Thank you Teen Vogue for publishing my article: “How a Swimming Lesson From Olympian Markus Rogan Changed My Life“
Brighter Sides is a series reflecting on the resilience, community and hope that lit up a very dark year. In this op-ed, Lisa Niver explains how a swimming lesson from Olympian Markus Rogan changed her life outlook.
Like much of the world, the tiny community pool near my house had been closed since March because of COVID-19. Although swimming had terrified me growing up, it became a solace later in life and when the pool reopened with strict rules, including restricted access to 10 people per hour, I was ready to get back in the water. While most of my friends were taking the edge off quarantine with unhealthy habits, I was determined to drown my discontent in the chlorine.
I was almost at the end of my allocated pool time one day when I noticed a man swimming butterfly. Even if the pool had been crowded, it would have been hard not to notice him based on his height or the fact that you could clearly do a lot of laundry on his washboard abs. We had met briefly once before when I’d chatted with his four-year-old son about his Buzz Lightyear lunchbox. The man’s technique was perfect, even mesmerizing, and I remarked, “Wow! You have a great stroke!” Another dad nearby graciously let me know that this was not a coincidence. The man was Markus Rogan, two-time Olympic silver medalist. He had twice been the world record holder in backstroke, and earned more than twenty medals including the United Nations Medal of Honor for Civil Courage.
Rogan looked up and asked me, “Do you swim fly?ADVERTISEMENT
Butterfly is a notoriously difficult and exhausting stroke that requires the swimmer to use the dolphin kick while moving their arms in a windmill-like motion, in unison. It was one that I was fairly certain my body would never be coordinated enough to attempt.
“No,” I shook my head. “I only swim crawl and backstroke.”
I had a brief flashback to high school when I’d watched another Olympian, Dara Torres, swim the “fly” at Westlake School for Girls, which we both attended. Dara competed in five Olympic Games from 1984 to 2008, winning a total of 12 Olympic medals.
The demonstration was meant to inspire us, but I blinked and felt nothing except despair because I knew I could never swim like her. She seemed twice as tall as me, was in incredible shape, and it would be an understatement to say that I was not an athlete. I mentioned to Markus that I had seen Dara swim, and he told me they were friends. Then he looked directly at me and said, “You are going to have a lesson now.” He was smiling, but it didn’t feel like an invitation. It felt more like a command that I needed to obey. After all, who says no to an Olympian?
I hesitated, full of self-doubt, but then looked around and realized there were only eight other people at the pool, including his wife and two young children. It was unlikely that anyone was paying attention and I felt confident that he wouldn’t let me drown. Further, there were only 10 minutes left in my swim hour, so my humiliation would be brief.
Markus then showed me his fly stroke, swimming across the shorter width of the pool and quickly reaching the other side. After this demonstration, it was my turn. I had never tried butterfly before, and I expected the timing of moving all my body parts to be awkward and challenging. I listened to his suggestions, however, and surprised myself with a decent effort. Even though I was hardly a natural, I had not been as clumsy with the stroke as I’d anticipated.
Markus said I did well and encouraged me to try swimming the length of the pool next. Knowing I only had a few minutes left, I took a breath and started to swim. As the bottom sloped away below me, I was overtaken by the fear that I would not be able to keep myself afloat. I stopped abruptly as it got deeper and blurted out, “I knew I couldn’t do it.” Markus replied that I should stop with the negative self-talk, take a deep breath and try again.
Back at the edge of the pool, I wondered how I had ended up with an Olympian-turned-swim-coach who resembled one of the “JB’s:” Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne and James Bond. The men who say, “Come with me if you want to live.” It is not a discussion. It is not a dialogue. It is just time for action. I focused, dug down deep for courage, and reminded myself that I could do hard things. I plunged back into the water and survived the lap. Markus told me, “Good job!” and the other people at the pool clapped. Apparently, they had indeed been watching.
That night, I Googled Markus and learned that he had competed in four Olympics and is now better known as Dr. Rogan, a psychologist who focuses on teaching peak performance. Getting rid of negative self-talk is his specialty, and now his direct no-nonsense approach made sense. I also learned that he coaches survival skills, taking clients on extreme adventures such as trips into the desert to brave the heat and cold alone with one small bag of supplies. About his heli-ski trip, he states, “Expert skiing skills are a benefit for those who want to survive.” He is a real-life “JB!”
The next time I saw Markus at the pool, he asked me if I wanted to race. I laughed and said, “NO” I thought, Who races against an Olympian? Later while we were swimming laps, Markus stopped me and said, “You need to reach out more. You should reach all the way out.” I thanked him and kept swimming, trying to implement his correction. I discovered that by extending my arms more fully, I was able to pull more water in each stroke. It started to feel like the pool was getting shorter, and I was at the other side much faster.
While in the water, I often solve problems, such as how to improve the lede for a piece I’m writing, or resolve an issue with my website. That day as I swam, I wondered: When did I stop reaching out in life? When had I stopped taking chances, believing in myself, and trying new things? Before COVID-19, I had often used the improv principle, saying “Yes and….” to opportunities and being open to whatever appeared. Recently I had undertaken a personal challenge to try 50 new experiences before I turned 50. But since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, I felt like I was living in the Land of No. No, you cannot do this. No, you cannot go there. There were so many parts of my life that felt smaller.
In the days that followed, I reflected on what it would have meant to lose a race to Markus, and on what I have learned, which is this: The next time I am asked to race an Olympic athlete, I will say, “YES!” and I will remind myself that you can’t win if you don’t participate. These days, even as we are constrained by circumstances, we need to keep reaching however we can. I know I won’t swim like an Olympian, but every day I can take small steps to extend my reach. Maybe one day I will swim a more perfect butterfly. And hopefully one day soon we’ll all be able to do things and go places that extend beyond the community pool.