PHOENIX, Arizona, February 20. TODAY'S special edition of The Morning Swim Show features a fascinating Ready Room interview in the Swimming World studio with Olympic and NCAA legend John Naber.
Naber, who was the star of the Olympics, as well as four NCAA championships for the University of Southern California, offers his perspectives on how swimming has changed in the past 35 years, from the issue of professionalism to the public perception of the sport. He offers up his opinion that swimmers should not skip the collegiate swimming experience to become professional swimmers, using such swimmers as Kristine Quance as valid examples. He also gives a perspective on his own career, as host Peter Busch asks Naber if he would have continued swimming beyond 1977 if the sport allowed athletes to be professionals. Be sure to visit SwimmingWorld.TV for more video interviews.
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Peter Busch: John, it's great to have you in Phoenix. How are you doing?
John Naber: I'm great, thank you, glad to be here.
Peter Busch: What brings you here to Arizona
?John Naber: You know, I was invited to address a meeting for US Airways management just down the street at the Scottsdale Conference and Resort, and it's a great chance to stop by Swimming World TV.
Peter Busch: What does a former Olympic gold medalist teach airline executives?
John Naber: You know, I like to talk about something I call the Gold Medal Process. There are eight steps that I took as a competitive athlete to make my dreams come true. I've interviewed hundreds of other Olympians and pretty much every one of them has taken those same eight steps and so I share these steps with the audiences and I remind them of Olympic stories, not only my own but some that they may be a little bit more familiar with and I try to make the audience feel like they can be Olympic, competitive, gold medal performance-producing athletes in their own particular line of work.
Peter Busch: So that kind of goes back to one of the core virtues that people say about swimming – it teaches you long term –
John Naber: Life skills.
Peter Busch: Life skills – you know, how to work hard, dedication, perseverance, you know how to wake up early in the morning and accomplish something before most people are out of bed. Do you find that even if you didn't become an Olympic swimmer that this virtue stayed true with the rest of your life?
John Naber: Absolutely. Anybody who tries to reach a goal and goes through these eight steps, whether they reach the goal or not the eight steps still work and they work in virtually any field so that's what I talk about. And the fundamental underlying truth is the concept of delayed gratification. I remember taking a root beer bottle when I returned from Europe, living there for seven years, we went down to the store, we got a root beer bottle and on the neck of the bottle were four words that said if you're not willing to pay the price in advance you don't deserve to enjoy the flavor. You're probably too young to remember the words but they were "No deposit, no return." And that changed the way I looked at work and no longer is it a sacrifice or a punishment, it now becomes an investment, and the delayed gratification that sport teaches us – you can go to the restaurant, you don't get the check until after you've enjoyed dessert but in sport you pay the price in advance otherwise there is no dessert.
Peter Busch: Very interesting. Are you still swimming though?
John Naber: A little bit, two or three times a week.
Peter Busch: Everybody's doing a comeback these days, how about you?
John Naber: Not a chance. I have no competitive desires. I don't want to compete in masters. I might have thought about joining the team relay just to round it out but the competitive fires aren't there but I do love the feeling of moving across the surface of the water. It's a quiet peaceful time for me, it's good exercise. I'm not a land mammal, I don't do so well on bicycles or stair masters but in the water I get a good workout.
Peter Busch: I think we're going to have a fascinating year in swimming. This Olympics is going to be the culmination of a great generation of American swimmers, perhaps the greatest since you were in your heyday, you and guys like Mark Spitz, I mean this is Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, Phelps' last hurrah. I think it's going to be amazing to watch them close out their careers while seeing a crop of new young stars come in,
John Naber: Well, that's the normal way in sports. You don't get to be king forever. You get to be king in sports as long as you keep winning. The ravages of time affect us all. To me the thing that's most impressive about Michael Phelps is that because of his earlier success he has hundreds of opportunities to do cocktail parties and speeches and commercials and stuff that would otherwise take him away from his training and yet he still remains very competitive, very focused, he still works very hard in the pool as if he has something still to prove and that's what's so impressive about his career – four Olympiads and still just as aggressive as he ever was.
Peter Busch: I know it's not unique to swimmers, certainly football players or basketball players probably look at the players today and wish that they had the same sort of commercial opportunities that you have.
John Naber: I have a different read on that. I came from the amateur era where there was no money allowed. I couldn't even donate any winnings to charity without losing my eligibility. And at the time people were teasing about that, the word amateur was in the Olympic code, you had to be an amateur athlete and you couldn't make money. I don't like the current definition of the word amateur. You wouldn't go see an amateur dentist, would you? The word amateur implies less than really good, but the word amateur takes its root from the word love – I love to swim, I love to collect coins, I love to collect stamps – those are amateurs in the truest sense of the word, that they would be willing to swim even if they didn't get paid. Whereas today in professional sports if you don't get paid enough you don't compete, you go on strike. Well I like the memory of the athletes who just love to swim and I still believe that Ryan Lochte and Janet Evans will swim even if there's no money involved because they just love the feeling of competing, they love the way their body feels, and it's a good thing. So as long as the love stays in the sport I don't worry about the money but as soon as the money pushes the love out of the sport then we have a problem.
Peter Busch: The nostalgia is noble, but do you believe your career would have gone longer and others had there been more opportunity to do it as a career?
John Naber: Yes longer probably, better, more enjoyable – I don't know. I can't say it didn't happen to me. It's possible. Very few swimmers competed in more than one Olympic games in the amateur era. They couldn't afford to. They had to get a job. When you're college scholarship expires you've got to pay the rent somehow.
Peter Busch: We're on the edge of a topic that fascinates me and it involves kind of the young superstar in American swimming right now, Missy Franklin, who's only a junior in high school and has said repeatedly that she wants that college experience even though there are certainly opportunities right now for her to go pro and make a decent living out of it. The way I see it is you don't realize until you become an adult and maybe have a family how difficult it can be to make decent money in this world so while it's very refreshing and idealistic that she wants to go to college and have that opportunity because it is a once in a lifetime opportunity, you just wonder if she understands that this is perhaps the best chance she'll ever have to make a lot of money.
John Naber: I'm going to give you a different read on that not because I'm being nostalgic, an old fogie, but I can quote some stories that will support this. Kristine Quance was the top individual medley specialist in the world in 1996. In the preliminary heats of the Olympic trials she gets disqualified in her best event to win individual gold. She still makes the team as a breaststroker on the medley relay, the relay goes on to win gold but because she didn't win an individual medal she didn't really have the commercial opportunities that might have come to some Olympic champions. So she remained amateur, returned to USC for her senior year of competition, and led the Trojans to a national team title. She said she would much rather have had that collegiate experience leading the team to a title than making the money she could have or even winning an individual gold medal at the Olympics – that was her opinion in 1996. Everyone's entitled to their own choice. I actually sent a message to Missy Franklin through Mike Unger a couple of weeks ago trying to applaud her decision because she clearly values that experience more than the money and one could also argue that nowadays when you can make three or four Olympics she can make money after she graduates from college. I admire her choice.
Peter Busch: I admire her too, for the record, I just think –
John Naber: Do you think she'll regret it?
Peter Busch: I think that she's only going to swim in college for two years and decide "Okay, I've had the college experience, now I'm going to cash in" like Amanda Beard did and Amanda will tell you that "I think it was the best decision I ever made."
John Naber: That's their choice.
Peter Busch: I agree. Missy, do what you will. I'm just a talking head. So back to the current wave of swimming right now – what are you most excited to see in London this summer? Is it Phelps and his farewell tour or do you think there's something else that will be even more incredible?
John Naber: There's always going to be something incredible at the Olympics. The US Olympic Committee had their branding phrase "Amazing awaits." There's something amazing, we don't know in advance what it's going to be but it's going to be amazing and I'm sure that that's going to be the case. I just found out recently that I will be going to London to work the radio broadcast so I will be in the pool, I look forward to seeing what's going to happen there, and I don't know exactly what it's going to be but it's going to be great. A couple of stories I do want to watch – I want to see Michael Phelps win his third medal in London because that will make him the highest decorated medalist in the look of history and he's not yet that. There was a gymnast who got 18 medals and Phelps has 16 so far so he needs three more to win to take that title – that will be thrilling to watch. To see Missy perform on the world stage will be great. I love that she is such a likable individual.
Peter Busch: She is fantastic.
John Naber: She is the kind of person you not only want to see with but you want your kids to grow up to be just like her. And we love that about swimming. I'd stand in front of audiences and I'd say "If your daughter were to come home next week and say she's going on a date would you rather she go on a date with an Olympian or with a member of the NBA? There's more money in the NBA, there's more notoriety in the NBA but where would you rather see your daughter go?"The Olympic brand and certainly the Olympic swimming brand is really fantastic, that they're not just excellent performers, they're just excellent people.
Peter Busch: I am curious to see what Lochte would choose to do, how ambitious he's going to get, because I think he really wants to try and match Phelps from Beijing but I've never gotten the sense from speaking with him that he's completely convinced inside that he can do it and I think he's going to shy away from that. What do you think?
John Naber: I don't know Ryan well enough to predict what he will do. This is a difficult challenge. But Ryan has already got some gold medals, he knows what it's like to win at the world stage. They say that great swimmers, all swimmers love to win, great swimmers hate to lose. And for a swimmer to choose to add another event on their Olympic program they are risking losing races that they otherwise might win and that to me is a real measure of an athlete's willingness to take the risk and confidence in themselves.
Peter Busch: I guess we saw in Beijing how impossible it is to really predict these things because some would argue that Phelps was handed a couple of those events that they didn't necessarily win them – the relay with Lezak's amazing comeback and Cavic's 100 fly finish, that he didn't win them, they lost them. But history will only remember that he won eight gold medals.
John Naber: The average viewer doesn't remember the specific details. You can say "Yes, Phelps was fortunate to have Jason anchor the relay, he was unfortunate to have his goggles filled with water in the 200fly, and yet he found a way to get to the wall.
Peter Busch: He could have lost a suit and he would have won the 200 fly.
John Naber: Probably.
Peter Busch: College swimming – you were one of the most decorated collegiate swimmers of all time, college swimming in itself. I guess I'm happy that swimming has stayed above the fray it seems like. I know there are reasons why football and basketball programs because they're the lucrative sports for the colleges are more prone to scandal than swimming but I guess it's nice to see that collegiate swimming has remained an amateur sport and pretty ethical, right?
John Naber: Knock on wood, as far as we know, there's no reason to be embarrassed about the performances of the athletes in collegiate swimming. What amazes me is they continue to lower records even though some of the top athletes go pro and therefore leave the college swimming scent. One of the issues that I noticed in the last 20 years is the adding of the 4×50 relays has enabled or actually encouraged coaches to recruit more sprinters than distance swimmers.
Peter Busch: And what do you think of that?
John Naber: What this does is it has a rolled-back effect that high school swimmers who have their choice of going from a 500free to the 1650 or from the 500 free down to the 200 and then the 200 guys no longer swim the 200, they want to swim the 50 and the 100, it pushes back the work ethic a little bit. So I've been told that high school swimmers are less willing to do the mileage workouts that they used to be and frankly they're no longer being rewarded for that. We never rewarded them with on-camera time in TV shows but now we're really emphasizing the sprint programs and so the colleges that can produce and recruit the better sprinters have a higher chance of winning the national title than they used to.
Peter Busch: And one of the reasons why we probably don't have American dominance in the distance events.
John Naber: It's not surprising, is it?
Peter Busch: No. It makes complete sense. The emphasis — but you would think that we'd have dominant sprinters though too and we don't really, I mean we still have great relays but we don't by no means have the best 50 and 100 guys in the world these days.
John Naber: Sure, but I should also note that many international swimmers come over on college scholarships and train at our NCAA level institutions and take that knowledge and that experience back with them to their own home program.
Peter Busch: Yes, Cesar Cielo certainly did. Back to Olympic swimming, and I keep saying that this year is going to be so unique, but take me back to when you were swimming and kind of what – other than winning so many gold medals in 1976 – what was the best part about being a part of the Olympic experience?
John Naber: Well I hate to bring politics into it but at that time in the late 1970s there were the good guys and the bad guys, it was the Americans against the communists. And there were a lot fewer countries with the chance to win medals and in fact in 1976 only four different countries won gold medals, only four different national anthems were played at the Olympic finals and probably 75% of them were shared between the East Germans and the Americans. In that time we had three athletes per event so we could win gold, silver, bronze and the American men did that four different times and the East German women did that a few times as well. And so after those Olympics the Athena governing body said "You know what? Let's now make it two athletes per event per country" and that sort of spread the wealth a little bit but it also cheapened the value of the bronze medal because you could conceivably be the third best in the world and not be at the Olympics. And so the sport has grown, more countries are involved, and I also like to say that in the ‘60s and ‘70s many governments weren't building swimming pools and tennis courts, they had to build freeway overpasses and sewage treatment plants. Now society has sort of caught up a little bit and many countries now can afford sports programs and we are seeing that desire and work ethic and goal setting is not limited to the American way of life, it does work around the world.
Peter Busch: Do you wish there were three swimmers per country allowed again?
John Naber: I think it gives more credence to the bronze medal but now that the wealth is so spread around I cannot point to a single instance where the third place finisher at the trials would have won bronze at the Olympics.
Peter Busch: I could see it happening in a couple of maybe IM events, maybe with Lochte, Phelps –
John Naber: And?
Peter Busch: Tyler Clary.
John Naber: Is Tyler Clary better than any other IMer in the world, that's the question.
Peter Busch: You can make the argument that he's the third-best behind those guys.
John Naber: In that case that would be an argument –
Peter Busch: But you're right, it wouldn't apply to very many events anymore and I think that's a good thing that wealth has been spread out throughout the world. Tell us about your book. I know it's not something you just penned but it's still a fascinating read.
John Naber: Unlike many great Olympic motivational speakers I didn't overcome a broken bone at the Olympics, I didn't hit my head on anything, I didn't twist an ankle, I don't have alcoholic parents, I had not great drama in my life.
Peter Busch: It's okay, it's still a great story.
John Naber: Well thank you. But I do know a lot of other Olympians who did and in the late ‘90s I was doing a lot of motivational speaking to corporate groups and the audiences would come up after the Eight-Step Gold Medal speech and say "Do you have a book?" I didn't have one because I didn't have that kind of a story. So I contacted 27 other Olympians that I knew who did motivational speaking and we collaborated on a book called "Awaken the Olympian Within" and it's 26 chapters, two of the Olympians – two couples are married couples, and we each contributed a chapter to this book and it's a motivational book that's available on my website or on Amazon.com and it tells stories about what did sport teach you then enables you to be successful in the real world, life after sport. And it is overcoming obstacles – Dan Jansen fell on the ice and kept coming back, Nadia Comenaci talks about focus in order to get a perfect 10, Dick Fosbury invented a new way to jump over a high bar, and Michael Eruzione was the captain of the Miracle on Ice hockey team – all of these guys contributed their stories. And in the sport of swimming we had Rowdy Gaines, Nancy Hogshead and Brian Goodell contributed their stories as well. Wonderful insights into what sport taught them and enables them to be successful and frankly my speaking career is built not on how to make swimmers faster swimmers but rather how to make people apply the lessons of sport to become better in whatever it is they do – life insurance sales, computer design, financial markets – whatever. And if sport teaches us anything it teaches us how to be successful in life and if we apply those lessons, the work ethic, we don't feel entitled to a living after we're done swimming if we're willing to focus and set our goals and just work as hard later on we're bound to be successful.
Peter Busch: Do you think a lot of swimmers struggle though once they're out of the sport finding what they're passionate about or what they can be financially successful at?
John Naber: Well, one of the issues is that they can be so financially successful by swimming well that they don't feel they have to work as hard in anything else. "I've won my medals, now I'm waiting for the opportunities to come my way" and that I think is a danger. I do know that there's enough money to support agents in the world of swimming and as soon as the swimmer relinquishes his or her future planning or business requirements to somebody else. "You handle the business deals, you negotiate the contracts, I just want to swim fast." And then the moment they're done swimming they expect the rest of the world to lay out before them – that's the danger. So it's the swimmers who don't differ all of those decisions to management teams, the swimmers who stay involved who want to know what's going on. I remember Dara Torres in the middle of her – I guess it was third or four Olympics – she took the time to come back to the TV truck to meet the producer, to meet the director, to meet the sound crew to understand how a television show is done – that was quite a symbol. She'd already won a gold medal at the Olympics but she said "You know what? I want to meet you, I want to get to know what's going on" and I think it helped extend her career and it certainly gave her more exposure while she was swimming and I think it gave her the skills to be successful later on.
Peter Busch: Yes, she had a guy at the back of the truck and you feel like you just met this person, feel a connection. He might show her a few more times on the crowd or behind the crowd.
John Naber: Sure. And Summer Sanders was the same way – any individual, any athlete who may or may not win gold medals but takes the time to meet and thank the sponsors, can tell you the name of the president of the US Olympic Committee, can show up a little early and sign a few more autographs who manages their opportunities as if it were a brand, they stand to do much better later in life.
Peter Busch: John, it was good to talk to you.
John Naber: Glad to be by.
Peter Busch: Thanks a lot for coming out.
John Naber: You bet.
Peter Busch: And thanks for watching.
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