The Dark Side of Super Success

With the world shutting down, we’re reaching into our archives and pulling some of our favorite stories from the SwimSwam print edition to share online. If you’d like to read more of this kind of story, you can subscribe to get a print (and digital) version of SwimSwam Magazine here. This story was originally published in the 2017 Summer Preview edition of SwimSwam Magazine.

Story by Markus Rogan.

“Shut up and just go for it” is what I told myself for a big part of my career. And it worked. I made it pretty far by shoving down my feelings and processing all my anger and anxiety in the pool. Endless hours of obsessive training, of looking for another one one-hundredth to improve on here and another one there. The hours I spent training my timing and underwater kicking technique to emerge exactly at 15 meters and not at 14.8 or 15.2 are in the hundreds.

All the while, I never asked myself why.

What was I training for? What was I competing for? The truth is I had gotten addicted. I had gotten addicted to the public admiration I received in my hometown of Vienna, Austria, when I returned from the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004 with two medals — my country’s first swimming medals since the cessation of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1918.

I could have, maybe should have, retired right then. But I had inched close to the world record, and I wanted to break it — not for the sake of having it, but for the sake of getting more public admiration. And recognition. And fame. By then, I had surrounded myself with people who I thought were friends, but who really were just there to make me feel good. As John Naber said when we met to talk about “the dark side of the trophy” on a recent afternoon at Paradigm Malibu, the psychotherapeutic treatment center I am privileged to work at: “A true friend is not somebody who makes you feel good. A true friend is somebody who reminds you of your true self, someone who tells you honestly when you could have done something better.”

I wish I had known John back then, when I was chasing a world record solely for external validation. Maybe I was also trying to finally please my father, who I had struggled to connect with all my life. So it was eerie when Mark Spitz, who also came by Paradigm Malibu, shared that he had met countless high-achievers who were forever trying to please their fathers.

Pete Carruthers, the Olympic figure skater, was also there to share. “The glamor of success is addicting,” he said. “The money that comes with it keeps us from saying no when we know deep down we have to take a break.”

I wish I had known then what I know now. Instead, I chased the world record and, in late 2005, broke it by a couple of tenths. The rush and joy came exactly as I had hoped. Better than cocaine. The world seemed to stop, and for that moment, I truly felt I was on top of it.

It’s amazing what happens to a young man’s brain when enough people tell him “You are the best the world has ever seen.” I forgot that the world keeps spinning.

John Naber shares, “You get a sense of entitlement, assuming that at the very moment when you’re on top, the world will stop and you will be the hero for the rest of your life.”

Again, John, couldn’t you have told me that 12 years ago?

I kept living Naber-less. As the public admiration from the world record — again, the first in Austria’s history — faded, I looked for more. I had learned that the public doesn’t just admire you for sporting glory, but it also loves staring at yawningly stereotypical sexy women. Having a pageant beauty on your arm has almost the same effect as a having medal around your neck.

I kept chasing and chasing, and getting hungrier and hungrier, for a goal that became ever more elusive. To realize that I will never again receive that country-stopping admiration I had in 2004 took years of therapy, years of painful discoveries, countless hours on the couch to get reacquainted with the process of performance rather than the outcome. At one point, my psychologist told me, “Markus, you are a whore to your results.”

That stuck.

From left: John Naber, Pete Carruthers, Tai Babilonia, Mark Spitz, Luke Salas, Markus Rogan. Photo: Jay Harris.


Markus graduated from Stanford, competed in four Olympic Games (Sydney, Athens, Beijing, and London), and won two silver medals as an athlete. He was the sport psychologist for the Brazilian Olympic Team in Rio 2016. He is a psychotherapist and director of high performance at a residential treatment center for adolescents struggling with anxiety and depression. Markus is also a recipient of the United Nations Medal of Honor of Civil Courage.

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3 years ago

Very, very true.

3 years ago

Anyone else enjoying the irony of a Stanford alum posting a Cal swimmer to promote his brand? P. S. Rogan actually knows his stuff!

3 years ago

Thor just pulled 501kg

3 years ago

Bravo!…and thank you.