Each month, as part of our “Trials and Tribulations” series, we’ll try to give you an inside look at an Olympic Trials qualifier. The stories, backgrounds, hopes, dreams, obstacles, and accomplishments of a few of the 1,500 swimmers expected at next summer’s Olympic Trials. If YOU have a story you want to share, please emailTrials.Tribulations.email@example.com.
We’ve been following the journey of 37-year-old Jeff Commings, the third-oldest male Olympic Trials qualifier inhistory. Last week, we discussed his training regime. This week, we talk about some differences in his mindset compared to when he was a teenager, his goals & expectations for the Olympic Trials (and beyond), and how happiness is important in swimming.
Is this the most excited you’ve ever been in training? What’s the biggest difference now compared to when you were a teenager?
I hated workout. I still do, to a point, but especially in high school. I just used to dread workout. We trained in a dungeon of a pool, where I was miserable every day. Three or four days a week, we’d get up on the blocks and race. Maybe 3x50s on the 2 minutes when you’re dead tired -- and I used to hate those. ALWAYS hated them. Now, I do the same thing at the end of the workout, and instead of getting on the block and grumbling and going through the motions, I get on the block now and say, ‘OK, the dive is your weakness, so let’s focus on that start. Point those toes as much as your ankles will let you, and not lose speed on your entry.”
This all goes back to being invested what you do. That’s what makes it more fun. If I had realized this 20 years ago, things might have turned out differently. I don’t know. I definitely would have enjoyed the process more. It wouldn’t have seemed like such a blur.
Do the upcoming Olympics Trials make training more exciting?
I don’t think so. This started four years ago. I came off a Masters World Championships. I was very happy with what I’d done, where I’d broken a difficult world record in the 50 breast and was on a high that lasted for a year. I was going back in my mind and asking, “What had I done right to get to that point?” Well, I did this, and continued with that, and I kept thinking in my mind that it was really necessary to be in the moment and not just go through the motions, like what happened to me in the ‘92 and ‘96 Trials when I woke up the morning in the 100 breast and was snapped out of this haze and was like, ‘Oh, I have to swim the 100 breast at the Olympic Trials this morning!?’
I just really wish I could talk to myself 20 years ago, or 25 years ago, and tell myself, ‘Enjoy the moment. Be present!’ I don’t know when that happened, but there was a moment when I said, ‘I’m paying these coaches to coach me, so they must know what they’re doing. They have a lot of great credentials. I’m going to just let them guide my swimming career.’ Which is not the way any swimmer should go through a career. Because if you let someone else do it, you might look back and ask, “What happened?” I don’t want to look back and not know what happened.
I want to always be present in the moment and enjoy each moment, especially the tough moments, where every set seems to be torture. I want to recognize how each workout, each set, each exercise that I do benefits me, not only at Trials, but in the long run. This won’t end at Trials. It will push on to Masters Nationals the next week, or when I swim in 2013 or 2014. This is a long-term thing. I’m not training just for Trials. I’m training for when I turn 40. Because I want to be able to still swim fast when I’m 40 and look back and say, ‘You know, when I was 37, I swam this fast, and now I want to swim this fast, and here’s what I need to get there.’
Compare – in one word -- how you feel now to how you felt when you were 20 years old?
I’m happier because I am invested in my swimming. It’s good you asked this. When I was 20, I was coming off a very good year, a sophomore year at Texas. I swam lifetime good times in the 100 breast at NCAAs and summer nationals. I was happy with that and wanted to continue with that. At the start of my junior year, my coach Eddie Reese had suggested a small change in my breaststroke, which involved me lifting my head higher in my stroke. I complained that it didn’t feel good to me, and I didn’t really like it. He said I would get used to it, and I never did. It goes back to the fact that Eddie has decades of credentials, and I am 20 years old and I’m a speck on the list of great swimmers he’s coached. Why should I question what he’s telling me? What he’s telling me obviously must work for me. But it never did. And for years after this, I put the blame on myself. Because all I had to do was say, ‘Eddie, this is never going to work. Let’s go back to how I was swimming before.’ I maybe put too much trust in my coaches. And I think, emotionally, because I wasn’t swimming as fast as I should have been, I was mentally checking out of the sport.
Because I was 20 years old. And you think I should be getting faster. I was on a great college team where everyone around me was getting faster. Why couldn’t I? I wouldn’t call it depression, but I was in a funk for the last two years. And it carried over to my post grad year, to the ‘96 trials. I woke up and thought, “Oh, I have to swim the 100 breast?” And to tell you the truth, I don’t remember anything about that race. I don’t want that to happen to me now, and I know it won’t happen to me now.
I guarantee you that I will remember every moment in the [Olympic Trials] race. I’m happy because I’m focused on my swimming career, more than when I was 20. The results are showing in the pool.
What is your goal? Does it differ from your expectations?
I don’t have any expectations. Well I do: Not to finish last. That’s my only expectation. As long as I don’t finish last, I’m going to be happy. Because the only goal I had was to make the Trials. And now I get the opportunity to do that. Like I said, I haven’t set goals yet – I will in a few months. But right now, my only expectation is not to finish last. I know there will be people who will be like I was in 1992 and look at the deck and have fear and trepidation come over them and not be able to swim as fast as they know I can. Not that I hope that will happen to anybody. But that happens. Especially at the Olympic Trials.
I know I will be enveloped by that atmosphere because I know what it’s like to have fear and trepidation come over you at the biggest meet of your life. Now that I’ve experienced it and handled it, now that I don’t have expectations of getting a second swim, I just want to get out there and race the other seven people who come out there with me, and see what happens.
Jeff Commings is an author of the book, “Odd Man Out,” and writes updates about his Olympic Trial journey on Commings.Blogspot.com. If you know of more stories of Olympic Trial qualifiers, emailTrials.Tribulations.firstname.lastname@example.org.