If You Don’t Drown, You’ll Get Better - B.T. Polcari

If You Don’t Drown, You’ll Get Better

With the Tokyo Olympics in full swing, including the swimming events, it got me reminiscing to my high school days when I swam for my school. It also got me thinking. Competitive swimmers and serious writers have very similar mental makeups. I understand the same holds true for competitive athletes in general, but I know firsthand what top swimmers go through on a daily basis.

State of the art pool at the Tokyo Olympics, 2020. Image c/o SportingNews.com


I have vivid memories of driving at five-thirty in the morning with my teammates to the Rockville Municipal Swim Center or Montgomery College for a brutal two-hour practice. It was always dark and no cars were ever on the road. I was a teenager who valued his sleep, but there I was in what seemed like the middle of the night, crammed into a buddy’s VW beetle with no heat in the dead of winter on our way to what could only be called a torture session. And after practice, too many mornings to count, I would leave the swim center with a stocking cap on my head and any wet hair sticking out from underneath would freeze. Freeze.

Then it was off to school for a full day of classes. That first period was not fun.

Yet we did it. Over and over.

Fortunately for us, it was only three times a week. For some of my teammates who were highly competitive AAU swimmers, All-Americans, and a few Olympic qualifiers, they did this routine every day of every week for years. In other words, they were dedicated to getting better. There is no other way to put it. They also believed in themselves.

How do I know this?

Not just were they my friends, but to put yourself through a swim practice even three times a week is tough. To do it daily with no end in sight, that takes serious commitment and dedication.

To put this in perspective, in our high school practices (not AAU), we easily swam over 150 laps, sometimes in 50-yard sprints (that’s right – yards), other times we were swimming 100-yard sprints, 200-yards, and more. And always in sets of 5-10, depending on the length.

Holding us accountable was a big pace clock on the wall. Every time the sweep hand hit the designated number, it was off the pool’s wall to churn out another rep. It was unrelenting.

I hated that clock.

The trick was, the faster you finished a rep, the more time to rest before starting the next. Unfortunately, as you neared the end of a set, you slowed down. Because you’re tired. But that dang clock didn’t care. Same for Coach.

I remember there were times near the end of a set when I finished a rep, I glanced up at the clock, and realized it was time to start the next. No break. And you had to get going because the clock kept on ticking and you didn’t want to fall behind in the set. Because once you were behind, you were done. Kinda like going up a down escalator. Then throw in the occasional leg cramp that paralyzes you in the middle of the pool, and you get the drift.


But the payoffs were as sweet as the practices were diabolical. Winning a race – nice. Winning a meet – nicer. Winning our county championship – party time.

There were days I loved swimming. And there were days I hated it. But I pushed through because I knew that was just part of the process and if I kept at it, I would achieve my goals. And then set new ones, because you have to keep raising that bar.

Michael Phelps' Sports Illustrated Cover, 2016

If anybody thought Michael Phelps just showed up at the Olympics and collected his gold medals and world records, think again. Every swimmer you watch in the Olympics has put in some serious work. For many, just making it to the Olympics is a lifetime achievement. For others, their ultimate goal is to medal. And for the best of the best—gold. With each rung up, talent comes more and more into play. But they all put in seriously hard work.

In writing, hard work means consistently putting in the time honing your craft. You need to schedule in time for writing. Every week. It cannot be on an ad hoc basis. And then during these scheduled writing times—write. Don’t waste precious time shopping on Amazon or playing on your phone or going out on the Internet to see what’s happening. We’re all guilty of it, especially on those tough writing days. Just stay disciplined.

I have stacks of papers just like these in my office. To me, they are a visual reminder of what it takes to succeed.

There will be days where the words flow effortlessly and when you shut down for the day, you have a complete chapter written. And there will be days when you bang your head against the desk to scratch out a couple paragraphs or pages. Some editing sessions are awesome and you come away with a real sense of accomplishment. Other days, more head banging as you grind through scrubbing out countless looks, nods, and head shakes, among other words that creep into your writing.

Just like the dang pace clock that tormented me years ago, you need to be unrelenting, too. The key is to keep at it on a daily basis, even for just an hour or two. If you do this, in time you will see yourself getting better. And your queries to agents and publishers will start getting nibbles. Requests will start coming in for partial or full manuscripts. And one wonderful day, an agent or publisher wants to sign you.

But while you’re waiting for responses, you need to get off that pool’s wall and keep writing. Don’t fall behind your own pace clock.

The bottom line—there’s always a payoff for hard work. Always. You just don’t know when it will come, but I assure you, one day it will happen. It’s about self-belief. Dedication to getting better. Commitment to one’s self. Perseverance.

So get off that pool’s wall and get at it.

Have a terrific day.