Frank Ali started working at age ten in the San Juan market, selling celery from a little cardboard box at two for $1 to help pay for his schooling.
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Mastering the Commonwealth challenge
George Bovell III
With much trepidation I left my training base in Michigan, to compete in my first Commonwealth Games in Scotland.
Having missed the last three Commonwealth Games due to injury, I was almost superstitious that something would come up, preventing me from attending again.
In the past, this season of the four-year Olympic cycle had always been a struggle and as I headed to Scotland, I accepted that this year would be no different.
At my last competitive outing two weeks before, it became very evident that the previous year’s inspired enthusiasm had pushed me over the fine line between training hard and overtraining this season. Although I had gained tremendous endurance and was finishing races well, the blistering speed that defined me as one of the top 50m sprinters in the world was seriously lacking, replaced by stiff, sore muscles.
However with rest, it would return; but was there enough to recover before the Commonwealth Games?
I remember now the exact moment where it occurred to me that instead of looking at this as a chance for failure, I remembered that all pressure is actually self-imposed and I saw the Commonwealth Games as an opportunity for greatness.
The challenge that lay ahead was not going to be about swimming fast. That would merely be the result of successfully controlling every variable that was within my power to control.
The most important of these would be my mind. I resolved to consciously make every effort to think deliberately. All negative thoughts and doubts would be consciously censored and each positive assumption and realisation would be carefully nurtured over the remaining days leading up to my race.
The long sleepless flights to Scotland were uneventful, except, somewhere over the north Atlantic I remembered that it was now my birthday. I began this year of life agitated that I had forgotten to pull out my phone and attentively watch the seconds transition into years as was usually my custom, and at 12.04 am on July 18 I put my book down and meditatively immersed myself in cathartic contemplation about life and surrendered to a profound feeling of awe.
I checked into the spartan accommodation for the next ten days at Games Village, and changed into the red, white and black. In keeping with my intended pragmatic approach, I defied jet lag and dragged my exhausted, cramped body to endure a loosen-up swim that would hopefully untangle the knots tied in me from squeezing my six-foot-five frame into a tight seat for such a long duration. Next a dining hall birthday dinner and my first massage of the season before finally sleeping for 15 hours straight.
The looming start of the competition had the effect of transmuting the pleasant atmosphere of friendly reunion into an old familiar one of feverish nervous energy that was pervasive everywhere; from the pool to the dining hall, and even in my own room where my conscious awareness of it allowed me to counter it, and win the fight for relaxation and sound sleep. The days leading up to the competition blended together into a routine of recovery, preparation and fine-tuning that passed quickly. I focused on the notion that with each passing day I felt my natural speed and explosiveness returning.
Now, ahead lay the delicate art of mastering my energy, facilitating the deliberate lift of my emotional and physical energy levels high enough to match the intensity necessary for optimum performance in the final. I needed to control the pendulum swing; the lower the lows the higher the highs would be.
With a stern grip on my wandering mind, censoring my doubts and nurturing the positive, my warm-up race and the heats of the 50m freestyle were approached very conservatively, with as relaxed an attitude as possible, before working myself up into an epic pump of committed intense effort in the semi final that evening. An honest effort here allowed me to accurately gauge my tendencies, learning what small errors could be improved on in the final; the outcome of which depended on the attainment of the perfect balance between the two approaches used in those very different rounds of racing, the yin state of relaxed anxiety and the yang one of passionate, emotionally-charged forceful energy.
Despite lacking my initial speed as expected, and a disappointing result of fifth, the final was one of very-near-perfect balance, focus and skill.
That for the first time in my career arose solely through successful intrinsic mastery of the mental and emotional approach. In the past this had been the product of too many external factors that would swing me back and forth between the polar opposite extremes of excitement.
If this December, and the next two summers, this self-mastery combines with perfect preparation and peaking it will be something special. The benefits of experience.
You can follow George on Twitter at: @georgebovell
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