My teammates and I had just finished cranking out a 9,000-yard workout in the pool in Gainesville, Fla., and were settling into a couple of pizzas. I was reaching for the largest slice when we heard the official news: the United States would boycott the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow. We were not going.<p>

I was 19 years old and nearing the top of my swimming career. Though the news of our government's decision wasn't a total surprise--rumors had been rampant for months--the finality hit hard. For eight years, I'd spent four hours daily in the pool, run miles upon miles, lifted hundreds of pounds of weights-and endured tortures that would get a coach fired for cruelty today. Yet my future came down to events out of my control. Remember, in 1980 there was no money to be made in competitive swimming, no X-Games, no endorsements. Going to the Olympic Games was the ultimate goal.<p>

I had to search deeply to make sense of it all. For some swimmers, it was too difficult to comprehend, and they took a hiatus from the sport. For me, the boycott became a catalyst for my spiritual quest. I had to find higher meaning in sport itself-not just in the competition and glory. PRIOR TO THIS I NEVER GAVE IT MUCH THOUGHT BEYOND THE  RECOGNITION AND FUN I HAD WITH MY FRIENDS.<p>

Today, as I watch a fresh crop of Olympians prepare for this year’s Winter Games, I sense their energy and spirit--their very life force. Just look at the flow of power that emanates from snowboarder Shaun White, skater Michelle Kwan or skier Bode Miller--it’s amazing. I know that feeling, because it coursed through me when I was their age. And it still does. I realize how important it is for me to push myself physically, because it's my easiest conduit to reach a more spiritual place. When I'm moving intensely and competing, I feel I have a direct link to a vast and calm energy that I can control and direct.<p>

Sport has given me the ability to be in tune with my body, and has taught me proper breathing, core strength, and warrior spirit. Surfing, snowboarding, martial arts (and still swimming) are some of the passions that allow me to tap into the divine energy that surrounds us. I get a sense of feeling centered. I’m no longer just a body with arms and legs. Rather, I’m merged whole with my surroundings.<p>

Back in 1980, I was in tremendous physical condition, but as in any extreme level of performance, my strength came just as much from psychological and spiritual preparation. I honestly feel that opening myself to the underlying energy of my teammates, of swimming, and of sport itself--particularly during the boycott--helped me achieve my swimming goals. Ten days after my Olympic race went off without me in Moscow, I broke the 200-meter butterfly world record in Irvine, Calif., with a time that was a second and a half faster than the Olympic winner.<p>

My next dance with spiritual enlightenment came four years later at the 1984 Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. I was on a four-year winning streak and considered a shoe-in for the Summer Games in Los Angeles. But I finished in third place, and missed making the 1984 Olympic team by .36 of a second.  It was devastating. My initial reaction was “Why me?” Things could have been so different, I thought. Life seemed unfair. <p>

But after I lost the chance to compete at the 1984 Olympics, my coach blessed me with some words of wisdom that shocked me at the time. He said that swimming was not what was truly important in life. What’s important, he said, is sharing life with your loved ones, having kids, being part of something greater. <p>

And with those words I left competitive sports and went out to re-find myself. I coached swimming and realized it was a lot harder than I’d thought. I worked a few jobs; I traveled. I had missed a lot of growing-up time and needed to catch up on all the normal things that kids do. (I once gave up third-row seats for a Led Zeppelin concert because of swim meet!) I worked on Wall Street for 17 years. I also had two children, who remain a constant flow of love and strength. <p>

Meanwhile, I pursued my interests in music and martial arts, particularly tai chi, where I discovered an enormous source of spirituality. Because “flow” and moving meditation are integral to tai chi, it felt familiar-what I’d been doing in the pool for so many years without ever realizing it. ALL COACHES TELL THEIR ATHLETES TO RELAX BEFORE COMPETITION. WHAT THEY'RE REALLY SUGGESTING IS THAT YOU OPEN YOURSELF TO THE ENERGY THAT'S WITHIN. Below the surface of the flow of the movements is internal strength. Just as in swimming, in order to move gracefully I had to build my core muscles—my chi.<p>

I’m also reminded of this “flow” when I’m surfing or snowboarding. Whether I’m dropping into a nice wave or carving up the mountain, I experience the strength of my inner core and I feel very complete. In that moment, I realized there is a divine spark that can be harnessed and drawn from.<p>

I think this is what most highly accomplished athletes feel—strength through grace, the divine through the physical. <p>

Looking back, I realize that, despite the obstacles I’ve experienced in competitive swimming, working so hard for my accomplishments made it much easier to deal with life's other challenges.  Outside of swimming, my life is probably very similar to yours. I’ve had to deal with the loss of a parent, loss of a job, a divorce-none of it easy for anyone. So as I approach middle age, I accept that I am no longer invincible--but I know I'll never lose my youthfulness. <p>

And after all, youthfulness is one definition of the divine spark.<p>
more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad