As a swimmer, you get really familiar with failure. And familiar is the perfect word for it. Failure isn’t your friend, but it’s not your enemy. It’s more like a very close, much-appreciated but super frustrating and annoying family member, from whom you learn some of life’s most important lessons.
Swimming is a sport where you train all year long for one moment. It’s not like basketball or football where you have a whole season, with games once a week. Swimming is a sport of plateaus, sometimes you go two, or even three, years without getting any faster. It’s one of the most frustrating things.
It’s interesting when you meet people that have never failed. I mean everybody fails, but maybe in their eyes they haven’t failed. Or it’s been too easy. They can’t get over a setback. They don’t know how to deal with the roller coaster that is life.
I’ve failed a lot. At least once a month. Probably more.
Two moments come to mind when I think about failure.
The first was at Big 12s my freshman year at the University of Texas. I was considered one of the guys who could contend for a national title in the 200 butterfly. It was my best event and I had been swimming well all season, so I felt pretty good about my chances of winning the 200 butterfly at Big 12s.
Texas had won every conference title for the past 25-or-so years by the time I stepped into Texas A&M’s Rec Center Natatorium on that final day of the 2007 conference championship. We went into the meet expecting to win, despite not being rested, tapered or shaved.
About 100 yards into the race, I noticed that a guy two or three lanes over from me was beating me by a body length. I didn’t know his name or what school he was from. In my head, I was like, what the hell is this guy doing? But I figured he would just fly and die–lose steam after a fast start.
Another two laps went by and he was still in front of me, so I started trying to run him down.
You probably know how this story ends. The guy–Israel Duran Mata from A&M of all places–beat me by .08 seconds. The A&M team rushed to the side of the pool to celebrate with Duran, and the crowd went crazy. They called it the upset of the meet. I call it the lowest point of my entire freshman season.
I punched the wall, threw my cap and goggles and exited the pool as fast as I could, walking with my head down and not saying a word to anyone, stopping only to throw my Texas warmups on the bleachers.
Coach Eddie Reese followed me to the locker room. Eddie was never a coach who would scream and yell. I think I’ve heard him curse once the entire time I’ve known him, and I remember the one time he ever yelled. But at that moment, I knew he was disappointed in me. Not about my time, but about how I had reacted.
“Everybody should always know who the winner of the race is,” he said, “but they should never know who the loser is. That’s just not the way you handle yourself.”
Luckily, Eddie has built an amazing culture at Texas, and I had older teammates who were there for me. Once I had cooled down, I went to them and I said, “What happened? What do I do now? How do I move past this failure?”
Dan Rohleder, a junior at the time, helped bring me back in. He reminded me that this race was small in comparison to the long-term and lofty goals I had as an individual and for my Texas team. Learn from failure, he said. Remember this feeling of disappointment, of letting myself and my coaches and teammates down, and let that fuel my fire.
With the memory of this moment in the back of my mind, I went on to win a gold medal in the 4×200 relay with Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Peter Vanderkaay at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Two years later, we won the 2010 NCAA national championship.
In 2012, heading into my second Olympics, I made it my goal to compete in an individual race, and when Michael Phelps scratched the 200 freestyle I got my chance.
I’m a pretty self-aware guy and felt that I probably wouldn’t medal, but I wanted to swim in the Olympic final. I wanted to be on prime time television, to walk out into the pool with 15,000 people in the stands and hear my name be called. To represent the United States on the biggest stage in our sport. It was something I had dreamed about since I first ever watched the Olympics.
In the semifinal heat, I felt pretty good. Up until the last 50, I was doing fine, and I kind of put it in cruise control. At the very end of the race, I took a couple slow strokes, while the Russian guy in the lane next to me took a couple of really fast ones. He out-touched me by 0.2 seconds, bumping me to fourth in the heat. After the next heat swam, I was in ninth, one place away from moving on to the final round. The guy in eighth swam only .07 seconds faster. I had finished less than a tenth of a second away from the Olympic final.
Coming up short at Big 12s as a freshman felt awful, but it was nothing compared to this. I still get teary-eyed talking about it.
Two days later, I had to swim the 800 freestyle relay. Because of my performance in the individual race, the USA Swimming coaches were nervous to put me in. I had to convince them (and myself) that I was good to go, so the morning after the 200 freestyle semifinals, I got back in the pool to swim it off, and did another, harder workout that night, in an effort to boost my confidence.
In the relay final, I swam a second a half faster than I had in the semifinals of the individual race. We won the gold–Michael Phelps’ 17th gold medal, and the victory that made him the most decorated Olympian of all time. I’m glad I didn’t screw that up. Emotionally, that week was exhausting. I went from one of the worst moments of my career to one of the best, in the span of only a few days.
I look back on those stories, those failures, often. I work in finance now, and in the real world–that’s what I call it, the real world, swimming is the fake world–there are so many ups and downs. In swimming, when things didn’t work out, I knew what I was doing wrong, but sometimes here in the business world, I just feel lost. To some extent, however, I’ve figured out that the solution is the same. You put more time in the pool, so to speak. You figure out how to keep going and going and going until finally you break through. A “first one in, last one out” mentality in the business world.
There’s a figure-it-out mentality and a do-whatever-is-needed mentality that separates a lot of former student-athletes. We work towards a goal every day in our life, and there’s a mentality to not stop working until you hit those goals. I’m not saying it’s easy, but when you’ve welcome failure into your family and learned to live alongside it, you realize there’s no reason to be afraid of it. And in the ultimate contradiction, when you stop fearing failure, that’s when you succeed.
A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, Ricky Berens is world champion, world-record holder, and two-time Olympic gold medalist. Berens swam for the University of Texas from 2006 to 2010, and as a senior, led the team to an NCAA championship. Berens graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in finance and, after retiring from swimming in 2014, moved back to Austin where he lives with his wife and son and works as a financial planning analysis manager at Nulo Pet Food.