Lessons From Legends: The Rubber Duck

Chuck Warner, the author and coach, is an old friend. Thoughtful and passionate about the sport, he has studied the details behind what it takes to achieve swimming excellence.

Only a few days remain before the swimming competition at the 2013 World Aquatic Championships in Barcelona, where several critical post Olympic year questions will be answered:

  • Can the Australian squad bounce back this quickly from a miserable London Olympics?
  • Has the USA squad leapt as far out in front of the world as it seemed in London and move forward in 2013 with Olympic-like domination?
  • Will Missy Franklin take another step forward to become not only the standard barrier on the USA Women’s Team but in the sport itself?

While these stories unfold in Spain, all over the world there will be different contests taking place. They will be the launching of new swimming racers chasing the legendary Rubber Duck.

Wednesday was a delightful summer night.  The sun slowly lowered behind the trees shading the five-lane outdoor pool that was surrounded by lounge chairs. Two neighborhood teams squared off in a local “Duel In The Pool.” School friends became swimming competitors on two teams that lined the side of the pool preparing to cheer their teammates. The water was so shallow that diving wasn’t allowed. The swimmers jumped into the pool and readied for the start with one hand on the wall, the other stretched forward like a missile. The official pleaded for quiet and the swimmers concentrated on hearing the starting commands that were blared over a small, portable loud speaker.

The horn released the older swimmers to race and the youngest ones prepared for their own 25-meter race that began next.

An eight-year old girl peeled off her towel, looked up at her mom and dad and a smile creased across her face. She was about to engage in her first swimming race of her life. “I think I’m going to do well,” she stated firmly. Then the smile grew wider and she said without any self-consciousness about who heard her words, “I might even win the rubber duck!”

Summer swim league racing is the birthplace for most of America’s best swimmers, just as various other forms of novice competition is the starting point for many children around the world. At one of our swim camps last week, I asked the group, “What do you think about when you race?” Mollie, a talented high school freshman immediately and excitedly blurted out, “The rubber duck!!”

That little yellow item is the symbol of the prize for racing and winning in many summer leagues and, just like a gold medal, represents the extraordinary feeling of self-discovery when one puts their very best effort into swimming as fast as they possibly can.

One of the older swimmers approached the little girl and said, “Amy, its time for you to go up for your backstroke race.” She left her mom and dad and held onto her teammate’s hand who led her through five chaotic layers, of swimmers and timers, waiting, cheering and working pool side. The older swimmers finished at the wall.

Amy entered the pool and readied for the start.

Michael Phelps has said about his pre-race ritual, “I like to get in my own world. When I’m getting ready for a meet, I always have headphones on, listening to rap music to get myself fired up.” There were no headphones for Amy. She was tightly tuned in to her own heart pumping rapidly as she waited for the starter’s commands.

Amy’s spirit to swim with speed might have started with a simple race to be the first one to get to a poolside ladder, to a dock or to a boat. But hundreds of hours of practice are generally required to learn fluidly through the water and if she wanted to become proficient concentrated practice time lied ahead of her.

“The water is your friend…you don’t have to fight with water, just share the same spirit as the water, and it will help you move,” said the Russian rocket Alexander Popov.

Amy raced the length of the pool as fast as she knew how. She banged into the lane lines like a pin ball back and forth, side to side. In time she might learn skills that resemble Popov but today was just beginning the process of self-discovery that comes through simply swimming as fast as you can.

If Amy’s parents could be relaxed enough about her initial racing experiences, perhaps their daughter would find her own delight in the sport and not be confused about thinking she was racing only to please her mom and dad. If she continued long enough she might mold some personal management tools she could use in other aspects of her life.

The little girl didn’t win the Rubber Duck on Wednesday night. But the objectivity of swimming results and a sport that gives equal opportunity to each race participant provided her an entrance to a magnificent world of sport in which she could explore her physical and emotional abilities.

Here are three tips from great athletes that might help you win a Rubber Duck:

  • Swimming great, Ian Thorpe has said, “People ask me ‘what was going through your mind in the race?’ and I don’t know. I try and …let my body do what it knows.”
  • Triple Olympic Gold Medalist (2000 Sydney), Lenny Krayzelburg echo’s Thorpe’s view, “Body does what mind prefers.”
  • Racecar driver Janet Guthrie who competes in what is often considered a man’s world says, “ Racing is a matter of spirit not strength.”

Guthrie speaks a truth that is evident when the smaller, weaker swimmer outswims the bigger stronger ones. Distance great Janet Evans made a career out of out racing bigger and stronger opponents. So did double Olympic gold medalist Brian Goodell.

“When you’re racing its life. Anything that happens before is just waiting,” was the late actor and racecar driver Steve McQueen’s perspective. And Missy Franklin seems to concur when she said, “I just love doing everything possible so I can get my hand on the wall [first].

And for many, it starts with the will to win the Rubber Duck.

andthentheywon9 - CopyFor more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go towww.areteswim.com (access Books * Media) or the American Swimming Coaches Association. You can follow Chuck Warner on twitter@chuckwarner1.

Follow Chuck Warner on Twitter here. 

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About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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