By Mark Ellis
As an Olympic swimmer on the U.S. team, he won four gold medals and set as many world records at the 1976 games in Montreal. His relaxed demeanor in high-pressure competition set him apart from other athletes – all because of an unseen presence that profoundly altered his focus before races.
“I like the water; I’m comfortable there,” says John Naber, sports broadcaster, author, and motivational speaker.
His father was a management consultant who moved frequently, so in John’s first 12 years he lived in six different houses. He also spent seven years in Europe, which led to a summer tour of Olympia, Greece, the site of the ancient competition.
The family’s tour guide at Olympia explained the importance of sportsmanship in the early games and noted the ancients even built a Hall of Shame for cheaters in their events. Impressed by this, 10-year-old John turned to his mother and said, “I want to be an Olympian one day.”
“What sport?” his mother asked, knowing he hadn’t demonstrated any hint of future greatness.
“I have no idea,” the youngster replied.
As a freshman at Woodside High School near Stanford University, Naber befriended a swimmer who won a silver medal in the Junior Olympics. Inspired by his new friend, Naber decided to join the swim team.
“I jumped in the pool and found myself swimming laps,” he recalls. “I was cramping up but I enjoyed the process of racing the clock.” Naber didn’t win a race in his first two years of competition, but the stopwatch looked better and better with each passing month.
By his junior year, Naber was the best swimmer on the team and he had even begun to entertain the idea of trying out for the 1972 Olympic team, but a serious setback derailed his plans. As he clowned with friends, he broke his collarbone after a springboard launched him into the side of the pool, while trying to avoid a lane rope as tight as a guitar string.