By Steven V. Selthoffer, Chief European Columnist, Swimming World Magazine
HILVERSUM, The Netherlands, April 4. MARK Pinger, General Manager, NIKE, talks about the importance of athletes (or anyone) finding their passion, whether it's in sports or their jobs and careers. Pinger also gives some insight on the importance of education, the German Swimming Federation, life at NIKE and what his next plans are.
Interview Part 1
The Interview- Part 2
SW: Mark, you've been a success in and out of the pool. Many Olympic athletes cannot even get jobs for years. What are your recommendations?
Find Your Passion
Pinger: The good and bad news is that when I swam, there was absolutely no money in swimming. While it was sometimes hard to see athletes in other sports earn some good money, the question of not going to university never represented itself to me. I think in sports as in life, you have to find your passion. Don't worry too much about what kind of corporate jobs others think are good, but instead find something that you enjoy. If you enjoy it, chances are you will be good at it. And if you are good at it, chances are that you can make it a career. Just like when you are an athlete. If you don't enjoy it, it is way too hard.
SW: How important is it to get an education while you're training and to prepare for a post-sport career?
Pinger: Super important. I also think that getting an education puts less stress on your athletic performance. If I would have taken the year before the Olympics off, there would have been a lot of pressure to perform, otherwise I would have lost a year for nothing. So while I think I could have trained a lot better without going to school, I also think it takes away a little bit of the relaxed state of mind.
SW: What does NIKE do to help top athletes with education? To gain work experience?
Pinger: Well it feels like everyone at Nike is an athlete so we have a lot of people in the company who are passionate about sports. Having a passion for sports certainly helps you excel here at Nike since we are driven by sports values. In terms of our top athletes, we work closely with them and help them in whatever way we can.
Deutscher Schwimm-Verband e.V (German Swimming Federation)
SW: The German DSV has been in a free fall for more than a decade. They appointed a politician to run the sport yielding disastrous results for top athletes and the program on the whole. What would you change about the system?
Pinger: This is hard for me to answer. I feel that if I am not coming to the table myself, investing my time and effort, I should not criticize those that do. From afar, it seems like there are a couple of things at play here. Shortening the (total length of) school years (in Germany) from 13 years to 12 hasn't helped.
Like I said, in Germany it is very hard to combine school and sports and you don't want to prioritize one over the other. The other thing is that we are very dependent on a few top swimmers and if those are not in shape, we don't bring home any hardware. I think we should bring more athletes to the Olympics.
When I swam, the 200 meter breaststroke cut was always so hard that nobody tried to qualify for it, everyone just focused on the 100. But if it would have been easier to qualify for the 200 meters, maybe a couple more people would have tried for it and then the competition helps improve the times. Lastly, all the fighting is probably not helping. I suggest that those that have good ideas, start helping.
SW: Henning Lambertz (former coach of Thomas Rupprath, GER, Sarah Poewe, GER) was just named the new national coach of Germany. Your reaction?
Pinger: I don't really know who would be the candidates and while I know who Henning Lambertz is, I am not qualified to comment on the choice of coach. But, I am sure they have thought about this and selected a good choice.
SW: Many athletes have no pathway, are offered no managerial training, no internship programs to promote the best and brightest to work in their sport federations or NOCs. Any comments? What are your recommendations?
Pinger: I think things are not that bad. I know a lot of people that swam with me who now have great jobs and good careers. I am not into blaming coaches and organizations - I think everyone has to take responsibility and let's not forget parents. Like I said, the biggest thing people have to figure out is to make it easier to combine sports and school. My advice to any athlete is to not just focus exclusively on sports, nobody can guarantee that things work out in sports and you could be getting injured. So
always make sure you have a good education and find your passion.
SW: Congratulations. You're now General Manager for four divisions for Western Europe, Basketball, Tennis, Jordan, and Athletics Training. Where are you taking things?
Pinger: I love Nike. We really care about sports and we are a passionate bunch. Everything we do is geared towards making athletes better and getting people off the coach and active. I can't imagine a better company to work for. Like Bill Bowerman, one of our founders, said, "If you have a body, you are an athlete." We live by that. Sport allows us to celebrate human potential.
I don't know where things will lead me personally to next (thing) -- I have always just tried to do a good job and then good things happen. I started in the US where I briefly managed the swim business, one of the most fun jobs considering my background! I have worked in Hong Kong, Shanghai and most recently have been the General Manager for Germany, Austria and Switzerland - . Now, among other things, I get to work on Basketball, the category where Nike is at its best. Let's see how the journey continues.
SW: What are your greatest strengths as an executive? Execution? Innovation? Managerial? Or a combination?
Pinger: I would like to think I am motivated and always bring a 100% effort. But at my level, I am only as good as my team and I have had the pleasure to work with some fantastic folks and teams. The most important thing is to lead and motivate the team.
SW: What's your vision for Nike?
Pinger: Get more people to unleash their potential, celebrate the human potential in sports, and make sports democratic. We are not just about elite athletes, we want everyone to push their personal best no matter at what level. We are developing some great tools for everyone to participate in sports -the NIKE fuel band is a great example. I believe sports are great. It makes you feel better. It gives you self-esteem. It's healthy.
SW: How fun is work? What would you rather be doing, daily working at Nike or having to endure two-a-day swim practices under the new national coach, Henning Lambertz?
Pinger: I love my job but I also love swimming. I am a bit out of shape for two-a-days to be honest so I think I stick with work at the moment. In the U.S., we have a pool at our headquarters and if my job takes me back there at some point, I will definitely swim more regularly again. I loved doing sport growing up and when I smell chlorine, it reminds me of all the fun I had. And that would be the same if I had never won a medal or gone to the Olympics. Sport has taught me a lot and I have made my best
friends through the camaraderie of sports. I met my wife through swimming - it doesn't get much better than that.
SW: In your off-time what do you like to do? Any new sports? Family?
Pinger: I have 3 kids. Everyone is doing sports of course. My son (9 years old) is into basketball at the moment and he will also start track and field. My daughters (13 and 15 years old) love swimming and I enjoy going to the meets with them.
Personally, I ran my first marathon when I lived in Portland. I wanted to do it to "check the box" but, I really enjoyed it. Did another one in Berlin last year. I try to get out and run if time permits. Not super exciting stuff, but I try to stay in shape.
Thank you for your time Mark, we've enjoyed it.
For more information on NIKE, please go to: www.NIKE.com
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