I had a speech last week in Nebraska and before I caught my flight home, I made my way over to the US Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha to catch up with two of the greatest competitors on the planet. Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte have established in the pool what Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer had on the golf course or Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe had on the tennis courts. Anytime they are in the same event, all eyes are locked on the two best swimmers on the planet.
As most everyone knows, Phelps won an unprecedented eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics and will compete for seven more at the London games later this month. But Lochte has, by Phelps’ own admission, been “the best swimmer in the world over the last two years.”
In conversation during the trials and since, one thing has stood out to me: like the very greatest winners in most any walk of life, these two enjoy and respect their competition. And they both know that the reason they are achieving such super-human numbers is because they have the other pushing them!
As Phelps said that day when I was in Omaha: “I am swimming better times today that I did even in Beijing…and Ryan is a good part of the reason. I have a different energy when he’s in the same pool, even greater if he’s in the next lane. I bet he’d say the same.”
Too often in our hyper-competitive world we find ourselves despising those with whom we’re competing… I know I do on occasion. But the truth is that we are better when our competition is better. It is a fact of human nature that most of us achieve more when challenged.
Thinking of Lochte and Phelps – and the way they openly praise each other for the “push” each offers – made me wonder if I owe a competitor an email of thanks. I’ve never received an email like that so I’m not sure exactly what the etiquette is, but I’m going to write one before the week is out.
In London, Phelps and Lochte will compete against each other twice again. They will go goggle-to-goggle in the 200 and 400 individual medley races. Here’s hoping Olympic organizers put Lochte and Phelps side by side for all to enjoy!
Is there a competitor in your life or your work who has pushed you achieve? Join the conversation here!