What Matt Grevers Learned
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
“The hardest I ever worked was in 2010. More dryland, running, lifting weights, as hard as I could. And I buried myself.” –Matt Grevers
OMAHA – Every year, a new crop of “number-one” ranked 10-year-old swimmers are unveiled. These are children who wear Harry Potter pajamas and read with 5th grade reading levels – because they’re in the 5th grade. They have shown that they are the best in the United States of America, and they could conceivably one day -- should everything work out -- aspire to Olympic proportions. Of these annually renewing gaggles of ranked male swimmers, only two men (whom I’m aware) who ever broke age group national records as 10-year-olds have made this Olympic team.
Michael Phelps, and Matt Grevers.
When Matt Grevers charged to the wall in the 100m backstroke, outstretching his six-foot-eight-inch frame through the waters of the CenturyLink Center in front of a record-breaking TV audience, he wasn’t just proving he could do it. He knew he could. Though Grevers suffered a self-admitted “downslope” in 2010 and 2011, the Illinois native and Northwestern graduate knew he could take the reins handed to him when Aaron Perisol retired. He knew he could break the Olympic Trials record. He knew he could come within a fingernail of Peirsol’s hallowed world record.
It makes you wonder – has he known this all along?
The thing is, most record-setting 10-year-old males don’t go on to do great things. Some quit. Some swim in college. A few win national titles. And just a few, at least at these Trials, become Olympians. That’s not to discourage kids. These are the facts. There aren’t enough Olympic roster spots to accept all record-breaking age group swimmers. While it’s a chicken versus the egg debate which is responsible – lofty expectations or just nature’s course – for why a kid doesn’t automatically go onto the Olympics, but there’s no doubt that Matt Grevers has faced lofty expectations and achieved success. Not easy to do. Even Michael Phelps stepped back post-Beijing.
With great power, comes great responsibility, comes, sometimes, great desire for reprieve.
When Grevers was a record-setting age grouper, he thought about quitting. He credits family, particularly his older brother Andy (now an assistant coach at Missouri) with keeping him going. Keeping him swimming. Keeping it fun. Eventually, Matt swam fast enough to earn a scholarship, win NCAA titles, make an Olympic team, earn gold and silver medals, and now, last night, swim the 2nd fastest time in history.
But, like any great story, it wasn’t easy.
“Living The Dream”
Immediately after Matt Grevers won the 100m backstroke last night, he bear-hugged his family. He hugged his brother. His coach, a guy he warmly refers to (and everyone else does, too) as “Rocket.” (Rick DeMont.) He fist-pumped the crowd. He had that huge, Gentle Giant grin of his. The crowd was eating it up. It was a very public display of happiness and good cheer. And while it might make for more interesting writing to transition into a dark, deeply disturbing story of “The Real Matt Grevers” – that’s really what he’s like. He really is that friendly, happy, and fun.
I should know. I swam with him.
A few years ago, I went to visit Matt. As a former teammate of Matt’s at Northwestern University, I was curious to see some of the things he was doing at his new training location, Tucson Ford in Arizona. So, I witnessed some of his practices. Then I hung out at Matt’s house. We had a BBQ. We hung out. Again and again, a similar theme kept coming up. Not of lactic sets or threshold paces or goal times. Nothing relating to actual “swimming” was discussed – at least with Matt. Again and again, the conversation was like this:
Me: “So things are going well?”
Matt: “Gus, I’m living the dream!”
Me: “Come on.”
Matt: “I’m serious! I love my life. I can’t say this enough. I love it.”
I assumed Grevers was referring to his financial boost since his Beijing exploits. Grevers was, at this point, a “professional swimmer.” After earning two Olympic golds and a silver in 2008, Matt properly secured his name among those who can live self-sufficiently on the perks that come with being a professional athlete. He had endorsements. He had contracts. He had speaking engagements. He had clinics. By no means was he a multi-billionaire, but he was comfortable. In a flick of a well-timed wrist four years ago in this same pool, out-touching Ryan Lochte, Matt Grevers changed his life, shocked the world, and paved his own path for a long and fruitful career.
And, I assumed, this financial security made him happy.
Except, in this sport, there’s really no such thing as “financial security” and a “long and fruitful career.” Veteran status is achieved by age 25. Retirement looms a few years later. There’s an intense pressure to keep the success going. You’re only as good as your last Olympics, right? Being a professional swimmer is like trying to get into one college in the country that only accepts applicants every four years, and -- oh yeah! -- you must ace the entrance exam faster than everyone else in the entire country.
Perhaps Matt understood this pressure, and perhaps felt this pressure, and perhaps that’s why he “buried himself” with too intense training in 2010. Dryland. Running. Maybe that’s why he kept “hitting his head against the wall.” Maybe Grevers had felt this pressure not just since 2008, but since he was a 10-year-old record-breaking swimmer on the north side of Chicago. Maybe Grevers has always felt this pressure, not necessarily externally, but internally. Maybe that’s why he had, what he referred to as, his “downslope” years.
“I have been on the downslope since 2010 and ’11,” Grevers said. “Swimming is a sport – I don’t know if anyone is going to fully understand – you think if you work hard that you’re going to be the best, the harder you work the better results you’re going to get, and that’s not the case.”
He adds: “The hardest work I ever worked was in 2010. More dryland, running, lifting weights, as hard as I could. And I buried myself.”
The Maturation of Matt Grevers
So what changed after 2010? What did he learn? What did he do differently? What are the magic secrets for the rest of us looking to replicate Grevers’ success?
He says: “It’s taken me ‘til 27 [to realize] that you can hit your head against the wall as much as you want, but until you start to think about things, that’s when it’s going to work.”
What “things” you ask? I pondered that too. Perhaps Matt was referring to training smarter. Swimming a lactic set better. Nailing his turns. Training with more focus. (And credit Rick DeMont for much of Grevers’ successes – he’s a fantastic coach.) But there’s more to it than that. Crediting tweaking in training makes sense, of course, and I’m sure that’s what he thinks he meant, but it’s not the whole story.
I believe the “things” Matt thought about is pretty typical for any 27-year-old to start thinking about -- Olympian or not. “Things” like marriage. “Things” like family. “Things” like settling down. Going out less. Enjoying quieter things. That’s not to say Matt goes to bed at 5pm after watching “Matlock” reruns. But I believe this:
The “things” Matt pondered were outside of the pool. Annie. Growing up. Growing older. Matt’s always been a big, caring guy, but something happens as you approach 30. You just start to change. I can’t explain it any other way. Happened to me. Happened to most of my friends. And I’ve seen it happen in Matt these past few years.
At 27-years-old, Matt Grevers loves his life – and he’s not afraid to show it. He loves his future wife – and he’s definitely not afraid to show it. He loves his family and friends and coaches and support team and everyone else inside the entire CenturyLink Center – and, as we saw last night, he’s not afraid to show it.
This love for others begets his success. The hugging, the fist-pumping, the jokes, the glee, the joy. These are not aftermath actions of a man who was celebrating his success last night. Those were the causes of his success. A philosophy. These were lessons how to live. Matt figured that if you hit your head against the wall to achieve success, all you’ll get is a bruised head. So, Matt adopted a different strategy:
Hug everyone. Fist-pump the sky. Make silly jokes. Smile.
To the 10-year-old record-setters (and kids of all ages): Want to become an Olympian? Or do you want to love your life?
Then follow Matt’s lead. He’s shown us how to do both.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance contributor with USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson.