From USASwimming, by Mike Gustafson:
Jeff Commings is a reporter, the first black swimmer to compete at the Pan-American Games, and now, at 37-years-old, has qualified for the Olympic Trials. He’s been there before, but now as an older, wiser man, has a different perspective on the sport of swimming, on swimming’s diversity challenges, and what it’s like to be 37-years-old and still competing at the elite level.
Was there a specific reason you wanted to make the Olympic Trials cut?
Well, there are two reasons I wanted to make the Trials cut. The first reason is I wanted to escape the demons that have been haunting me since my last two Trials experiences. In 1992, I got too overwhelmed with the experience. In ’96 I got disillusioned and disenchanted by it all, I wasn’t in the moment. So, I said it would be great to go to the Olympic Trials, compete, actually have fun and soak up the experience and want to talk about it. So that was the first motivation. The second motivation was, since I’ll be working there with Swimming World all week, it would be great to be able to use the pool between sessions. Now, that I’ll have an athlete credential I’ll be able to do that.
How do you balance a full-time job and training, the way that you’ve done before and what you’ll do leading to the Olympic Trials?
First of all, I’m not doing the training I did before. I’m doing less than half that I did in the ‘90s. Rarely going more than 4000 yards/meters per day. In terms of balance, it’s not that difficult once you get into the routine of it. A lot of people who I tried to talk into Masters Swimming say, “I can’t fit it into my day.” And I told them you can fit it into your day, if you just take out the things you really don’t need in your life. Like instead of going home and sitting in front of the TV for two hours, maybe there’s a team in your city that has an evening workout. Or if you’re up early, getting kids ready for school, thinking, “If I could only get away for an hour…”
There are so many reasons for not swimming, and they’re all not good excuses. There are many options available. It’s not hard to balance your life, if you take time to make room for the priorities in your life. For me, in no particular order, my priorities are work, home and swimming, and they all balance very well.
What are your expectations for these Trials – do you have any?
When I made this a serious goal to make the cut, I said, “If I make it, my only goal is to not get last.” If I don’t get last, then it’s a success. I don’t want to be the person who is the slowest person at the meet. I don’t want that. But now that I’m past the point where I made the cut, I talked to my coach about it, and we said there are some things we could do without really changing a lot of my training. It would be very nice to go under 1:04 [in the 100m breaststroke]. That would be super. But again, I don’t want to go in there with huge expectations. And I’m definitely not going in with a goal of, “Maybe I could make the semi-finals.” Because, realistically, I don’t think I could do that. If I do, that would be a nice surprise. Really, my goal is to have fun, and not put pressure on myself to do anything other than swim fast.
Is your approach to the sport different as an older veteran?
I went through this sport for most of my adult life, I’d say from age 18-24, viewing this as my job instead of this as a sport. When you view it as a job, you think, “I have responsibilities.” When you’re in your job, you have to perform, or else you’ll get fired or demoted. I viewed it as: I had responsibilities to my university, responsibilities to my coach and responsibilities to my team, instead of thinking, “Why don’t you swim for yourself first and the responsibilities will come later.” It overwhelmed me and took over my mental aspect of the sport to the point where I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. I truly believe that I could have gone faster than I did in college. But I don’t look back with regret. I look back and say, “I don’t want to make that same mistake as a Masters swimmer.”
Because it’s not a job. Even to professional swimmers — I hope they don’t view it as a job. I hope they view it as something that they love to do, it’s fun, and if you view it that way, the positive result will happen naturally.
Do you believe in the adage, “You’re only as old as you feel”?
[Laughs] Well, today I definitely feel 37-years-old. It really is not as easy as it used to be. I remember even the hardest workouts we did at Texas. I could come back the next day and do another hard workout. This morning, I had to do a 400 breaststroke. Fifteen years ago, I would have done it no problem. But today it was a chore. I got to the end of it and said, “I’ll be better to do it,” but right now, I’m in a lot of pain. I definitely feel 37. But mentally, I feel like I’m reclaiming a lot of the enjoyment I didn’t feel in my 20s. So in that respect, I do feel a lot younger.
As a black man, monitoring the main-stage of our sport, do you think there will be more African Americans at Trials than there have been at previous Trials?
I really do feel there are going to be some African American swimmers that nobody is going to expect. Just having covered Nationals a few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see Giles Smith do so well. He swam best times in every race he swam. That’s not something people do at Nationals. He was the independent national high school record-holder in the 50 free. A lot of people put pressure on him at Tennessee. Now that he’s at Arizona, he’s got a new mental focus, enjoying the sport more. I’m glad to see that, it’ll pay dividends for him. But I think the person we really have to pay attention to is Lia Neal. She’s 16-years-old. Rightfully so, we’re talking a lot about Missy Franklin. But Missy and Lia were at the same level two or three years ago, and Missy’s taken off – and Lia is just now realizing her potential.
So I think we’re really going to see some great things from her. It’s not just going to be Cullen Jones representing, and that makes me happy. It bodes well for the future that there will be someone besides Cullen (who may or may not be in this sport after next year). To have people who will still be at the elite level either at Nationals or internationally, who will keep the exposure up and keep this going in the future. Because it’s definitely not easy to show the public that competitive swimming is for blacks, because there aren’t many. You see Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, who are superstars and known across all races, but at the same time, if a black kid is watching the Olympics, they’re probably going to look for someone who is like them, so they can say, “I want to be like that person.” And I hope that happens, either in 2012, or 2016.
Are you going to be reporting on your experiences?
I do plan on writing the column that I wrote after I made the cut. I do plan on writing about my training experiences. I think that’s going to be fun for me, to express how I feel as this is going along. We have some plans, in the lead-up to Trials, and hopefully at Trials, and I’m excited to show the world what it’s like to be 37 and training for Trials (which is not the way Lochte and Phelps and everyone they know does it.)
I want everyone to know, it’s all about having fun. That’s what I keep telling people, “Yeah, I made Trials, and I’ll train hard for it, but I’m never going to forget it’s all about having fun, because it’s a sport, and not a job.”
Planning on the Olympic Trials in 2016 in the future?
If I could qualify for the Trials at age 42, something’s in the water at Phoenix Swim Club! I don’t have the entourage that Dara Torres has, and I don’t have the talent that Janet Evans has. I can’t understand what has gotten me this far. But if I can hold onto it another four years (laughs) sure, why not?
Jeff Commings is an associate producer for Swimming World and has written a book about his swimming experiences called, “Odd Man Out.” Check it out here.