Whenever we are highly motivated to give our best, a certain degree of nervousness and heightened anticipation is both normal and usually beneficial because it helps us energize and focus. But there are times you must become aware when the butterflies in the stomach turn into buzzards, and tingling excitement into a debilitating paralysis. It’s at these crucial moments that laughter is most transformational, with the power to turn trauma into triumph.
During my years as a United States Swimming Coach, I saw mirth work its magic at many pivotal moments. One was particularly memorable because it occurred at perhaps the most important competition in which two swimmers who were especially dear to me had ever participated. These two, Annie and Kim, had dreamed about their high school championship meet for years.
Both had swum with me since they were young girls. High school swimming was huge to them because for the first time their non-swimmer friends would have the chance to see them shine. What’s more, they were representing their school, just like the football and basketball players. (Remember, there is nothing more inspiring than having a purpose that is bigger than oneself.)
To top it all off, Annie and Kim were outstanding swimmers, and break-through performances by them at these Southern California High School Championships just might impress the many college recruiters who attended this high-profile meet. This was one of those WOOs in life you plan and prepare for, rather than one which spontaneously and unexpectedly occurs.
About twenty minutes before the start of the meet I walked over to the girls to help them focus and prepare. The moment I saw their faces I knew that the line had been passed between healthy nervous energy and total panic. They were tight as drums, and scared to the point that their confidence was beginning to drain from their spirits. After trying to inspire them with a pep talk, I could see much more drastic action was necessary. If they didn’t relax and lighten up, the dream they had trained so hard for would end up a disaster.
“Grab your towels and wad them up tight. Good! Now, cram that wadded towel right up against your face and mouth. Do it quick! Now, I want you to scream your lungs out into that towel for thirty seconds. GO!”
They were so stunned at the suddenness of my commands they did exactly as they were told. After about 10 seconds, the silliness of it all broke through their anxiety and they started to laugh. As swimmers from other schools walked by and stared at these two goofy kids with towels in their mouths, they couldn’t help but laugh harder. They kept screaming into the towels just for the fun of it. They were so hilarious; I couldn’t help but break up, too. Other coaches must have thought this was the strangest pre-race ritual they had ever seen.
As the girls began to settle down, the terror that had been in their eyes before our “towel therapy” transformed into lightness. Their spirits were shining once again. They had moved from fear to faith through the simple power of humor.
I will never forget that incredible day. Kim, a sophomore at the time, had always been one of those kids who did well but couldn’t seem to break through to her real potential. But that afternoon she absolutely shattered her personal best times in both of her events. She placed in the top three in both and realized her lifelong dream by qualifying for the Junior Nationals.
Annie had been like a daughter to me through the years that I coached her. Her father had passed away when she was twelve and I had provided her with a steady, loving, positive paternal influence through those difficult times. I’d watched her mature into a fine person and an outstanding swimmer.
This was her senior year in high school, and we had focused intently on this meet, determined she would achieve her goals. In the preliminaries, she had qualified second in both the 100-yard butterfly and 100-yard backstroke. In the butterfly final, she would be swimming next to one of America’s all-time greatest swimmers, Dara Torres, who had qualified first, about three full seconds ahead of Annie. I hoped with all my heart that Annie wouldn’t psych herself out by worrying about being blown out of the pool by such a formidable champion.
Just before she stepped up to the starting block for the race, she looked over at me one last time. I was ready. I held a crammed-up towel up to my mouth for a moment and then pulled it away to reveal an enormous grin. When I saw her light up and smile, I knew her confidence had been fully restored.
In ten years of coaching her I had never seen Annie perform like she did in that 100-yard butterfly. We had hoped she would break fifty-eight seconds and believed going in that if she did everything perfectly, she could pull it off. I cheered my lungs out for this wonderful girl, watching in near disbelief as she stayed right with Dara, stroke for stroke from start to finish. The two of them were a quarter of a pool ahead of the other competitors. Though Dara touched her out by a couple of tenths of a second, Annie finished with a time of 55.6 seconds—beyond our wildest dreams! She leaped out of the pool and ran to me in exultation. This time her screams were unmuffled—and of absolute joy.
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