In his autobiography, Andre Agassi states that tennis is the loneliest sport. He’s probably never been engulfed by the solitude of water! The fact is every sport is taxing on different levels, with demands that develop strengths in some areas over others. The common thread that binds us all together is our determination to never give up. To get through my training and competition I use the inspiration I find from people I can relate to, from whom I can draw strength.
Passion: Chris, Dudley, Devon and Michael
One of my favorite movies, Cool Runnings, shows how passion can take the average athlete to an elite level. It’s what gets us up in the early hours, shields us from the non-believers, and inspires others to do what they love. A lack of experience, financial troubles, injury, negative media, and critics around the world did not stop the Jamaican bobsled team. Just as I became a successful swimmer from a landlocked country in Africa: Chris and Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris and Michael White came from a tropical island and competed at the Winter Olympics in 1988. Circumstances can dictate where we end up but if we are truly passionate about something, we can change our destiny.
Courage: Jesse Owens
Every journey begins with an idea but starts with courage. In 1936, racial segregation in the United States was strong and Germany’s dictator, Adolf Hitler, was declaring that white people were superior. The young black American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens, was a champion on the field but marginalized off it. He would sleep in different hotels, travel on separate sections of the bus, and even lost endorsement deals because of the color of his skin. Owens not only had to overcome a rigorous training program but also this discrimination. However, his courage to continue in the face of adversity would turn him into one of the greatest athletes in history. He has been my inspiration ever since my first Olympics in Sydney in 2000, around the same time the political and economic turmoil began in Zimbabwe. Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He helped bridge the racial divide by proving that everyone can be equal, as an athlete he was superior.
Commitment: Paula Newby-Fraser
If you have the courage to take an opportunity, and are passionate and committed, you will succeed. As a female athlete, Newby-Fraser is someone I admire because of her commitment to the most grueling single day race in the world. The Ironman is a 3.8-kilometer swim, 180-kilometer cycle and 42-kilometer run. She competed for Zimbabwe from 1985 to 1996 standing on the World Championship podium 11 years in a row, winning eight gold, one silver and two bronze medals. As the most decorated Ironman athlete in the world, she has proven just how hard we can compete at this level over a long period of time.
Focus: Nick Price
Zimbabwean golfer, Nick Price, is putting on the 18th hole. Everything is intensely quiet. I am part of the millions of people watching from around the world. What is he thinking about, how does he handle the pressure from all those cameras and spectators, how does he handle the pressure within himself? I was young and in awe of ‘Uncle Nick’. Growing up, I used to imagine the same quiet, the same million people watching me, and the same pressure while I stood on the starting block. Before I knew it, I had started clearing my mind from all the clutter. I learned that focus is not about the ‘18th hole’ but about the countless hours you train to develop the trust you need for that short period of clarity. If you can trust your training then you can focus on the present and do what you need to.
Positivity: Natalie du Toit
Natalie du Toit is a swimming champion, legend, remarkable person and a friend. She is a year younger than me so we would often compete against each other. At the age of 14, she had already qualified to compete for South Africa at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. After missing the qualifying times for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, she dedicated her training for Athens four years later. But in 2001, on her bike to training early one morning, Du Toit was hit by a car and her leg had to be amputated. I cannot imagine what she went through. This didn’t prevent her from doing what she loved, and a year later Du Toit won gold at the Commonwealth Games. She continued hauling in medals during the Athens, Beijing and London Paralympics. She has since retired but, knowing how demanding our training is and what she had to overcome, Du Toit will always be one of my heroes.
Confidence: Muhammad Ali
All athletes train hard. What separates us at the end of the day is the ability to take a knock, stand up, and still believe that we are stronger than our opponent. Even after he stopped boxing, Ali believed he was the greatest. My admiration for Ali is so strong that I took up boxing as an alternative exercise to swimming. You have to remember to breathe, and block, and hook, and move, and weave, and jab. If you have no confidence going into the fight, or it falters while you’re in there, you’re finished. Ali’s confidence gave him the ability to lead, inspire and teach. He chose to be a good role model. Ali is to sport what Nelson Mandela is to mankind – ‘the Greatest’.
We all have the potential to do extraordinary things and inspire others, but it has to become a way of life. The path to success is not a trend, you need to be a positive and focused person for the commitment required, confident and brave to overcome the inevitable challenges, and passionate to keep enjoying what we do. There are no excuses.