Life Lessons from the 400 IM

Life Lessons from the 400 IM

By Mike Gustafson//Contributor  | Wednesday, February 22, 2017

“If I can do this,” I think, gasping for air, trying to calm the stomach churn as I hit the last leg of the 400 IM, eyes bulging, legs burning, arms aching, “I can do anything.”

Throughout my thirty-or-so years of swimming experience, one event taught me more than any other. This particular event taught me personal limitations, and how to exceed them. It also taught me not to eat a bean burrito fifteen minutes before performing said event. And all those other wonderful clichés about sports. 

The event?

The 400 IM. Otherwise known as Swimming’s Toughest Event. 

Perhaps no other competitive swimming event can offer more “life lessons” than this part-sprint part-distance all-four-stroke swimstravaganza. No other event balances all strokes in a distance that’s not-quite-a-distance-event-but-not-a-sprint-either. No other event makes one simultaneously thrilled about their athletic accomplishment while also simultaneously questioning the existence of a higher power. After all, how could a higher power have devised such a cruel and unusual event that is also, clearly and undeniably, the greatest event competitive swimming has to offer?

“If I can do this 400 IM, I can do anything.”

It’s a mantra I’ve carried with me throughout other life endeavors: School. Work. Taxes. Investigating the mysterious smell originating from under my couch which I know is some disgusting remnant of a leftover banana peel that has since morphed into something sentient and likely will cause me bodily and emotional harm. 

Here are other lessons I’ve learned being a 400 IMer:

1. Hard work is what matters.

Not talent. Not six-foot-six-inch height. (Okay, that may be nice, but isn’t the difference-maker.) Hard work. Good old fashioned, straight up hard work. You cannot fake a 400 IM victory. You cannot fake a 400 IM, period. Either you’ve trained for it, or you haven’t. 

2. Life is all about balance.

Any 400 IMer knows: You’re only as good as your weakest stroke. In life, one needs a healthy mix of balance. If you’ve got three-out-of-four strokes down, you’re still going to lose. Likewise, if you’re too fixated on one portion of life, like a profession, your friendships, family relationships, emotional health all suffer. Just like the 400 IM, one needs all facets to work together. 


4. Life is best when challenged to improve. 
In other words: If it’s easy, find something hard. If you don’t challenge yourself, what’s the point? Challenges make us better people. Challenges make us realize 1.) We’re not as great as we think we are, and more importantly, 2.) We can improve. We can hope to be better. Besides Michael Phelps’ 2008 Beijing 400 IM, there has not been a perfect 400 IM. And even he would probably claim that could have been better. And ultimately, that pursuit — to be better — is what drives us. To be better family members. To be better neighbors. To be better accountants, farmers, marketers, engineers, or lawn mowers. The joy is not in the accomplishment, but the struggle. 

5. When you think you’ve lost, hold on. 
We’ve all seen the 400 IM race that is won on the final length of breaststroke, or that last freestyle lap. We’ve seen those swimmers get down by a body length on that butterfly leg, only to come back and win. If anything, the 400 IM is about trust. Trusting one’s self. Trusting one’s training. You must trust that you will make your move on the freestyle leg. Or that your move is the first-half sprint, and you trust you can come home and hang on. More than any other event, the 400 IM demands your faith and trust. And in any pursuit, this faith becomes more valuable than anything. There’s still time. There’s still yardage left to swim… There’s still yardage left to swim…

Provided you didn’t eat a bean burrito. 

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