Name: Mark Pinger
Occupation: General Manager, Arena North America
Team: Stafford Hills Club
That’s my story and I am sticking to it.
It all started in a little town in the South of Germany. Growing up, I remember frequently being asked how long I have been swimming. I never knew how to answer that question because it seemed like I had been swimming for as long as I can remember. I doubt that I joined a swim team right after birth but it must have been just a short time later that my parents enrolled me in a learn to swim program. It was not swimming as a sport, it was swimming as a life skill. And I guess, I always stayed in a swim club from there on out.
The reason swimming became my sport was really by elimination. I played team hand ball, was on the track and field team and swam. I wasn’t very good at any of those three sports but I definitely lacked the coordination to be a good ball handler. Team handball was out. I think I could have eventually developed into a good long distance runner but I didn’t shine at whatever we were doing at track and field practice. That was the next one to go. Turns out I was going to be a swimmer. The point is, I wasn’t necessarily very good at swimming but of those three sports, I was better at swimming than the other two.
What I have always loved about swimming is the peace and quiet. I love floating in the water. It is very peaceful. Floating in the water to me feels like what I imagine it might feel without gravity. You don’t get pulled to the bottom, you float on top. This is also why we talk of swimming being low impact – it takes your body weight away and it’s relatively easy on your joints. At least until you put on those big paddles and start swimming too many yards. As a sprinter, I had a lower risk than most. But I digress…
I continued to go to every practice offered in the little town where I lived. In the summer we swam outdoors and I often got sent to take a warm shower when the coach saw me shivering pretty badly. I was a stick figure with not much natural insulation. But I got a little bit better every year and I enjoyed the process and going to meets with the team.
When I was 17, I decided to move to a much bigger town with a top-tier swim team. Some were wondering why I made this decision. They thought I wasn’t really fast enough for such a top-tier team. In my mind that was the wrong way to think about it. First you have to get good coaching, fast teammates and have access to a good facility, then the results will follow. In my first year on the new team, I qualified for the German Junior Nationals in the 400 free. It was my first time qualifying for Nationals. Unfortunately, I got last place at the meet. I continued to show up to every practice, worked hard and I made two decisions that helped me develop:
- I decided it’s time to put some muscles on my soon to be 2 meters/6’7” frame. I lifted weights six times a week for one and a half hours. I pushed myself a lot in the weight room. Often, I pushed so hard that every muscle hurt in the pool. I remember being in a lot of pain and I did try my best at swim practice but from the outside, it must have looked like I wasn’t trying very hard. I remember one of the top swimmers on my team telling me “Mark, if you just swim easy for 2 hours you are not going to get any faster.” There were definitely days where it looked like I was drowning but I always worked hard.
- I figured that there is no substitute for speed. Speed makes everything easier. If you get faster in the 25, you get faster in the 50 and you can swim the first 50 of the 100 faster. However, it’s hard to really focus on a short distance. If your race is the 400, you can swim a 50 at race pace in practice at any time of the year. If you swim the 50 free, you really have to be tapered and shaved to swim “race pace.” That means you really have to focus on swimming all out to at least get close to your race pace. When I saw some sprints at the end of the practice, I might have held back a little bit to make sure I could swim those sprints in the best quality possible. And when I saw a 4 x 50, descend one to four, it meant that I would swim 3 times very easy and 1 time all out. When you are a sprinter, it’s not the average speed during practice that counts, it’s the couple of times you really put some fast times on the board.
I started to focus on the shorter distances. In the 1980s, people were telling me that most swimmers start with the longer distances and as they get older they focus on the shorter distances. I think that was more related to swimmers getting burned out later in their career and making the switch to sprinting as it’s just more fun. Scientifically, it’s not true that you have to swim longer distances when you are young, although it might be a good idea not to specialize on any specific event too early on.
In any case, I would always swim the event from the front. In the beginning, I would have a fast first 50 and then drown. Then I got to 75 before I died. It was a matter of time until I put together the full 100 meters.
When I was 18, I swam the 100 freestyle at nationals in 53.9 in long course meters. A few swimmers my age went to their first Olympic Games. I got 9th place in my age group. I was very happy with my result as the year before my best time had only been 57s. When I had to serve in the German military, I was fast enough to qualify for a special unit that got to train with the national coach. I had to do the basic military training for three months, but after that we were able to mostly focus on our sport and spent limited time doing military training. That was my time to put in many hours of high quality training and make every practice count.
I was becoming a good freestyle sprinter – swimming the 50 and the 100 – but I had two big deficiencies. The first one was related to kicking where I had trouble making the send offs, and I was so hopelessly slow that the national coach told me to buy some fins. Training with fins was not a standard practice at that time but the coach was tired of seeing me drown and having everyone wait for me at the end of the set. He said that with my kick, I would never be competitive at the national level, never mind at the international level. The second deficiency was related to my endurance. There was a special test we did to measure endurance. I was again below the basic requirement that was deemed necessary to become a good national or international swimmer. It was a different national coach that gave me the news this time. Two national coaches basically told me that I didn’t have what it takes to become a really good swimmer.
The next thing is really important: I disregarded their advice. Take all the feedback you can, but don’t put too much stock into the doubters.
I worked very hard in the pool and in the weight room. I continued to focus on sprinting and I continuously improved. My races were the 50 and 100 freestyle. In the 100 free I told myself that in order to win the race, I needed to lead in the first 50. As a sprinter, I swam the race from the front and just hoped that I would not be dying too badly in the last 25. When you tell yourself something, it becomes true.
But I got lucky. Going into the 1992 German Olympic Trials, I knew that I had a small chance to make the team. The 100 free was first. I was slow in prelims and didn’t make it to the A final. At that time, there were no semifinals, just an A and a B final. I did make it to the B final but I wasn’t happy with my morning performance and the prospect of doing another race like that in the B final. I asked my coach to scratch the final and instead just focus on my chance in the 50 free later in the week. My coach wasn’t having it and I was going to have to swim in that B final. I am not sure exactly what triggered the way I raced but I guess I was pretty mad and I had nothing to lose. I started the race as always but when the pain came, I just swam through the pain. Like a robot, I kept on swimming. I think this was the first time in my life that I swam 100%. Previously, when the pain would set in, I would tell myself that I can’t win the race in the second half and I would feel sorry for myself. I thought I had also given it 100% in those races, but I clearly hadn’t. I just didn’t even know what it felt like to swim 100 meters freestyle 100%. I was 22 years old. You could say, I was a slow learner. Anyway, I swam a 50.03 in the B final. Nobody in the A final swam faster than me and I had the fastest second 50 meter split of all swimmers at the meet. Even swimmers that swam the 100 and were 200 specialists had a slower second 50. It’s amazing what the mind can do. In my case, I successfully told myself that I just don’t have a fast second 50 and that was true until that B final race in 1992.
I had the time to qualify in the 100 but I didn’t swim in the final. Technically, they could not bring me to the Olympics, as a swimmer has to stay under that qualification time and get first or second. Later in the week, I qualified fair and square for the 50 freestyle by placing second and staying under the qualification time. I was officially on the team for the 50 and I was an option for the 4 x 100 freestyle relay. At the Olympics in Barcelona, I started off the relay in the morning and cracked the 50 second barrier, swimming a 49.75 to qualify for the evening relay. In the evening, I had the fastest split of the German team and brought home the bronze medal as the final swimmer of the relay.
It was no doubt a great experience to go to the Olympics and even better to bring home some hardware. However, if I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity, I would still cherish my time as a swimmer all the same. The community of my club team, the meets we went to together, the many meters we trained together, it would have been a great experience without ever going to the Olympics.
Four years later I got the opportunity to represent Germany again on the 4 x 100 freestyle relay at the Olympics in Atlanta. The end result was the same as in Barcelona but my time was not as good. After Atlanta, I called it quits.
As so many swimmers do, after all that training, I needed a break. I tried to stay somewhat in shape but swimming was no longer part of my workout routine. I graduated from the University of Miami, got a graduate degree in Pittsburgh and worked for a consulting firm in Pittsburgh for four years. The consulting lifestyle was not that great for my fitness. In 2003, my family moved to the Portland area where I started a job at Nike. The Nike campus is truly amazing and includes an indoor swimming pool. I joined a group of swimmers who practiced during lunch. I find it easier to train with a team and I loved being back in the pool again. With Nike, I was on assignment in Asia and Germany where I found it hard to keep swimming. I traveled a lot and didn’t really find a masters team close to where I lived. I stayed connected to the swimming community through my kids, who all three swam. When we returned to Oregon, I first joined the Oregon City Tankers masters team. I loved the team, the workouts and the job that Tim Waud was doing there, but practice starts at 5am which was a bit early for me. When Stafford Hills opened with an outdoor pool, just minutes from where I live and a more reasonable practice time of 5:45am, I found it irresistible not to switch. It’s a great community of swimmers and having three different coaches provides a lot of variety. I love the team and have made many friends. And in the end, that’s what it’s all about. I am not trying to break any records but I do enjoy keeping in shape and I still love the feeling of being weightless in the water, tuning out everything when I am underwater. Knowing that there is a team who is happy to have me there, makes getting up in the morning so much easier.
I had a great time growing up swimming, got lucky to get to a pretty high level, still love the water and work for a swimwear brand. Oh, and the best part is that I met my wife during a swim training camp. Swimming’s been good to me.