Ordinary to Extraordinary

Hey Guys welcome to Keep On Pushing Radio. I am your host Devon Harris and you know what we do here, we work to share with you ideas and insights that are going to challenge you and inspire you to live your best life. So if that’s something you’re interested in you know you’re in the right place. So welcome, our guest today has had one of the most storied career you could ever think of you know, between 1974 and 1977 he won ten individual NCAA titles. In 1977 he was awarded the James E. Sullivan award as a US top amateur athlete.

In 1976 at the Montreal Olympics he was the most decorated U.S. Olympic athlete for that entire Olympics. He won five Olympic medals four gold, one silver, broke a couple records. He had the record and the two hundred meter backstroke, in fact he was the first person ever to dip below two minutes in that event and that record lasted seven years after retirement.  Likewise, his record in the hundred meter backstroke also lasted seven years. He was the first swimmer in Olympic history to win two medals on the same day of competition. And you know with that list of accomplishment he was inducted into the U.S. Olympic swimming Hall of fame back in 1984.

He was an Olympic torch bearer for four Olympic games: 1984,1996,2002,2004, since his days in the pool what has he been up to? Well he has served as an analyst, a play by play announcer a sideline reporter for over thirty-five different sports, over eight Olympic games. ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and Turner Broadcasting.

He is an author, he has contributed to the book ‘The Power of character’, he has compiled the book ‘Awaken the Olympian within’. I’ve had my copy for years, it’s a little bit worn but I’ve had it. He has also written ‘Eureka’ how innovation changes the Olympics and everything else. Volunteered for so many different charities. Look we could go and spend the entire time speaking about this man’s accomplishment but let’s just jump into it.

I am so honored to be able to welcome the legend, John Naber to ‘Keep On Pushing’.

DH: JN welcome.

JN: Devon thank you, I’m blushing over here from all that language thank you.

DH: [laughter]

  Now hey, the truth is the truth man, and we are inspired by you. I have been inspired by you for many years. So let’s go back to the beginning a little bit JN, I know you spent part of your early years in Europe, in Italy and England where you learned to play real football of course they call it soccer here. And cricket not the bug but the sport. [laughter]

DH: And then you move back to the US and at six foot six everyone thought maybe you should be playing basketball, that didn’t work out too well for you. How did you end up in the pool?

JN: Well to be honest with you I befriended a kid in algebra class. As you said I lived in Europe, I played cricket, soccer. But those sports were not sports that took place in America. So when I returned to the United States I had nowhere to go.

JN: I befriended the kid in my algebra class and he was the silver medalist at the Junior Olympics in swimming and he got his name in the local newspaper as a celebrity, he was the second fastest thirteen, fourteen year old backstroker in the country. And I befriended him, and when he borrowed some money from me, I asked for the money back and he sort of shrugged his shoulders. He ran to the locker room jumped in the pool I ran to the locker room and I jumped in the pool. And that’s how my swimming career really began. As a freshman in high school in Woodside California.

DH: Hmm-Hmm. So at thirteen was that considered late to be starting competitive swimming?  

 JN: Yeah I did start late compared to most, there are other swimmers who started equally late but it’s very rare. But I did get the most improved award three years in a row. [laughter]

DH: Yes! I read that, so did you find the learning curve steep or was swimming something that just kind of came naturally to you?

JN: You know it came very naturally, I am big handed, long lanky .My joints are very loose, my ankles are very floppy. I am built to swim and as they say proverbially I took to the water like a duck to water.

DH: Ah! So lanky, big hands you know limbs all over the place. So are you saying that’s why I don’t swim as well as you. [laughter]

JN: That’s it! That’s it!

DH: I am significantly shorter and small hands. The joints don’t work as well, but um —

JN: That’s the only reason you don’t swim as fast as me.

DH: Yeah well you know, probably. So when did the Olympics come on your radar?

JN: You know when I was living in Europe my parents took us on a Greek Island cruise on a little Mediterranean fishing boat or an ocean vessel. And we stopped in Olympia Greece, and on a tour of the ancient Olympic site the tour guide explained to me about this sportsmanship and character and the ethics being an integral part of the Olympic movement. And he talked about the ‘Hall of Shame’ there was a tunnel through which all the athletes who were about to compete would march into the opening ceremonies.

JN: And any athlete who ever got caught cheating had a statue carved in their honor placed in the hall of shame, made their hometown pay for it.  So if you were ever a cheater you were placed in the hall of shame and that was such a disgrace that nobody wanted to be caught cheating.  I told my mom there’s a sporting event called the Olympics were sportsmanship and fair play is more important than winning.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: I want to be an Olympian and she said really? What sport? I said I have no idea, but I want to be an Olympian before I found the sport of swimming.

DH: Right. 

JN: That was my first exposure next to the ancients Olympics, the modern Olympics games I first watched them on television in 1972 when Mark Spitz won seven gold medals. By then I was already a swimmer, I had actually competed in those Olympic trials and was close enough to begin thinking you know maybe I could be an Olympian too.

DH: Right.

JN:  Early as 1976.

DH: Awesome! So I know you speak a lot about investing in your dreams. What does that mean to you John?

JN: Well first of all, you got to have a dream. You got to have a fanciful desire, a wish, wishful thinking.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: Okay let’s call it that, wishful thinking. And in order to have that you’ve got to have a pretty creative imagination. Because the chance of winning the gold medal is less likely than the chance of winning the state lottery ticket.

DH: Yeah

JN: So you’re really not being realistic when you want to fancifully see yourself as an Olympic champion.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: But if you have that dream, that fancy then you can go along the rest of the process. I think kids you know have dreams about being firemen and astronauts and those dreams die far too soon, and there are many kids who dream about being an Olympian and they abandon those dreams sooner than they have to.

DH: Yeah.

JN: But Everyone who did to go on to become an Olympic champion held on to that same dream. Nadia Comaneci explains in the book you held up, how she watched Olga Korbut in 1972. And so Nadia stood on her couch and she stood as if she was receiving the gold medal and it reinforced the dream in her mind.

DH: Indeed.

 JN: Many of the Olympians I met had their dream of becoming an Olympian ignited by shaking the hands of another Olympian. When you meet an Olympian they’re relatively ordinary. I look at NBA players and I don’t relate, I look at NFL players they’re way too big for me. 

DH: Yeah.

JN: If you meet an Olympian they are usually shaped like you, they’re not much bigger than you. They’re not much smarter than you.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: But they just hang on to the dream and the ordinariness of their physique, their personality allows everybody to dream. And there’s a sport in the Olympics for everybody, you may not swim, I may not push bobsled but there is a sport for everybody. You can win a gold medal for standing still if you can hold a bow and arrow perfectly still right? 

DH: Right. It’s so true. It’s interesting that you brought up the word you know extraordinary or very ordinary because the Olympics came into my consciousness back in 1976, the Games we competed in, not because of you but a guy called Donald Quarrie; Jamaican who won the two hundred meter. He was way too short according to all the experts to win.

DH: But it was big news in Jamaica, three years later I was inspired to become an Olympian because I am watching ABC wide world of sports. One of your former network and they had a program called ‘Road to Moscow’ and they featured athletes from all over the world, different stories, sporting stories. They told sport stories about their lives and the thing that I took away from that JN was the fact that these people were very average and ordinary. But they had extraordinary dreams and an equally, equal desire. Extraordinary desire to realize those dreams and you’re absolutely right, you use the word fanciful over the course of these interviews you know.

DH: Every Olympian I have spoken to have used the word delusional, cause we have to be delusional, these dreams have to be fanciful to believe that you can be one of today six billion people on the planet to go to the Olympic games and even more so win a medal, um —

JN: Devon if I can interrupt for a second. 

 DH: Yeah, sure.

JN: Watch the Olympics on television there is always an interviewer at the finish line ready to ask the winner a question. And the question is almost always the same, you just won a gold medal how does it feel? And the answer if you pay close attention is almost always the same, most of the athletes say it felt like a dream come true.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: They use that very sentence because that’s what started the medal process, the fanciful dream. And you know what reality is pretty much what you hope it to be.

DH: Yes! Yes! And I guess part of the reason why we’re having this conversation, why I have this podcast is to encourage our listeners and you mentioned young kids who give up on their dreams of becoming a firefighter or whatever not to allow the reality to dash those fanciful dreams. But to become that firefighter or that accountant and then be able to say yes! It feels like a dream come true.

JN: Most people allow what I call temporary negative evidence to take their eyes off the dream.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: We were not born knowing how to ride a bicycle and if we decided to become cyclist at age two, we would say I can’t ride a bike therefore I got to give up.

DH: Right.

 JN: You realize that you can’t ride a bike now, but maybe in the future you could then all of a sudden you don’t let go off those dream quite so fast.

DH: Yes! That’s true, so I used to quote you a lot in my early days of speaking John and you speak about the fact that the Olympic athlete view each practice, each party unattended. Each distraction resisted as a price that they willingly pay. Because you have to pay the price before you receive the prize. Now we live in what I call a microwave society everyone wants success now, they want to build a overnight success right? 

DH: What advice do you have for people? How do you get them to embrace this Olympic ethos of paying the price before the prize?

JN: Well let’s begin with the fundamental lesson that sport teaches is the concept of delayed gratification. You want something really good you have to say no to the less good, in order to get the really good. And so you have to understand that all the best things come with a price. Some people refer to this as a sacrifice but it isn’t a sacrifice or rather let me rephrase that. 

DH: Yeah.

JN: The sacrifice is a wise exchange of alternatives, eating the hot fudge sundae and not losing the weight that’s not a good sacrifice that’s a bad price.

DH: Yes.

JN: Saying no to the extra dessert and looking good on your wedding day that was a good exchange. And so if we realize there are certain price that we must pay that are justified and are wise then all of a sudden that’s what I call the work. The hard work hours, you’re lifting a lot of weights

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: Nobody was cheering, nobody was watching. There were no camera crews there, you were paying a price. And I was doing the same swimming laps and that’s the price that we willingly pay. Coach John Wooden the basketball coach said his greatest assistant coach was the bench, because if an athlete didn’t try hard he would be put on the bench that would be his punishment.

DH: Right.

JN: You really want to be good being denied the chance to train is a punishment.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: If you think of it that way then working hard, training hard is not a punishment it’s an investment. And if you look at it as an investment it’s putting pennies in a piggy bank then all of a sudden that’s a good thing. You go without the penny today but with interest and over time compound interest all of a sudden you’re going to get a lot better result.

DH: Yeah. You are Absolutely right you know, I speak to kids all the time and it amazes me because you will have a kid in high school let’s say, who is a really good athlete and a terrible student. And I try to make that co-relation, I am like dude, I have trained all my life, I have often felt like I’m going to die. I have had you know, gotten injured and just totally exhausted. But I never felt that way picking up a book. 

DH: And it’s the same for us Olympians, the quiz that they get at the end of the week or the month or the semester in school, is very similar to going to the Olympics. It’s like a big quiz and you have to do the work before you get to the Olympics otherwise it’s way too late. You have to put the effort in your relationship or in the sales process as you speak about as well. The same way we as athletes do it.

JN: It’s interesting I was a student I was probably B plus student. I got  some good grades, but you can cram for the midterm the night before the test.

DH: Yeah

JN: You cannot cram for the Olympics the week before opening ceremonies —

DH: [laughter]

JN: You got to pay the price all along.

DH: This is true, you can probably do what we do as a Jamaican bobsled team and start you know four months before. But that’s also not an accurate reflection of the preparation. Yes it’s true that our team got started a few months before the Olympics and we’re learning this brand new sport. But what people don’t take into account are the many years, weeks, months, day we spent in Jamaica honing and developing our athletic abilities.

 DH: Our bodies and our minds to a certain extent. So someone could teach us the rudiments of pushing a bobsled and we could master that with all the years of applying all the years of training that we had done before in order to get to the Olympic games. 

JN: Yeah, you had spent decades building an athlete’s body and then that athlete could become a bobsledder relatively quickly. But even so you were not merely the best Jamaican bobsled team, you were one of the best how many bobsled teams in the world.

DH: Yeah this is true yeah. So it is amazing yeah you are right, the price must be paid before you receive the prize at the end. So it’s 1977 as you say in 1976 on one day you demonstrated that you were the best in the world at what you did. But the most important part of that process there were the skills that you developed along the way that you are able to use for that part of your life as well. Is that what you described as the gold medal process John? 

JN: The very best birthday cake recipe is not just flour, it’s not just sugar, it’s not just eggs, it’s not just cream. It’s a combination of a lot of different ingredients and are a lot of different ingredients that go into a gold medal. But in my experience they have to be taken in a certain sequence you have to have the dream first otherwise you won’t have the attitude or commitment which comes second.

DH: Hmm-Hmm. 

JN: Yeah, then you have to set a goal which comes third, and then you have to have a plan to reach the goal that comes forth. And then you have to break the plan into manageable bite size stepping stones that comes fifth.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: All those first five steps occurred in the privacy of my bedroom. 

DH: Yeah.

JN: When I first started swimming laps and lifting weights. Step number seven is overcoming adversity and then step number eight is delivering the goods under pressure.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: Delivering the goods under pressure. When I got to the Olympics the first seven steps had already taken place. At the Olympics I only had to worry about one thing and I knew I could break two minutes in the two hundred meter backstroke. I just didn’t know if I would break two minutes in the two hundred meter backstroke. That’s where the drama comes from.

DH: Yeah.

JN: We all know we are capable of a perfect performance, the question is will we deliver it at the moment of truth.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: That’s what makes the Olympics so exciting because the moment of truth only comes along once every four years.

DH: That is very true and if you have missed the boat then it’s another four years out least if you’re lucky to make the team again. Let’s go back to that last step you know being able to deliver when it matters. Because I think a lot of us whether it’s the Olympics for athletes or big sales call or I don’t know maybe that big proposal you want to ask her to marry you. 

 DH: A lot of us kind of mess up in that moment when we are suppose to deliver. What advice do you have for the sales guy who wants to really close this big deal?

JN: If you’re nervous before the moment of truth you are either under prepared or you have a self confidence issue. You can train your self confidence early in the season by challenging yourself to do certain things that other people are unwilling to try.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: You build your self confidence, I’m going back to the academic example if I took a semester midterm and was unprepared I would feel horrible walking into class.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: But if I had known that for months and I had known the material inside out, backwards and forwards I could walk into the classroom with my head held high with confidence. So you have to pay the price, the act of paying the price in advance should build the self assurance and the confidence. What many people don’t realize is that most Olympic games are won because the winner didn’t choke while everyone else did.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: And if you’re in the middle of a race and you’re feeling tired and you feel like you want to pull up, all you have to do is imagine what does your opponent feel? He’s also tired, he also wants to give up. So you then hang on and let him screw up his race and you’re going to coast to victory, well I don’t mean coast, but you’ll fight your way to victory because most Olympic victories occur before the starting gun. I believe if you do the right preparation in advance. 

DH: Yes, so when you were racing and you got on the starting blocks was there any nervous energy within you? I watch other athletes and you see them sitting there and they might make a big yawn, I know myself even in high school when I was so sure I was going to win [laughter] .  It was a nervous wreck until I was under the starters gun then there was no nervousness.

JN: Some athletes show a little bit of nervousness, I’m still nervous when I’m about to deliver a speech to a corporate group.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: Nerves are not a bad thing it’s good to have a little bit of butterflies in your stomach. It’s good because it makes you alert, it makes you awake and makes you aware . But I also believe that if you had done the work you shouldn’t feel over your head. 

DH: Right.

JN: You should feel like you belong here, now’s the chance but I have to get it right. There’s always going to be the possibility of a mistake and if you come in not even caring just sort of sloppily kind of wandering out you’re probably going to make a mistake. I was aware of what I was capable of I wasn’t keenly aware of what my East German opponent was capable of.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: I am thinking to myself ‘Hmm’ this might interesting. But if I only focus on my lane which is the only part of the pool that I can control.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: Then I can ignore him and if he’s faster than me then he deserves to win. right?

DH: Yeah.

JN: If his best race is better than my best race he deserves to win. And I would be happy to congratulate him as I did in my silver medal race when I was eager to congratulate the gold medalist for his first place finish.

DH: Yeah. You are absolutely right I mean there is always going to be a little bit of nervous energy and I describe it as your desire to want to do well. So if you had prepared yourself well, and you step into the arena whether it’s the swimming pool, the bobsled start or that conference room knowing that you are well prepared. The nervous energy is like “man I want to do well” and it’s the moment where you have to deliver as you say, and you kind of trust your training. Trust your preparation to get it done.

DH: So as you said gold medal process it starts with having a dream and going through all of those things that you do in private. In preparing and creating a plan. Talk to us a little bit about the plan, because a lot of people they have a dream and they don’t necessarily have a great plan, and things tend to go sideways.

JN: Well this is where a coach, a good coach is so important. Because a good coach knows what to do, a good coach can help give you the plan.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: He wont make them for you, but he can explain to you this is what you can expect. So you better do this much weight training, you better keep your diet under these many calories. You better compete in these events. Just wanting to win a gold medal is nice, but it isn’t a plan.

DH: Yeah.

JN: I needed to know how many yards, Where was the best race to swim? How many events to enter? Should I try to stretch for five gold medals? Or should I just retreat and focus on three races? These are the challenges that face all of the elite athletes and to be honest with you it’s not easy and that’s why the coaches deserve a lot of credit for what they do.

DH: Yeah. Awesome, so I know you competed in the amateur era John when athletes weren’t paid right? And so you had to tran —

JN: We weren’t allowed to be paid.

DH: Weren’t even allowed to be paid, you are absolutely right. You had to transition to what I am going to describe as the real world, in terms of pursuing income producing activities as it were, right? And in true Keep on pushing fashion you have made that transition, you were very successful as a commentator, as an author, as a speaker ,as a coach and so on. What advice do you have for athletes today? Actually not just for athletes but for anyone who is transitioning, they may be transitioning from one job to the next. 

DH: From an industry to the other, from a broken relationship to the next, and they want to get better at what they do. What advice do you have for them?

JN: The big epiphany I had to face upon retiring from swimming was the mental shift from a win lose mentality, in sport if I win you gotta lose.

DH: Hmm-Hmm. 

JN: If you win, I am going to lose. But in business or in life in relationships it’s got to be a win-win mentality. For me to get a lot of money I have to provide a lot of value, I have to give you something that’s worth the money you’re about to pay me. 

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: It’s not an adversarial battle but rather a cooperative way, how can we both benefit from this relationship? From this exchange? From this transaction? How can we both benefit? And I remember after retiring from my swimming career I realized I’d probably never be the best in the world at anything else right? 

DH: Ha!

JN: I might but it wasn’t likely, I didn’t have a dream to be the best mountain climber, the best businessman, the best lawyer. But then I said but how can I use what I’ve already accomplished to help bring value to my community? So I could explain the intricacies of the Olympic gold medal process to my viewers on television or to my audience and the crowd.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

 JN: And help them achieve their goals, now all of a sudden I’m delivering value. If I just show up to a Rotary Club or Kiwanis meeting and I talk about myself. I was born here, I did this, I like movies, I play games. This is what I did yada, yada, yada. That could be rather boring.

DH: Yes!

JN: But the moment I said now let me explain what I did in the pool and how it will help you sell more life insurance.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

 JN: All of a sudden my audiences ears perked right up, and they said this guy’s got something to tell me. And that’s when I began adding value and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

DH: Yeah, because you’re being relevant to your audience and it makes complete sense. In my keep on pushing philosophy one of the things that I speak about is learning how to use your existence, skill set and knowledge and experience and applying them to this ever shifting, changing environment in which we live in order to create new opportunities. And as you say bring value, when you do that you’re bringing value. You’re making yourself more valuable and you’re bringing value to the people that you’re meeting.

DH: Let’s jump back to 1976 John, because it was a very different world that we lived in then. I remember my first Olympics in 1988 which similar to 1976 in terms of the geopolitics right? I was a newly minted army officer and I was taught that everyone behind the Iron Curtain was evil, and here I am I am in the Olympic delivering the goods Village and I’m killing the pack man right? I’m still pretty good at pack man, I can’t do this stuff. [laughter]

DH: To my left is a guy from Poland, to right is a guy from East Germany. And it kind of dawned on me that they’re not evil, that we have more in common than readily meets the eye. They’re there to compete and be at their best for their country as I am. And we kind of suffer from the same…. similar human frailties and foibles What was your experience cause certainly 1976 the cold war was raging. Two Olympics later there was this big boycott.

JN: It’s hard to think of your role model as evil when I became an excellent backstroker my role model became the defending Olympic champion, a swimmer from East Germany name Roland Mathis.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: At the time the East Germans were on the other side of the iron curtain, and our politicians were thinking of them as evil.  I had a poster of Roland Mathis in my bedroom.

DH: Yeah

JN: I would read magazine about what workouts he did and what times he performed and I considered him a role model and kind of a hero to me. So when I got the chance to meet him I wanted to befriend him, I didn’t want to defeat him or humiliate him.

DH: Right.

 JN: And I think in one main way when I finally did push him off the top of the mountain it was in the USA East German duel meet in 1974 which was two years years before our Olympics. And I handed him his first loss in seven years.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

 JN: And he hugged me. He congratulated me in a warm embrace as if he knew how hard he had to work to get there. He was aware how hard I had to work to be there. I didn’t break his records so he was still the favorite at the next Olympics.

DH: Yeah.

JN: But I felt the sense of mutual respect, and in the Olympic village that’s one of the magical elements of the Olympics. You force these competitors to share a food service line or a video game.

DH: Yeah.

JN: They get to relate to each other as human beings. Once again every Olympian I have met is ordinary in their personality, but they’re extraordinary in their performance.

DH: Right.

JN: Now if you can separate the two, you can look at your opponent not as a villain. It’s like two kids wanting to see who’s the tallest they have to stand back to back and somebody has to measure right? 

DH: Right.

JN: There’s no good guy bad guy in that contrast, we are just trying to see who’s the tallest. The word competition comes from the Latin ‘Com’ meaning together and ‘Petition’ meaning to seek.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: A competition is where people come together to seek, to discover something. We’re going to find out who’s the fastest?

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

 JN: Who can jump the highest? Who is the strongest? And without your opponent there is no competition. If you don’t have the other guy trying to be beat you there’s no discovery involved. Your opponent is a partner in this journey of discovery and deserves our respect.

DH: You are absolutely right. The issues I find when we were in the Olympic village I describe it as Utopia. It’s almost as if the world shut out for sixteen days. It’s not just euphemism everybody is living as a brotherhood. And it’s this weird dynamic where we come to seek. We’re competing to be our best, to beat the guy in the pool or on the bobsled track, but at end of the day you’re still part of this brotherhood. For me the saddest part of the Olympic Games was when the flame is extinguished because it means Utopia has ended and it’s time to get back to the real world. How was that for you?

JN: In the closing ceremonies of the Montreal Olympics the music was composed by a native Canadian who wrote his own funeral dirge when he was a sixteen year old and that was the farewell music.

DH: Wow!

JN: We sang, we danced too. And I’m holding an Arab in my left hand and an Israeli in my right. And we’re dancing in circles and we don’t want the party to end.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: I agree with you, it was a sense of Utopia and there’s a sense of melancholy when the flame goes out the entire audience and every athlete heaves a sigh of sorrow. Like Oooh!!

DH: Yeah.

JN: Because the spirit in the village is one of the most empowering and over joyful experiences as I’ve ever had and I had never been back. I only competed in one Olympics, I’ve not been an Olympian in any other.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: I am always like the kid with his nose up to the fence looking in oh I wish I could be in there.

DH: Yeah

JN: I love it!

DH: And that’s a pretty amazing story so here you are at the closing ceremony in 1976 dancing with an Arab and an Israeli four years after the massacre in Munich. That again speaks to the power of the Olympic spirit.

 JN: Yeah and the sad part you may not remember this but there was an Olympic boycott in 1976 as well. Many of the South African countries, governments took their athletes out of the village they had already come in, they moved in when I was coming through the security entering the village for the first time there were South African athletes sitting on their luggage waiting for the train to take them back to the airport to go home.

DH: Hmm-Hmm

 JN: I had the chance to compete and when that happened to the Americans in 1980 I felt nothing but sympathy and a little bit ashamed that they had to be treated as a political pawns.

DH: Yes I forgot about 1976 you are absolutely right. Certainly remember 1980 and 1984.  I did not mention in my introduction John that you served as chairman of the Character count sports. An organization devoted to sports based character education, that teaches ethics, character development to schools, clubs and other community organizations. I know that you are certainly involved in a number of other volunteer organizations. Can you speak to us a little bit about your charity work? Your volunteering work? 

JN: Well sure character counts is a program in California that educates schools, police departments, politicians, on how to think about ethics and character. One example I would share is that if you think of cheating in the Olympics. And if we define gamesmanship as trying to win at any cost. Then we look at sportsmanship as trying to win on your opponent’s best day. I want to beat you don’t kid yourself about that, but I don’t want you to perform less than your best I want to earn the gold medal not just have the gold medal.

JN: The world of sport is a microcosm of teaching opportunities to educate people how to think about character and ethics. These are the lessons that are so clearly visible because they’re right in front of a video camera, we can take sports analogies and bring them to the corporate and educational community and it helps people think about character and ethics in a more powerful way. That’s merely one of the nonprofits in which I tend to volunteer.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: The Olympic movement because my era was completely amateur there was no retirement fund there was no prize money. There were no sponsorship or endorsements allowed and so the athletes from my era and before never really got rich off of their Olympic success.

DH: Yeah

JN: And as a result many of them are having a little bit of a hard time when they’re surprised by something negative– an accident, an illness, an injury. A natural disaster can do so much more damage to an athlete of that era and so we created the Olympians for Olympians relief fund to help, not solve their problems but rather to show sympathy and solidarity. To help them get through this difficult time. There’s a program in California called the Coroebus Foundation. Coroebus is the first recorded Olympic champion in ancient history 774 BC Coroebus of Elis wins a gold medal that’s the first name we know.

DH: Huh-Huh.

JN: We named a foundation after him and it provides training grants to Olympic hopefuls. So if you want to become an Olympian and your governing body says you’ve got a chance, then maybe we can help provide you a little bit of money and help get you along the way.The third program in California is called ‘Ready’ —

DH: By the way, is that just for US Olympic hopefuls.

JN: US Olympics hopeful who live in Southern California.  The OORF the Olympian Relief Fund is good for anyone who lives in the United States.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

 JN: Then there is the Paralympian as well we’ve included the Paralympians in the group. The third program is called ‘Ready, Set, Goals’ and it’s a program where Olympians are invited to adopt local, elementary, middle or high schools and visit them once a month for five months. And bring to those schools the message of sportsmanship, fair play, drug free lifestyle, healthy living. We refer to these as the Olympic ideals. And so we’ve got Olympians teaching deal  the Olympic deals to little kids and as I told you most Olympians I know began their Olympic journey when they shook hands with an Olympian.

DH: Yeah.

 JN: Shake a lot of hands with future Olympians. 

DH: That’s awesome. You mentioned the Olympic ideals you just spoke about you know fair play, what we see today in the Olympics, non Olympics sports and outside of the Olympics as well are people who are willing to bend the rule if not totally ignore them in order to win right? You know, in the business world people are fudging the numbers, misleading their clients. There’s a temptation always to win at any cost.

 DH: What advice do you have for Olympic hopefuls as well as just people in business and in life? Because it seems to me from that very first trip to Olympia this idea, this sense of fair play took hold in your heart. 

JN: Sure, I have noticed the incidents of cheating in the Olympics are commensurate with the increase and the rewards for victory.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: If you win a million dollars for earning a gold medal all of a sudden it’s a lot harder not to cheat.

DH: Yeah.

JN: And in the old days when it was a purely amateur sport and there were no financial rewards the incidence of cheating were less, they weren’t absent —

DH: Right. 

JN: They were less. Now here’s what I think, if we want to encourage our athletes to work hard and to keep on pushing we shouldn’t make the gold medal the only reward available. You shouldn’t reward a kid for winning you should reward him for doing the job as well as he possibly could.

DH: Yeah.

JN: The coach needs to know how fast is this kid capable of swimming? And if he swims that time and gets fit, he should congratulate the kid as if he just won the gold.

DH: Yes.

JN: And bosses, in the corporate world should know how much product can we legitimately sell? Is it good enough to convince the market to sell eight hundred units and make that a sufficient reward? Instead of saying if you don’t reach our stretch goals you’re fired.

DH: Yeah.

 JN: That’s where the system will design cheating because there is no alternative so we have to reward the best we’re capable of not only reward results.

DH: Yeah. And you are absolutely right. I speak and I use our example of our crash in 1988 and people will look at that and go well the Jamaicans fail. And look in pure sports terms we did, we didn’t cross the finish line we didn’t win so in that sense. But then you’re absolutely right, if you look at the performance that you were capable of. If you look at the journey that you made, we came from not knowing anything about bobsledding and in four months we are at the Olympics games pushing the seventh fastest start time.

DH: Now that sounds like success to me. And so I realize that in today’s world it’s a hard concept to grasp this idea that winning is not always about the final score. If your best swim time lands you on fifth place then it’s success. That’s what we should be embracing but people don’t want to and especially in the corporate world people get so caught up in one,the stock prices. Did the company meets it numbers or did it not? And that becomes a challenge and getting people to move beyond just those final results and this embrace this idea of fair play and growth. Not mediocrity but being satisfied for what your best performance is.

JN: I think many corporations put an emphasis on the stock price because many of the CEO’s or the executives in the C Suite get rewarded according to the stock price —

DH: So it’s kind of like a gold medal huh?

JN: Yeah! Exactly! Exactly!. There’s nothing wrong with the silver medal until you think you are capable of winning the gold. 

DH: True.

JN: Right?

DH: Yeah. Hmm-Hmm.

JN: In my silver medal event the two hundred meter freestyle I never thought I was capable of winning a gold or even a silver. So when I won the silver I was overjoyed, I was delighted!

DH: Yeah. Yeah.

JN: There are many other people who say oh it’s too bad he lost, but I didn’t feel that way because I knew what I was capable of —

DH: Right. 

JN: I exceeded what I was capable of and so somebody else is a little bit better then I’m happy to congratulate them.

DH: I’m glad you brought that up because I did look on those five medals, four golds, one silver, and wondered how you fell. I wondered if you were in line to win the gold and you just came up short but now you’re saying no that was like a bonus as it were.

JN: Well as you indicated I was the first Olympic swimmer in history to win two individual medals on the same day.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: There were only two men’s events, two women’s events and one relay every day. So the odds of a backstroker swimming in a freestyle race are  like the odds of a hurdler winning a medal in the shotput. 

DH: Right.

 JN: It’s rare. So for me to show up after winning the gold in the backstroke after defeating my East German hero Roland Mathis —

DH: Right. 

JN: Forty-Five minutes later I’m on the starting blocks of the freestyle event, an event that nobody ever put me on the medal sheet. Because they didn’t think I would win. And I led the race for one hundred and ninety-nine of two hundred meters. I was a pretty good swim.

DH: That’s a pretty good swim, that one last meter man [laughter]

JN: I don’t regret it at all —

DH: Yeah.

JN: I’m very happy with the outcome and I’m happy for the guy who won. And I should have been and the people who felt like I had failed they did not understand.

DH: Yeah.

JN: It’s easier to look at a swim race and say did he win? Than ask “Gee was John Naber capable of better than a 1:50.50?” I don’t know.

DH: That’s it, yeah.

JN: My coach knew I did a great job —

DH: Yeah.

 JN: He was very happy to congratulate me.

DH: And the thing too that I realize and it certainly is being highlighted in story that you’re telling us, is each of us have to define what success means for us. Because we want to define success as the world sees success, as opposed to dreaming this fanciful delusional dreams. But also knowing that once you have gone through what you described as that gold medal process, that eight step, recognizing where you actually are. And if that’s your best and you have given your best then you are to be satisfied because then there’s nothing more you could have done.

JN: I don’t say you should be happy that you didn’t win, that’s not the point.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

 JN: But you should be happy that you did as well as you could have done.

DH: Well absolutely I agree with that.

JN: If you didn’t do as well as you could have done, if I swam the two hundred meter freestyle in one minute and fifty-three seconds and got a silver medal I should have been disappointed in my performance. 

DH: Yes. Yes. 

JN: And if I won the gold medal going slower than I was capable of I should have been disappointed in my performance.

DH: I agree wholeheartedly there as well, I agree because being satisfied simply because you got to the top of the standings with a sub par performance suggests mediocrity to me. Suggests complacency and that is the super highway to failure.

JN: Can I give you an example?

DH: Sure.

JN: In the Olympic winter sport of snowboard halfpipe, Shaun White the ‘Flying tomato’.

DH: Hmm-Hmm.

JN: Every athlete does their routine twice and the highest score of any single run is the score they used to determine the winner.

DH: Hmm- Hmm.

JN: Well after his first run he had such a high score that nobody in their second run was able to beat him. Before Shaun White began his run down the mountain the second time he had already won the Gold.

DH: Yeah.

JN: That was guaranteed. And yet he still did the double twisting mic spin or whatever he did, gave the crowd a real thrill. He did a better score than he did in his first run even though it didn’t matter to the goal medal.

DH: Yes. Indeed.

 JN: Stacey Dragila won the first women’s pole vault in Olympic history.

DH: Yes.

JN: She had the goal locked up, she had eliminated all her opponents and yet she continued to jump because she felt she could do better. She tried to be the very best she could be and that’s what I think is an Olympic anecdote.

DH: And it is also the thing that embraces the Olympic values you know, we were talking earlier about a sense of fair play and not cheating and just doing your best. The Olympics really are about doing your best, so whether you’re winning the invent or not are you doing your best? And that’s something I’m hoping to pass on to all our listeners here, our viewers that even if you’re not at the top of the leader board on the sales team, the question is are you giving of your absolute best? And are you trying to improve? 

JN: And as a matter of fact the skills that you and I were both very very good at are skills that have limited value in society at large.

DH: Indeed.

 JN: Swimming quickly on your back nobody is willing to pay for that  —

DH: I can’t well be pushing a bobsled down the ninety-five [laughter]

JN: That’s right! so the skill that we did so well isn’t as important as learning the skills necessary to be really good at anything.

DH: Yeah.

JN: The skills you learnt as bobsledder of what you teach people to make them successful in any job, in any attempt. And that’s where the value of sport is not because it’s important to be able to throw a ball through a hoop. But it’s important to be able to learn how to get the most out of ourselves. 

DH: Yeah. Yeah. That is the keep on pushing philosophy and that is the gold medal process as well John. You are a legend man and I’m so honored to be able to spend this time with you, kind of picking your brain. Hearing about your experiences and how you have translated something that as you describe has very little value, swimming on your back really fast. Taking the skills that you have developed from learning how to do that and applying them to other areas of your life. And teaching other people how to do that as well, that is certainly an example for all of us to follow. I appreciate you for appearing on Keep On Pushing.

JN: Well it’s my pleasure Devon, you’re a gentleman and a role model to many and I encourage everybody no matter what they are trying to do, to keep on pushing.

DH: Indeed, I appreciate you John thank you so much.


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