Before David Nolan moved to Arizona to train with Michael Phelps under Bob Bowman, he already had many accomplishments to his name. In his sophomore year racing for Stanford University, he claimed NCAA Championship titles in the 100 back and 200 I.M. He went on to smash the American record in the 200 I.M. his senior year, becoming the first man to break the 1-minute, 40-second barrier with a time of 1:39.38. After finishing his college career last year, Nolan put his studies on hold to train full time with Bowman’s elite group. Now he’s preparing for Olympic Trials at the end of June with the hope of making the American team to compete in Rio.
I had a conversation with Nolan about how to persevere in the face of challenges as he heads into his last few months of heavy training before the 2016 Olympic Trials.
What made you decide to continue swimming after college?
To be honest, initially I wasn’t going to. I still have courses to finish at Stanford and I’d been planning to focus on finishing my degree and start looking for jobs. But because of how well I swam at NCAAs my senior year, I reconsidered. I put a lot of pressure on myself at college, and sometimes it was tough to focus on swimming with school taking up so much of my time. I talked to my mom about it and she suggested I give swimming one more shot. She thought that if I went “all-in” on swimming without having to worry about school, I could reach my full potential. And I agreed with her.
If you have a bad race or a bad meet, how do you overcome it?
When I have a bad race or a bad meet, I always ask myself, “What can I learn from this? How am I going to do it better next time?” If I don’t swim as well as I’d been hoping, I treat it as an opportunity to learn and make myself better for next time. I review the details of my race and look at where I can improve for next time. I also try not to get caught up in my thoughts or mull over bad performances. I only look at the facts, keep grinding, and make adjustments for the future.
What has been the toughest challenge in your career and how did you handle it?
In my senior year of high school I posted the fastest time of the year in the 200 I.M. – a time that would have won NCAAs. For so many years I was used to going best times and winning that race, so it was really tough for me to lose the 200 I.M. at NCAAs in my freshman year of college. I was really beat up about it. The way I dealt with it was by asking myself why I’m in the sport, and reminding myself that I compete because it makes me happy. I like swimming fast and being happy, so I worked on figuring out how I could do both of those things together when moving forward. It paid off in my sophomore year when I won two events at NCAAs.
Do you have any tips for aspiring swimmers on how to persevere through challenges?
The best piece of advice I can give is to make tangible goals. This is so much more valuable than a lot of people realize. Write down your goals because it makes them real. I do this for swimming, and actually for other parts of my life in general. Once you actually write down your goals you can be reminded of them and you’re more likely to commit to them. Of course making big goals is important, but making smaller goals as stepping stones is a good idea too because it makes the larger goals more realistic and attainable. You need an action plan to actually outline how you will achieve your goals and make them doable.
Don’t forget to always have fun with what you’re doing. It’s much easier to persevere when you’re enjoying every step of the process.