Monday, 30 November 2015

Hundreths and Thousanths

It is undeniably true that as a swimmer, Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time. His swimming record is unparalleled to such an extent that it makes winning a gold medal at the Olympics into a feat worthy of a polite nod of congratulations in comparison. History may give rise to someone that rivals the dominance of Phelps in 2008's Beijing, but for the moment his record stands tall and seemingly insurmountable. What history will no doubt forget more easily is how close Phelps came to coming second with his seventh gold medal. The finish was so close between Phelps and the Serbian Milorad Cavic that the Serbian team filed a protest which FINA dismissed after a review of the finish. By the smallest possible margin in swimming, 0.01 seconds, Phelps won.

That same review showed why Cavic lost to Phelps and eventually granted him the wreath of fame with eight gold medals: Cavic broke his streamline for the finish to look up. Had his head remained down until he reached the wall, he would have out-touched Phelps and denied him his honour - something he hoped would happen, saying it would be better for the sport if he did not make it to eight medals.

Cavic could have made that hundredth of a second. Swimming is full of those seemingly infinitesimal fractions of time; the possibilities to gain them hover endlessly from the moment the starting beep goes to the touching of the wall, in every stroke, breath, kick and turn. The margin for error in swimming is relentlessly small, as Cavic learnt: having his head up for just one stroke was the difference between gold and silver. If his coach had drilled into him for two minutes a day the importance of that streamline in the finish, perhaps he would have made it.

Those fractions of a second are everywhere. They are not only the difference in incredibly tight races like Olympic finals, they determine every race, because those hundredths add up. Bad reaction time? There goes 0.1 of a second. Start kicking underwater off of the start too early or too late? 0.2 of a second, maybe. Never trained a proper high elbow catch? 0.1 per stroke, possibly. Forgot to develop strong hypoxic skills? Your turn lost you half a second because you could not keep up the underwater phase. Legs fatigue in the first fifty? Your splits just lost a few seconds.

Enough training and those issues can be ironed out. The problem arises when we expect to be dropping seconds off our PBs every time we jump into the pool or walk into the gym. If every time we jump out of the pool we expect to be instantly gratified with our results, disillusion will quickly become our constant companion, so much so that despair and quitting will eventually become inevitable.

Every set in the pool or in dryland is about improving a thousandth of a second, or a tenth of a thousandth. These amounts go unnoticed by the clock (which measures to the hundredth) and yet we jump in knowing that they are there. In fact, training can be so draining at times that it might seem by the end of the week that we have gone backwards; only tapering reveals how far we have come.

Once one approaches with realism what one does in training, one can dive in confident that the improvements will come, even though slowly. Hours and hours of staring of that black line, after accidentally drinking our body weight's work of chlorinated water, only then can the real results come to shine. By then, those fractions of a second have added up to seconds: voila, we got the gold.

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