Ironically, it is sometimes through our response to failure that we can make our greatest contribution to the success of the team. After months (and years) of intense training, the hay was in the barn, and we arrived at the 1980 national championships and Olympic trials with great anticipation. The first event of the meet featured one of our most dedicated and most popular swimmers who was considered an outside shot to make the Olympic team. Her performance fell well short of our expectations. When she touched the wall, my heart stopped partly because I felt so badly for her and partly because I knew her reaction could potentially derail our team effort before we even got started. Instead of sulking in her disappointment, she bit her lip, climbed out of the pool, and immediately began to cheer for her teammate in the next race. The impact of this unselfish reaction was powerful. When her teammates saw her put the team goals ahead of her personal disappointment, they responded with an even more determined effort. Her inspired teammates went on to establish three new world records, place six swimmers on the Olympic team (the most of any club) and win the overall national championship team title. An unselfish response to a disappointing performance was the catalyst that enabled all of this to happen.
The guiding principles discussed in this book are universal and transcend team, national, and even cultural boundaries. I arrived in Australia at a time when the sport of swimming in that country had fallen in the world rankings. The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) was established by the federal government to boost the performances of the Australian teams in international competition. I was offered the opportunity to be the first head coach of the AIS swimming team. The young men and women in our program were being asked to entrust their hopes and dreams to this young Yankee coach who was asking them to step up to challenges that were different from and, in some ways, far greater than what had been asked of them in the past. It was a great leap of faith for them. Likewise, it was an intimidating challenge for me. Would the Aussies embrace my program, including the team-first concept that I was introducing? Would my coaching philosophy be effective in a somewhat different culture? To say that I was unsure of myself would have been an understatement, but I had learned that coaches can be successful even when they are unsure of themselves provided they don’t APPEAR to be unsure. Apparently, I effectively disguised my uncertainty to the degree necessary to get the desired response from the athletes. Because they were willing to take this leap of faith, this first group of athletes at the AIS contributed substantially to Australia’s resurgence in the world rankings in the following Olympics. It has been very gratifying to watch more than a few of them go on to become some of the most accomplished coaches in Australian and world swimming.
Approximately 20 years later I was in the twelfth year of my fourteen-year tenure as National Team Director for USA Swimming xx as we arrived in Sydney, Australia for the 2000 Summer Olympics. Medal counts and world rankings would support the claim that the USA has been the dominant swimming nation in the history of our sport, but Australia had closed the gap and had pulled dead even with us in the previous year. The momentum was clearly on Australia’s side, and the Olympics were in their own backyard. Virtually everyone in the swimming world expected Australia to supplant the USA as the world’s number one swimming power. Everyone, that is, except the 50 young men and women on the USA team. We were dealt a crushing blow in the first of eight days of competition. Our favored men’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay, our “signature” relay, was beaten by the Aussies. It was the first time in the history of Olympic competition that we had failed to win that event. Our heads were spinning, and the celebration in Sydney that evening was comparable to the hometown celebration of a World Series or Super Bowl victory. This experience would have shattered the confidence and extinguished the enthusiasm of most other teams. It had the opposite effect on the 2000 USA team. It ignited a fire which enabled them to come roaring back to win the most medals ever won by a single nation in Olympic swimming history. “Sports Illustrated” magazine called it “the greatest team performance of all time”. It could not have happened had it not been for the unconditional team-first attitude embraced by every member of that team and their refusal to succumb to adversity.