We never really know how strong we are until we have been tested. I am not just referring to strength in terms of our capacity to exert physical force but also in terms of our fortitude of will.
It is possible to look at someone and roughly gauge their physical strength, but one should never make the mistake of attempting to predict mental strength or toughness by outward appearance.
Sometimes the greatest of mental strength can be embodied by the most diminutive of physical statures. If asked to define our strength, we do so by referencing physical feats that we have accomplished up until the point that we have failed. Right now, today after training, I know exactly how physically strong I am. However, when it comes to mental strength and toughness, our capacity to endure is almost limitless, and unlike physical strength, no matter who you are, how old you are or how physically weak your current state, you can ALWAYS get tougher!
We all have heard of heroic stories of survival against all odds and marvelled at them while secretly wondering “hmmm, if that was me, would I have made it?” Aside from luck, what is that other ingredient that makes the tough so mentally strong? I hope you can take a few minutes to explore the concepts of mental fortitude, toughness and survival with me below.
Perhaps the reason why we are captivated by such incredible accounts of survival is that subconsciously we too are seeking the secret to toughness.
I grew up fascinated by books based upon true stories of legendary survival and indomitable will. Immediately such works as Henri Charriere’s Papillon and the account of Ernest Shackleton’s return from the Antarctic with all his crew in a small life boat come to mind. Ironically, so does Ernest Hemingway, the classic man of action, who extolled toughness and courage as the crowning virtues in most of his works. I loved his motto of “above all, endure” which sadly lasted him until he could endure no longer.
Earlier this month, Jose Salvador Alvarenga, above all else endured. He was a fisherman from El Salvador who was rescued in the Marshall Islands after drifting across the Pacific Ocean in a journey that lasted 13 months, surviving on turtle blood and his own urine.
Maybe the books I was reading at the time helped me, as I remember in my teenage years swimming over 100km per week at times of the season, and not thinking twice about it, except being proud of the fact that all ten workouts were over 10km and knowing that not too many others were doing that: Just one stroke after another, up and down that lonely black line during those cold 5 am morning practices before school. I guess there are a lot of miles on this engine. Looking back now, we were motivated because we chose to believe that by grinding that hard we would ensure our success. Maybe it helped, maybe the opposite, but we sure were tough.
Swimming is a difficult and at times lonely sport that extols toughness as a virtue.
The ability to outlast and out-endure a rival, giving everything to temporarily sustain an unsustainable pace, while striving to make it look easy and effortless in order to break the will of opponents either in long practice sets or races commanded respect on the pool deck.
It was for that reason that my friends and Auburn University teammates drew a “Hammer of Justice” on my bicep to pump me up right before the Athens 200m IM Olympic final in which I won the bronze medal behind Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
Today my personal hero who actually helped me win that medal was my friend, training partner, teammate and college roommate at the time, Eric Shanteau. Eric watched that race on TV after narrowly missing the team by placing third at the US Olympic trials in two events that summer, one of which was the 200m IM (in swimming only the top two qualify).
Eric was a somewhat tall young man of a very slight build that you might have described as skinny, but he was probably the toughest person I have ever met; a man with an indomitable spirit. We endured many epic battles in gruelling training workouts that made us both better. One of the things I am most proud of in swimming is having been part of the first class along with three other swimmers to ever go undefeated in their NCAA University sports career. On two occasions when all the pressure was on, Eric Shanteau clinched victory for us from the seemingly certain jaws of defeat to preserve our perfect record.
I knew that Eric was of an unusually tough constitution, but four years later in 2008, everyone found out just how tough when he was really tested. Once again he was an American Olympic team contender. However, in the buildup to the Olympic trials Eric was diagnosed with cancer. He decided to swim the trials anyway. He intended to go to the Olympics. Believe it or not, Eric Shanteau made that team. Everyone told him to forget the Olympics and have the surgery. However, despite the pressure and stress, he competed in the Olympics. When the Beijing Olympics were over and while the world was more interested in Kim Kardashian’s love life, Shanteau had surgery, beat cancer, then returned to the sport to break world records and win a medal at the World Championships the following year. The truly tough people seem to make it look easy. This unsung hero, as humble as he is, probably wouldn’t enjoy this attention, but I hope he serves through this to inspire someone to hold on.
While I was lying low at home, recovering from a brain injury in the fall of 2011, a friend sent me a very pertinent book, “Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl. Frankl was a psychiatrist and neurologist who in 1946 wrote a harrowing account of his survival at the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust.
In this book, he was able to clearly convey to the reader from his first-hand perspective his theories about why some people chose to survive while others gave up and perished. The main tenets of his work called Logotherapy, were that finding a reason to survive, choosing to believe in that reason, and in a meaning for one’s life, no matter how miserable the existence, was the most powerful motivating force for survival. In his account, the people who gave up and stopped fighting had relinquished their belief in their reasons to keep going. Frankl also believed that when people become absolutely disenchanted because of a feeling of overwhelming powerlessness when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering they are still free to determine their attitude towards the situation and seek a meaning in it. Perhaps Frankl’s Logotherapy is the source of that indomitable spirit and mental fortitude so eloquently embodied in this verse of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem entitled “If.”
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve you turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing left in you
Except the Will which says to them hold on!”
On a long enough timeline, we all will be tested, and I hope that when we face our test, we can all find the correct attitude for our fight; an unwavering belief in our struggle and the reasons why we need to pull through that will give us the mental strength to pass with flying colours and make it look just as easy as Shanteau did.
George Bovell @georgebovell