The Power Inside NIKE: Two-Time Olympic Swimmer Mark Pinger Interview Part 1

By Steven V. Selthoffer, Chief European Columnist, Swimming World Magazine

HILVERSUM, The Netherlands, April 3. IT’s not easy tracking down freestyler and double Olympic bronze medalist, Mark Pinger, GER. “He’s not here. He’s been promoted,” was a continuous stream of telephone replies from various employees around NIKE Europe’s points-of-presence attempting to reach him.

Pinger is now General Manager of four NIKE brands for Western Europe, Basketball, Tennis, Jordan and Athletic Training. Travelling to NIKE World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., back to Europe overseeing issues with the French Open, Wimbledon, attending numerous European basketball events is what fits his current schedule.

Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics
Pinger swam in the 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympic Games, watched by young teammate Franziska van Almsick (at 14 years, 113 days old), Pinger swam the 50 free 22.88 (t11) and the 400 Medley (3:40.19) and 400 Free Relays (3:17.90) 48.8 split (Bronze). The Wall had just come down in Berlin only a couple years earlier and it was the first unified Olympics for Germany since the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Then in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Pinger, an imposing presence on the blocks at 6′ 7″ (201cm) came from behind to put the German team on the podium in the 400 Free Relay with a split of 49.64.

Pinger is a team player. The kind of athlete and executive that is known for giving all the credit to others. From his office at NIKE European Headquarters, Hilversum, NED, Pinger pushed back from his desk and granted Swimming World an interview (in two parts) to discuss the Olympics, life after swimming, sports and working at NIKE.

The Interview – Part 1

Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996 Olympic Experience

SW: Mark, tell us about your experience at the 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Two bronze medals on the 400M Free Relays. Awesome splits both times. How did it feel to do what you did?

Pinger: Yes, a fantastic experience and it is certainly nice to bring home some hardware. The two Olympics were quite different. In ’92, I had the fastest split and was able to improve on that split in the medley relay. Only (Alexander) Popov and Jon Olsen were faster. Then in ’96, I was fast enough to swim in the relay but didn’t improve on my times from the trials that year. So I always felt that I came up a bit short in that race. But it takes four people to win the medal and my effort still contributed to us coming in third.

For me, the best part of the Olympics wasn’t winning a medal or the racing, it was marching in at the opening ceremony. I always watched that as a kid and thought that those are the best athletes in the world and suddenly I was part of those best athletes.

SW: How do you think it prepared you for what you’re doing today?

Pinger: While I wasn’t the best in practice, I worked extremely hard. I did weights every day, rode my bicycle to and from school and practice and pretty much went to every practice that was offered. So you have to work hard. I also had great coaches. I would be nowhere without them.

Lifelong Insights
But, there are two other big things I learned: When I was 18 years old, I wasn’t even in the top eight in the country. My kick was terrible (always was) and my endurance was not that great either. I got a lot of support from my coaches, be it the club coaches or national coaches. But, some coaches also thought that I just lacked some of the basic foundation to ever make it to the international level. One of the coaches made a reference to a 100m kick time that would be a minimum for anyone who wants to swim at the international level. I was far from that time.

Another time, another coach talked about the endurance level needed. I was far from that also. In 1992, not a lot of people were expecting me to qualify to the Olympics, but I think it is best not to listen to people that much.

So my first insight was that you will be surprised what you can achieve when you don’t let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do. Of course, you want to take all feedback and use it to improve but don’t listen too much to those that don’t believe in you.

German Olympic Trials
When I was at the trials, I actually didn’t qualify for the A final in the 100 freestyle. I thought about dropping out of the race and focusing on the 50 meters. But my coach, Michael Spikermann made sure that doesn’t happen.

That night, I swam the first time in my life truly all out. Until then, I had successfully told myself that if I don’t lead at the 50 meter point, I cannot win the race because I’m a sprinter. However, that night, something weird happened, I just kept swimming through the pain and I had the fastest second 50 meter split of all A and B finalists. I also had the fastest time of all swimmers, but because I was in the B final, I still only placed 9th.

That got me a headline in the Bild Zeitung, one of the highest circulation newspapers in Germany. I don’t actually think that I would have swam that time in the A final because I would have thought about the race too much, so I am just glad that I qualified for the 50 meter freestyle and that I could make the team in the 400 free and medley relay also.

Insight Number Two
So my second insight is that you have to believe in yourself to get the best effort, or to say it a different way, if you tell yourself you can’t do something you won’t be able to do it.

I think those two things have served me well in life. When I applied to McKinsey, a company that usually only recruits at the top schools, I was at the University of Pittsburgh. Nobody thought that I could land a job there. Of course, a little bit of luck also helps but if you really want something and you work really hard for it then you can do it.

SW: FINA World Championships are in Barcelona this summer. Are you coming?

Pinger: I would love to but I am never sure if the timing works out. At least I am in Europe at the moment and Spain is one of the countries I am responsible for at Nike, although not in swimming, but in basketball, athletic training and tennis.

SW: It seems like there are a number of problems across the landscape in sports. What are your primary concerns?

Pinger: I think there are some countries that are doing a fantastic job and some countries that see their performance in decline. You need to have a number of good swimmers not just one or two, if not, then the risk that you go home without a medal is too high.

SW: How do you see it? What would you do to change things?

Pinger: I think a lot of people are doing great work and I am not sure I have all the answers. But as I am observing the sport with different eyes as I follow my kids being swimmers, I think we need to make the sport more attractive.

Sitting around at swim meets all weekend is not the most fun for athletes or parents and it starts at a young age. In college there are dual meets – great fun, small time commitment and it gets you to swim a few times all out without a lot of rest in between. Look at how good the U.S. guys are swimming two or three times fast in one afternoon.

What about doing a morning practice sometimes instead of the afternoon practice? Give the young kids an afternoon off? Being sick was never fun, but I remember enjoying all the free time in the afternoon. I just didn’t know how much time there was in the day when I swam!

There are more ideas, but I don’t want to highjack the interview to just talk about my ideas for swimming. One thing that I think is tough in many of the European countries, especially in Germany is combining school and sports. To be honest, schools in (Europe and elsewhere) don’t really care all that much about sports so it is a challenging schedule to get everything under one umbrella.

Click Here to Read Part 2