Water Marks: No Matter How You Live in the Moment, Recognize It

Water Marks: No Matter How You Live in the Moment, Recognize It

By Mike Gustafson//Contributor  | Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The cliché, “Live in the moment,” is a complicated one. Because a moment can be split into infinite paths — there is never one way to live.

There is never one “correct” way to live in the moment. 

Take the moment of standing behind the blocks, for example. That is a career-making moment, but there isn’t one clear, concrete way to “live” behind the blocks. Some swimmers, like Michael Phelps, will listen to music and stare at the water, getting himself internally fired-up for the coming race — he is living in the moment. Other swimmers, like Missy Franklin, will smile, dance, or joke with teammates to stay relaxed in the moment. She, too, is living in the moment.

Which is right? Which is more “living in the moment”

Weekly, swimmers write to me their questions. Many ask for advice. Some want to be heard. Others have problems — problems with coaches, parents, teammates. Most emails ask for advice, because that is what I do — I write a weekly advice column on this website. The advice is situational-based and varies swimmer to swimmer. But most advice comes down to this: Live in the moment. Breathe. Be yourself. Be alive. It’s a cliché and I feel like a fraud when I write some variation of this (including this column), because there is no one way to live in the moment. Swimmers want concrete, “how-to” guides of how to be more in-the-moment which they hope will lead to better times and more success — and that thought misses the point entirely. The point is not to live in the moment in order to achieve something. 

The point is to be there. 

To be cognizant and to feel present. 

What I’ve realized is that Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin, while they have varying “live in the moment strategies,” both are doing what they need to do to feel alive in the moment. One stares. Another laughs. 
Think back to sights from the ready room: Remember Phelps Face? That was a classic, “Michael Phelps is firmly in the moment, ready to go.” Contrast that to a shot of Franklin before a relay, laughing. Joking. Dancing. Staying relaxed. She’s staying in the moment and not getting too nervous, too anxious, too wound-up.

Neither are wrong. Both are right. 

Swimmers ask me, “How can I be less nervous?” or “How can I be more present?” or “How can I stop over-thinking my race?” Often, I’ll mine old memories from my youth, time traveling to those days of stomach butterflies, sleepless nights, and fidgety hands behind the blocks

For example, right now, I flashback two decades: I see my younger self — a scrawny, nervous, wire-thin freshman at my first-ever high school state championship swim meet. There I am, five minutes before prelims of my race, the 200 IM. I was so nervous, I was about to puke. I was sitting on the pool deck along the wall behind the blocks, pressing goggles into my eye sockets (until it hurt) again and again, convincing myself (and failing) that I was ready for this race. But I didn’t feel ready. I craved a remote control to stop the meet and give me two more weeks. Two more days. Two more hours. But more heats kept diving in. More swimmers kept competing. And I knew the inevitable march of time would conclude with me diving in and puking all over the pool deck. 

A coach approached me. Our school’s diving coach. We had exchanged all of five sentences to each other throughout the season. He stopped. Maybe he saw my eyes bulging out behind my goggles. Maybe he saw how nervous I was. He pointed to the stands and smiled. “Look around,” he said. “Enjoy this. You’ve earned it. Look around and take it all in.” 

So I did. 

And it helped. 

I didn’t swim very well that race. It wasn’t some fairy-tale ending where a coach gives me a “live in the moment” speech, then I break the state record. Actually, I swam pretty slowly. 

But my memory of that moment isn’t negative: I did look around before stepping up to the blocks. I did take a second to appreciate where I was: A scrawny freshman among the state’s best athletes. I appreciated my hard work that led me there. I appreciated my parents in the stands, who had sacrificed time and energy to help me along. I appreciated my teammates and coaches, who had motivated and inspired me. I looked around and breathed it in. And I have done that every single race thereafter, until years later, after my last race at the Big Ten Championships, when I retired.

For me, this looking around, this split-second moment behind the blocks — this was my version of “living in the moment.” My moment was being there. Stepping back and appreciating my own journey was my way of being present. It wasn’t the Phelps Face. It wasn’t laughing, joking, and behind-the-blocks dancing. It was a glance toward the stands, toward the water, toward my toes, thinking, “I am so glad to be here.”

Decades later, this small, passing-by moment our old diving coach bestowed on me turned out to be a formative piece of advice. One I follow to this day. No matter the end result — win, lose, or tie, personal best or personal worst — I took a moment to feel alive, fully appreciative of the opportunity to breathe in that chlorinated, humid air. To stand tall behind the blocks behind that infinite blue lane of water. 

This year marks the tenth year I have written about swimming. An entire decade of (likely) over 1,500 articles and columns about competitive swimming. Some good, some not-so-good. But, like that scrawny freshman staring at his first-ever championship swim race, win, lose, or tie, I look at every blank page and think, “What a great opportunity.” 

So here’s my advice, swimmers: 

Don’t “just” live in the moment. Because living is nothing more than a heartbeat and a breath. Instead, open your eyes. Discover what makes you feel alive. Maybe you feel alive when listening to rap music and mimicking a Phelps Face in the ready room. Maybe you feel alive when sharing a good laugh. Maybe you feel alive when glancing towards the stands and waving at a loved one. Maybe you feel alive simply remembering your own journey. Your own pain. Your own adventure.

Once you get there — once you reach that moment — recognize it. 

You are there.

You are alive.


Then dive in. 

Follow Mike Gustafson on Twitter @MicGustafson. Water Marks is a monthly column written about competitive swimming. You can also email Mike for swim advice at swimmingstories@gmail.com. 


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