The Fast Food Lesson

The Fast Food Lesson



By Mike Gustafson // Correspondent  from USA Swimming's website


Before swim meets when I was a kid, I’d stuff my face with fast food. Chicken fingers, cheeseburgers, fries, a gallon of pop. I’d step up on the blocks, stomach full of mysterious fried fatty goo, and attempt to swim a best time – 50 fly, 100 IM. This never worked. Only later did I figure out that this was, probably, not the best pre-race nutritional strategy.

The theory was, if Mike Barrowman did it, so would I.

Barrowman was the 1992 Olympic gold medalist in the 200m breaststroke, and he was also my hero. I once read that Barrowman consumed a burger before winning his gold medal, just hours before splashing toward that 200m breaststroke victory. So, before each swim meet, while other kids were scarfing down pasta and lean protein meals, I would make my way toward the nearest fast food joint.

“What are you doing, Mike?” friends would ask.

“Uhh, training?” I’d say, dipping my fries in ketchup, while hearing the official start my event.

I am reminded of this childhood fast-food event when thinking about another event, coming in two weeks.

As we’re one year away from the most important swim meet this decade – the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials – another swim meet looms on the horizon, almost as important. The World Championships. Swimmers are one year away from the 2012 Olympic Trials, and arguably, this year’s 2011 World Championships will be the ultimate litmus test.

Swimmers, immediately following the conclusion of this summer’s World Championships, will ask themselves the following questions: Did training work? Is training going to continue to work? What changes should be made? Am I there yet? WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE, PLEASE, PLEASE TELL ME!

That’s why these next 30 days, for Team USA swimmers (and all swimmers around the country with Olympic aspirations) are the most important. This summer is like taking the Practice-SATs. Sure, you can do much better between the PSAT and the SAT. You can study more. You can prepare more. You can learn more. But there’s only so much you can do.

If you do poorly on that PSAT, you have a long, long way to go.

Let’s remember 2007. There were a few swimmers who came out of the woodwork in that final year, surprised some people, and qualified for the Olympic team. Matt Grevers and Ricky Berens, just to name a few. But for the most part, you can argue that the Olympic roster was already set one year before Trials at the 2007 World Championships. Scan the list of the ’07 World Championship roster. Sounds eerily similar to the 2008 Beijing roster.


If you take each swimmer’s competitive career, stretch it out to a graph, you’d see a weird, squiggly line that represents his/her progression. The graph would start at Age 3, when swim lessons start, then ascend higher and higher with each age, stretching over a period of 15, 20, 25 years.

What people forget, when they watch races at the Olympic Trials, is that we’re not watching the previous “year-in-the-making.”

We’re watching the past 25 years-in-the-making.

And Mike Barrowman understood this. He understood that it wasn’t the burger that enabled him to swim faster. It wasn’t one afternoon of binge eating on greasy, fast-food glory. It was the days, the weeks, the months, and the years – arguably, an entire lifetime – of nutritional health that put him in the position to win that Olympic gold medal. No matter what he ate on that day, in Barcelona 1992, it didn’t matter.

He had already put in a lifetime of preparation.

Of course, a lot can happen in a year. Swimmers can grow (especially younger swimmers) and improve. And certainly, those swimmers on the bubble last year in qualifying are at home, training, motivating themselves, feeling inspired.

But, like all things in life, nothing happens overnight. Unfortunately – a lesson I found out the hard way – you can’t become an Olympian simply by eating burgers.


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