BUDAPEST – Between preliminary heats and final rounds on Sunday at the 19th FINA World Championships, 10 swimmers from exotic countries gathered for a FINA wellbeing workshop. In a tucked-away corner of Duna Arena, the fastest swimmers from San Marino, Tonga, Brunei, Guyana, Moldova, Botswana, Cuba, Burundi, Jamaica, and Grenada articulated competition anxieties and how to handle them.

After a fun getting-to-know-you exercise in which they drew their own faces blindly behind a sheet of paper and told the group something unique about themselves, they admitted to having pre-competition feelings of “responsibility… insecurity… excitement… doubt… fear” and similarly daunting traits. Anthony Ervin, a triple Olympic gold medalist from the US who also partook in the workshop, noted a common thread in the athletes’ list.

“So many of those words are energy,” Ervin said, “and you can color that energy many ways.”

“Those feeling could help you or kill you,” added Pavel Altovaki, a Moldovan swimmer – to which Ervin replied, “Good point. Do the best with what you got because you can’t travel back in time.”

Afterwards, the group broke into sub-groups to discuss three types of stressors: personal, organizational, and competitive.  Everyone had a chance to weigh in.

Personal stressors on their lists included everything from equipment problems to media, finance, school, loved ones, self-doubt, post-competition responsibilities… to having no wi-fi.

Asked how they cope, Adrian Robinson from Botswana, said he tries to “break [the issue] down smaller and smaller until you can see where it’s coming from.”

Charissa Panuve of Tonga who is competing in her fifth long-course world championships, said, “You have to divide what you can and can’t control.

Ranomi Kromowidjojo, the triple-Olympic champion from the Netherlands, who also partook, advised, “Stay in the now. The only thing you can change is the now. So be in the present. Don’t get stuck on what happened yesterday.”

Kito Campbell of Jamaica had perhaps the most practical solution. “I turn off my phone.”

When it came to “competitive stressors,” the group cited “overthinking, comparing yourself to other competitors, jet lag, coaches’ expectations, and equipment problems.

The swimmers’ list of “organisational stressors” included Covid testing, accommodations, communications, food, time management, obtaining vias, and access” to everything they needed to prepare and race – any one of which could fall short of expectations and affect their race plan.

In summary, Ervin, said “I think experience is the greatest teacher. We can take confidence in that as long as we’re learning from [everything that goes awry].  I broke my goggles once in the ready room and I took two pairs forever after. Also, know where all the bathrooms are in case they’re all being used. Experience teaches you how to plan so you don’t get stressed.”

Souleymane Napare of Burundi added another gem of wisdom. “I try not to have expectations,” he said. “The more expectations you have, the more [can go wrong].”

Finally, when asked which word or phrase they would remember forever from Sunday’s multi-national workshop, Panuve of Tonga said, “Let go.” 

Ervin said, “Laughter. Laughter helps with all the stressors.”

Alovatki of Moldova quoted Master Oogway of “Kung Fu Panda” – to wide approval – when he said, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. But today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.”