The Heart of A Champion

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Photo by: Bob Coglianese, Courtesy of

By Tera Bradham, Swimming World Intern

American Pharoah has now clinched his second victory in the most prestigious series of Thoroughbred races, the Triple Crown. While many think Pharoah could become the next Triple Crown winner by winning the Belmont Stakes on June 6, his times don’t hold a candle to history’s best.

Secretariat, professed by most with half a hoof in the horseracing circle to be the most incomparable racehorse ever to have lived, won the Triple Crown in 1973. Although his capture of the crown ended a disappointing, 25-year drought without a Triple Crown victor, that wasn’t Secretariat’s most momentous accomplishment.

The X Factor

In the Kentucky Derby, the first of the three races, Secretariat ran each successive fourth of a mile faster than the previous one – what we swimmers like to call a nice “descend.” In the final, longest race of the triple, the Belmont Stakes, Secretariat demolished the rest of the field by an unimaginable 31 lengths, a margin of victory that has yet to be challenged.

“Big Red,” as many called him, broke and still holds the records for the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes, 42 years after his unparalleled achievement.

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Secretariat’s 31-length victory at the Belmont Stakes. Photo By: Bob Coglianese, courtesy of

Not to take anything away from American Pharoah, for everyone in my generation would love to see the first Triple Crown winner of our lifetime, but the statistics portend that he is not in the same league as the big red Thoroughbred from Virginia, even if he does pull off the great feat.

So, what’s the difference between the two? Why have Secretariat’s records remained untouched for more than four decades?

That question’s answer was discovered in 1989, when Secretariat died, and his body was sent to the University of Kentucky for an autopsy. They found his heart weighed an astounding 22 pounds! The average weight of a mature Thoroughbred’s heart is a mere eight pounds.

While American Pharoah is obviously still alive, and the weight of his heart remains undetermined, it is probably safe to say he doesn’t have a 22-pound heart.

Heart size is actually considered by some to be the “X Factor” of horseracing, and some breeders make sire and dam selections based on the “large heart gene.” Research has shown that many of the great successes of Thoroughbred racing have had abnormally large hearts.

A Champion’s Mark

Perhaps at this point you’re wondering why I’m writing about horses in Swimming World. Well, it’s because the “large heart gene” is not just a characteristic of horseracing champions; it is a characteristic of all champions.

While no champion swims with a 22-pound heart, there is a profound link between the figurative size of a person’s heart and his or her number of victories. Champions come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have enormous hearts.

A champion’s heart is enormous because it never gives up. A champion’s heart never backs down from a fight, nor does it succumb to defeat until the last stroke is swum. A champion’s heart is full of victories of the past but only uses them to propel him to victories in the future. A champion’s heart is strong enough to hate losing, but also strong enough to display graciousness and class, after a heartbreaking loss.

A champion’s heart is a velvet-covered brick, soft to the touch and compassionate to others, yet filled with a rock-hard core that will fight for its convictions unto death. A champion’s heart doesn’t mind the early wake-ups, the long hours, the seemingly endless sets, for he knows that only when determination exceeds circumstance will victory be achieved.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Taking Heart

Some people are born with the heart of a champion, some have circumstances mold their heart into that of a champion, and some choose to grow the heart of a champion. The heart of a champion is born through the realization that adversity is not his fiercest enemy, but his closest friend. The heart of a champion is formed when he realizes his deepest wounds can become his most powerful weapons.

The heart of a champion grows by looking out for the interests of his team, rather than simply his own. The heart of a champion grows by getting up when he doesn’t feel like it, by doing things correctly when no one is watching, and by doing all the little things correctly that others do not care enough to notice.

The summer season is just beginning, and sometimes those 4:30 a.m. alarm clocks can buzz irritatingly loudly, or those long-course laps can seem mighty daunting. But take courage. Wherever your heart is today, you have the choice to make it the heart of a champion.

Every day, you have the choice to make your heart bigger. As you go to practice this week, when your coach gives you that set that brings tears to your eyes, or when your teammate challenges you to a “last one, fast one,” just answer the question, “How big is your heart?”

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  1. avatar

    Wonderful, Tera. Some of the most effective swim coaches over recent decades have also dabbled in training thoroubred horses.

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