Friday night, Michael Phelps fought to win his 7th straight gold medal in the 2008 Summer Beijing Olympics, allowing him to officially tie the prior record from former Olympian Mark Spitz.
With all that was riding on the race, and in spite of having exhausted himself from so many other races, Phelps dove into the pool for the 100-meter butterfly.
Milorad Cavic, from Serbia, was the first off the wall at the 50 meter mark, with Phelps in seventh place. But with only 50 meters to go Phelps just kept pushing, and with unrelenting determination, his arms windmilling faster and faster, he began to close that gap with Cavic.
Finally, with only one a few feet remaining, Cavic took his last stroke, leaving him only a few inches from the wall, which he chose to coast through.
But that decision cost him the gold medal, as the mighty Phelps chose not to coast, even for an inch, but instead beat out one final stroke, smashing his hands against the wall only a hundredth of a second before Cavic.
In that moment I learned the first important lesson from yet another epic race of Phelps…
If you really want it, don’t stop till you get it
Phelps really wanted it. And when it hurt the most, with his lungs aching for oxygen and his arms burning from fatigue, not even then did he decide to stop. Later he would say that he didn’t even realize how close they were. He didn’t beat out that last stroke because he knew it was close, he did it because he knew he had to give it all he had until it was over. That sheer determination and relentless drive toward his vision made him the undisputed champion.
Spitz said of the race that he knew it wasn’t over, because you (Phelps) never stop pushing… “it’s a tribute to your greatness”.
If it matters to you, don’t coast – keep pushing.
Just believe in yourself
After the race was over, during his media interview he taught me the second lesson. He was responding to what made this whole thing possible when he said “I guess just believing in yourself goes a long way.”
As I talk about extensively here, optimism is the determination to not limit your sight to “reality”, but instead to see what could be, and believe it so much that you make it come true.
Tonight Phelps taught us the invaluable lesson that if we just believe in ourselves, believe in what we can do, then yes, that does go a long way. For Phelps, it meant the gold medal, the 13th of his career, and led the former record holder Mark Spits to call him “epic”. He told the AP “It goes to show you that not only is this guy the greatest swimmer of all time and the greatest Olympian of all time, he’s maybe the greatest athlete of all time. He’s the greatest racer who ever walked the planet”.
The message is clear. Believe in yourself, and don’t stop pushing. If you can do that, you too will be great.