Going into Canadian Olympic Swim Trials in 2008, Stefan Hirniak was in the best shape of his life. He was the fastest Canadian so far that year in the 200-meter butterfly and at Trials, he was seeded first going into finals.
Then, it occurred to him:
"Holy crap, it's all on me to make the Olympic Team."
Once that doubt started to seep in -- through a crack Hirniak didn't even know existed -- he couldn't stop the hemorrhaging. He ended up fourth, missing the trip to Beijing.
Hirniak regrouped and got back in the water, but he couldn't shake the qualifying-meet jitters. It happened again the next year, at World Championships Trials. And the next, at Pan Pacific Games Trials.
"That was three Trials in a row I hadn't made a team in my event and I was the Canadian record holder," he says.
If Hirniak was going to have a shot at swimming's holiest of grails -- the 2012 Olympic Games -- something needed to change.
"I thought, 'I'm not nervous when I get to the big stage, so what the hell's going on when I have to make the meet?' So, I went back to the drawing board."
That process of reassembling his mental framework -- what he calls "training for second nature" -- has formed the backbone of Hirniak's preparation for Olympic Trials, which start March 27 in Montreal. It seems, so far, to have paid off. At World Championship Trials in 2011, he says, "I wasn't worrying about anyone else and I was swimming my own race, knowing no one could beat me." He was right -- he won by almost a second and a half.
About the meet starting in two weeks, he speaks with poise and confidence. And he should -- he's seeded first by 1.6 seconds. That amounts to about two meters, or a full bodylength. In a 200-meter race, that's a commanding margin.
But Hirniak knows only too well that there's no such thing as a shoe-in. Anything could happen, and sadly, anything already has happened to him.
Confidence on race day is born of faith. Faith is the product of belief -- in oneself, in one's coach, in the program one's implementing every day. On the other hand, as Hirniak explains, "If you second-guess the program, you're going to second-guess yourself in the race." That is, if you're practicing doubt every day, doubt is what you'll be left with when the knife blade of competition pares everything else away.
Doubt and a lack of confidence were not things that weighed on Hirniak prior to his move to Canada in 2007. Born to Canadian parents and raised in New Jersey, Hirniak began succeeding in the pool at a young age. That success eventually earned him a scholarship to the University of Virginia, where, under heard coach Mark Bernardino’s tutelage, Hirniak learned a philosophy of physical domination.
"At UVa," Hirniak explains, "the mentality is, 'We go harder than you and longer than you, and when it gets to the race, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done because I’ve trained harder and I’m going beat you.'"
This philosophy paid off, propelling Hirniak to the NCAA championship meet all four years and earning him nine All-ACC and ten NCAA All-American honors.
Then, taking advantage of his dual citizenship, Hirniak moved to Victoria, B.C., to pursue his Olympic dream as a Canadian. The switch seemed easy enough, at first. "When I decided in 2005 to swim for Canada,” Hirniak says, “I came out and met Randy [Bennett], and I fell in love with the West Coast and Victoria. That was an easy road for me to take."
But the transition proved to be rockier than Hirniak had imagined. For Victoria Academy of Swimming head coach Randy Bennett, training isn’t always about how many yards you swim and how hard you swim every single one. As Hirniak describes it, "It's how perfectly you can do every stroke, how perfectly you can do every turn and how well you can swim on race day. I would tell Randy, ‘I’m trying, I'm trying,' and he would say, 'Obviously you're trying. I can see that. But are you doing it correctly? Are you doing it well?'"
Hirniak found it hard to give up the pursuit of perpetually increasing his pain tolerance, and he was always asking [Bennett], 'Are you sure?' That insecurity, coupled with a lack of communication between Hirniak and his new coach -- a common occurrence when athletes first switch clubs -- led to such a lack of confidence at the 2008 Olympic Trials that UVa's Bernardino told him afterwards, "I've never seen you that nervous before. You were white in the face."
Hirniak says he realized that he "didn't know what it was like to just swim for myself." This is a crisis many collegiate athletes face when they decide to continue their careers after they graduate. Once you’re no longer wearing your alma mater's colors, when the support group that allowed you to train and race so well for four years is gone, suddenly "it’s all on your shoulders."
Swimming makes it worse. There's so much isolation that if you’re not practicing confidence every day, personal review and reflection can grow morbid.
"That's one of the things that a lot of swimmers struggle with," Hirniak says. "You spend so much time in your own head that it's easy to talk yourself out of things."
Bennett, however, had a plan for how to calm Hirniak’s over-productive mind. He approached Hirniak one day at practice and asked him, out of the blue, to walk him through his 200 fly, stroke by stroke. Where would his hands be? His feet? What’s his breathing pattern going to be? How many strokes is it going to be to the wall from 15 meters out?
"He put me on the spot and I couldn't do it. I had no idea," Hirniak says. "And the fact that I had no idea was crazy."
Race visualization can be time-consuming and is far from universally valued. Many people feel they don’t need it, and some of the world's best simply get up on the blocks and race. But those that have delved into the process and developed it as an aspect of their training consider it imperative. As Hirniak says, "How can you dive in and expect something to be second nature if you can't go through it in your mind?"
Research undertaken by a variety of physiologists and sports medicine doctors, both in the lab and in (or, on) the field, shows that mental rehearsal causes the brain to mimic the processes that occur during actual physical activity. When Hirniak sits with his eyes closed and imagines swimming a 200 fly, his autonomic nervous system responds in much the same way (just to a lesser degree) as it does when he hops in the pool and swims one. Although you can’t practice swimming a world record every day, you can train your brain -- and thus your body -- to anticipate every last aspect of that world record swim simply by visualizing it.
Working with a sports psychologist, Hirniak has gotten to the point where, "Someone says ready-go and I can close my eyes and do a 200 fly, picturing every stroke, and get within five seconds of where I want the time to be."
This is the working definition of second nature: when Hirniak finally dives in later this month to swim that race, his brain will know exactly what it's doing. The idea is that because his brain's been there before, every stroke of the way, his mind is less likely to overflow with doubt -- or better yet, admit any doubt at all.
Race visualization is much like any other kind of mental rehearsal or routine, and people benefit in many of the same ways that they do from awareness or mindfulness meditation. Part of reducing nervousness immediately before and during a race is minimizing the influence of negative thoughts, getting the overactive mind out of the way and letting the body do what it is perfectly prepared to do. The best way to do this is by increasing your focus on the present. That frees an athlete from the what-about-this, what-about-that anxiety that crippled Hirniak in 2008.
"If you can overcome that and really just live in the moment," he says, "then everything that you're doing will change you as a person. I've become a more observant person. I know that I have the capacity for hard work and dedication."
These days, instead of wondering whether he's dong the right kind of training, Hirniak spends those meditative hours in the pool wondering just how far his training can take him. “Obviously you can do things in team sports that have never been done before, but in sports where training is the main focus – cycling, running, swimming, rowing – it’s a different kind of one-on-one mentality. I ask myself a lot, ‘How far can you actually go? What’s the limit?'"
This line of questioning inevitably brings Hirniak back to one of his most poignant motivators, and something he couldn't let the interview end without mentioning. Fran Crippen, who drowned swimming in a 10K open water race in October 2010, was Hirniak's teammate and close friend for three years at UVa. They faced the same disappointment at their respective Olympic Trials in 2008, and relied on one another afterwards for support. The two talked often over the course of the following fall, Hirniak says, and "Fran asked me if I still loved it, if I still thought I could be better. Those conversations helped me decide to keep swimming, that I hadn't reached my potential."
Watching Crippen return to form helped Hirniak manage his own disappointment and inspired him to reach his goals. Crippen was known among his friends and within the swimming community for an unmatched zeal for the sport and a love for the life it afforded him. "One of the things that has carried over into my swimming is that passion," Hirniak says, "to wake up every morning and put your feet on the floor and know that you’re doing something that you love."
Crippen was looking forward to the London Games when his life was so tragically cut short, and carrying on his legacy is something that Hirniak derives a lot of strength from. "It's pretty awesome," Hirniak says, "to try and live a dream we both shared."
Hirniak's faith has required a lot of effort to develop. The ironic thing about sports philosophies, though, is that as important as they may be to someone’s training, there’s no place for them on race day. You do all this mental work, day after day, year after year, for the express purpose of not having to think at all when it comes time to race.
Hirniak believes he's ready to let his body do what he's proven it's capable of doing -- get him to London. "I feel like I have it under control," he says. "I'm trying not to get too excited, but just to go in, do my job and get out of there."
That’s a far cry from "Holy crap ..."
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