Dad leaps EleutheraTerry leaps off a cliff in Eleuthera, the Bahamas, December 2006 (photo: Dennis O’Clair)


Continuing with the theme of goal-setting, which we explored in last week’s post– “Strategies for Achieving Your Breakthrough Season: Success is Not the Result of Luck!”– this week, we revisit Terry’s December 2015 blog on the pursuit of accomplishing “audacious” swimming goals and the vital importance of consciously mastering one’s mindset in such endeavors. In this article, Terry discussed how visionary goals which imbued him with a deep sense of purpose enabled him to accomplish all of the following within a year:

  • Complete a second Manhattan Island Marathon Swim
  • Win his first National Open Water Championship
  • Break a National Masters Record in open water
  • Win a World Masters Championship Medal in the 3K Open Water event

And more importantly, he shared his approach in order to demonstrate that these strategies for success can work for any of us, if we choose to cultivate these habits of excellence:  learned optimism, seeking “flow” states,” following a path of mastery, choosing an approach of “deliberate practice,” setting meaningful goals, and finding worthy challenges even in adverse circumstances.  Enjoy… and Happy Laps!



Ten years ago, several months before my 55th birthday, I set a group of BHAGs or Big Hairy Audacious Goals. The term comes from the book Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, who studied businesses that had maintained influence and excellence over many decades. BHAGs focus on enduring and meaningful impact: Henry Ford set out to democratize the automobile;  in the early days of Apple, Steve Jobs talked of putting a computer in every home–40 years later there’s a computer in everyone’s pocket!

BHAGs embody visionary thinking. In 1960, JFK  proposed to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. This achievement, fulfilled in 1969, remains a defining and uplifting moment in American history–and, well, “a giant step for all mankind,” as Neil Armstrong put it.


“That’s one small step for manone giant leap for mankind.”

Like the moon mission, BHAGs usually take a decade, or decades, to achieve. But I aimed to fulfill mine within a year.  They included:

  • Complete a second Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.
  • Win my first National Open Water Championship.
  • Break a National Masters Record in open water. (I’d never even set a team record in  high school or college.)
  • Win a World Masters Championship Medal in the 3K Open Water event.

Happily, I did achieve all of those and more–winning four national championships, at distances from 1 mile to 10K, and breaking two national records for the 55-59 age group, the 1- and 2-Mile Cable Swims.

My greatest benefit was gaining a sense of having a mission to accomplish, which lasted for nearly a year from the time I conceived of them. Not a single practice during that time ever felt like a check-off in my daily routine. They all felt important–even urgent. The imprint of a ‘year of high purpose’ endured well beyond that period and has had far-reaching impacts.

While I couldn’t have achieved my goals without a highly-efficient stroke, even more critical than how I swam was how I thought. For a decade previously, I’d become increasingly interested in Positive Psychology–the study of thought processes displayed by high-performing individuals.

I learned about the traits, behaviors and mindsets of such people in books such as Learned Optimism by Dan Seligman, Mastery by George Leonard, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi PhD, and the principles of Deliberate Practice by Anders Ericsson PhD.  Setting such galvanizing goals provided an ideal opportunity to test these principles.

By applying these lessons I achieved far beyond what I’d always thought was possible. As a result of that experience, Total Immersion has emphasized effective thinking as much as effective movement.

Goal-setting with the Flow

As I approached my 60th birthday in 2011, I faced physical challenges that limited what I could accomplish athletically. In my late 50s, I began to experience fatigue and chronic musculoskeletal pain associated with the autoimmune syndrome, Polymyalgia Rheumatica (PMR). I also began to suffer foot and calf cramps after barely an hour of swimming–an effect of arthritic narrowing in my lower spine.

Between them, my training was significantly limited compared to previously. If I swam a bit too long or hard, I could be left feeling drained for hours after.   And my feet and calves often began cramping after little more than 2000 yards.

Yet though my training was likely to be quite limited, I still craved the sense of purpose and urgency I’d experienced five years earlier. Going with the flow means seeking opportunity in adversity. So I decided to Goal-set with the Flow.

My mid-50s accomplishments  had been in my lifelong strong suit, distance freestyle.  At 60 I decided to strike out in a new direction, emphasizing events outside my comfort zone–shorter distances and the other strokes.  I’d swum only freestyle for most of my life and had only begun to focus on other strokes a few years earlier.

As well, the limitations on how long or intensively I could train resulted in two surprising developments:

  1. Knowing that I had a practice ‘budget’ of 2500 yards made every lap seem far more precious. I would allot time only for activities proven to improve performance.
  2. Needing to be careful about intensity, pushed me to rely less than ever on power and muscle, and find the easiest way to accomplish any task.

The results were thrilling and have transformed my approach to practice and training.  In 2011, at Masters Nationals I entered every discipline but backstroke–and medaled in all four! In 200 Butterfly, I even did a lifetime best, swimming faster than I had at 55 when I was in the midst of achieving BHAGs in distance freestyle.

Taking a 'sneaky' breath in butterfly

Briefer, More Focused, Better Than Ever

Finding opportunity in adversity has led me to embrace practices that emphasize focus over duration.  I seldom swim beyond an hour; many of my practices last just 40 to 50 minutes. What I love most is how keen my focus remains for that duration–quite literally from first stroke to last at times.

I include only two to three sets or activities in most practices. In each I’m either trying to perform a subtle skill better than I ever have in my life. Or ‘solving problems’ related to controlling stroke count, while swimming faster–on the clock, or on my Tempo Trainer. I can succeed at most tasks only by giving it my full attention. Moments of Flow have become more routine than ever before.

Practicing this way has produced surprising–even thrilling–breakthroughs in awareness or control each year. My pull, kick, and breathing are all strikingly more efficient than they were before I turned 60–a development confirmed by comparing recent video with video shot in my 50s.

And it my stroke doesn’t just look better. It feels amazing almost every day–better than it ever has. Twice in one recent week I posted this on the TI Facebook page: “I felt fantastic in the water today–I’ve never felt this good before.” Not an insignificant claim after 50 years of swimming.

I’ve never looked forward to swimming as much as I do now, nor have I felt a greater sense purpose and flow. I still have PMR symptoms; I often feel achy and mildly flu-like as I get in the water. But within minutes I  feel indescribably great. Swimming has always been known for its unique healing properties. I seem to have tapped into something beyond.

In three months I’ll enter the 65-69 age group. As I did at 55 and 60, I plan to attend Masters Nationals in the spring to get a concrete gauge on my performance capabilities. In early November I wrote out my goals for the next six months. As I was writing them, I felt the familiar sense of purpose and urgency, and I’m more grateful than ever for how central swimming goals have become for my life.

 Learn the skills of Efficient Freestyle with the Total Immersion Effortless Endurance Self Coaching Course!

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