Dear Coach Kelly: FAQ

I’ve fielded numerous requests from swimmers over the years to be interviewed for school projects. Here are my answers to some of the most frequently asked interview questions….

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Why do you think that the Paralympic Games are important?

The Paralympic Games are important because they are the Olympics for athletes with disabilities. In the same way that the Olympics give the general population an ideal to strive for, the Paralympics do as well. This is particularly powerful for people who might be in a life situation where it’s hard to imagine that they can lead happy, fulfilling, active lives. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine discovered the Paralympics when they were in rehab for a life-changing injury or illness (they were paralyzed in a car accident, or they had a limb amputated because of cancer, for example), and they had the thought, “Shoot, if that person who looks like me can still ski, then I can get out of this bed and do something productive.” Injury and illness are not life-ending events, and that is on display in a powerful way during the Paralympic Games.

For me personally, it was extremely hard to come to terms with the realization simply because I was born with a funny little arm, I would not be afforded the chance to even TRY to make the Olympic swimming team. Missing part of your arm is a huge disadvantage at the elite level – and I felt excluded. At least, that was my train of thought when I was in high school and college. So I appreciate that the Paralympic Games gave me an outlet for the part of me that wanted to train and compete in fair races at an elite level.   

It was decided by the IOC and the IPC that the Paralympics would continue up until the year 2020. Why do you think that they should, or should not continue?

The IOC-IPC agreement – I can tell you did a bit of research. Good job. This is a really important piece of information in the history of the Paralympic Games.

So, the agreement between the IOC and the IPC is often called the “one city, one bid” agreement, and it states that countries will bid to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games together. Cities cannot turn in a bid for the Olympics that ignores the Paralympics. The agreement expires in 2020, and it is not guaranteed that it will continue. (Currently, the IOC is considering bids for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, so it seems likely that the Games will be run in conjunction at least until then. Interestingly, Los Angeles is one of the five or six cities in the international phase of that competition.)

My opinion is that the agreement will be extended, given the current trend of decreasing Olympic viewership (the number of people who watch the Olympics on TV is going down globally) and increasing Paralympic viewership (the number of people who watch the Paralympics on TV is going up globally).

Like virtually everyone in the Paralympic movement, I feel very strongly that the IOC-IPC agreement should be made permanent. The Paralympic Games in London proved that the Paralympics are capable of bringing in just as much revenue as the Olympic Games, if not more. The public demand for tickets and media coverage is there. (Why the Paralympic Games are not on TV in any meaningful way in the US is another story for another time!)

Plus, maintaining the “parallel” relationship of the Paralympics to the Olympics is, to my mind, the best way to live out the Olympic creed: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”  

During what year(s) did you compete in the Paralympics?

I competed in the 2004 Paralympic Games (Athens) and the 2012 Paralympic Games (London).

In what sport categories did you compete in?

In Athens, I competed in swimming. In London, I competed in cycling, both the road and track events.

Was it difficult to train for your competition? Was it ever stressful?

Yup. Training is physically and mentally draining. Only a handful of athletes on the Olympic side, and virtually no one on the Paralympic side can make money doing their sport. Being an adult (out of college and responsible for my living expenses) meant that I had to juggle work on top of 20 or so hours a week of training. Every year there was a point where I thought, “Okay, this is the time when I will go bankrupt trying to reach my sport goals!” But then something would happen and it would work out.

On top of that, very early on in my cycling career, I was hit by a car from behind while I was out training. After that I frequently had to battle a lot of fear and stress related to car traffic on the routes I would use for training. So many drivers are looking at their phones or talking on a call, and they are not paying one iota of actual attention to the road. There have been hundreds of times – literally hundreds – when I saw a distracted driver and probably avoided being hit again only because I was paying attention, saw the danger, and moved to protect myself. Being a professional cyclist is the most stressful thing I have ever done! (If you ride your bike to school, I really recommend you take a street skills course so you can learn to ride defensively.)

What sacrifices did you have to make to be able to compete?

I went into my career thinking that in order to be an elite athlete I had to make incredible sacrifices, that I had to give up everything else to pursue my sport goals. That was a mistake; initially, I believed too much of that part Olympic mythology. All athletes, but elite athletes in particular, need to be well-rounded people. They need to spend time with their friends, they need to be near their families, and they need to have interests and hobbies and career interests and goals outside of sport. The concept of sacrifices as a pre-requisite to success is seriously overblown. That said, you do have to make sport a priority most of the time. 

Did you ever think about the other competitors and how they performed? If yes, how did you overcome those thoughts, and think only about your performance?

It’s only natural to think about your competitors. It’s really easy to get caught up in wondering what they are doing in their training, or worrying about that person who always beats you and wondering if you will ever get the upper hand. But in the end those thoughts are self-defeating. So when they come up, you have to let them go. Sometimes, especially when you start training your mind to do this, you have to let go of comparison thoughts every couple of seconds! Eventually, it gets easier.

I found it useful to think about whether I have any control over a competitor. Obviously, the answer to that is: no. And I eventually learned that spending any extra time thinking about how to control another human being was a waste of my time and energy. My time and energy was better spent taking care of things I DO control: such as what I think about and focus on, how I train, how I compete. Once I did that, my performances in training and competition were an order of magnitude better.  

What health choices did you have to make? Was it difficult to commit to them?

The biggest choice I made related to my health was to commit to sleeping a lot. In order to get to bed at a reasonable time I had to do things that were very hard: no looking at screens after dinner. No email, no games on my iPad, no social media. I had to turn my phone on silent so that I wouldn’t hear my text message alerts if after 9pm – that was my bedtime. I also had the luxury of being able to let myself wake up whenever I woke up. No alarm clock! I would also make time for a nap at some point in the day, even if it was only 15 or 20 minutes. Eventually, after a couple of weeks, I realized that I was training better because I was sleeping so much, and then it didn’t feel like a sacrifice at all.

How did you feel right before your competition(s)? Nervous? Excited?

I always get nervous before racing. At first I used to think this meant that I was going to make mistakes and mess up my pacing. But after a while, I figured out that being nervous was good. It meant that I was going to have the energy I needed to compete, and it meant that I was excited. So then all I needed to do was channel that energy in the right direction. In the weeks and days and hours and minutes before the race, I used the nervous energy to visualize my performances. As long as I am just competing and not thinking, the instant the race starts, there are no nerves. Just racing. That part I loved.

How would you say that the Paralympics changed your life?

I am mentally stronger and more confident. Ten thousand times more so. The hardest but most important thing I learned in my decade of being a professional (but mostly unpaid) athlete is that adversity is GOOD. Adversity creates opportunities for us to grow and change and become stronger. And if you can take on hard things with that kind of attitude, it’s maybe not actually easier, but the adverse circumstances often feel less awful.  

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