so hard he de-pantsed him.”

This is possibly the funniest comment I have ever read on SwimSwam.

ERVINFORTHEWIN
Reply to  Verram
1 year ago

Jason Lezak in 2008 …is one of the biggest wave draft ever seen + the victory on a finger nail at the touch ..priceless .

Corn Pop
9 months ago

Duncan also won the 400. Unless Bioni a l ways swam with a huge wave at reduced speeds , I think it was Duncan’s endurance / or not having to use up fast twitch till the last 20secs.

Aussieone
Reply to  Corn Pop
9 months ago

I think he won silver behind UweDessler ? In the 400 .

Corn Pop
Reply to  Aussieone
9 months ago

I like Uwe but Im giving it to Duncan because Duncan’s my mate.

The DDR was on a roll with men’s distance & all this pre EPO . They genuinely were getting the hang of it . This led onto my all time favourite Mr Charisma Jorge Hoffman . Never has such a sparkling personality shone from the water , only in history outshone by the towers of 1930s Hollywood bathing beauties .

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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