Fearless Minds

by Casey Barrett

Ledecky, Franklin, and the fearlessness of youth… 

We knew one was coming. Missy Franklin’s world record performance in the 200 back might have been the least surprising swim at these upset heavy Games. We expected her to jump in and dominate and that’s exactly what she did. In one week, she has gone from the Next One to just The One. The girl swims without fear.

The next next one, Katie Ledecky, no one saw that coming. At least not to that extent, not yet. It was common knowledge that 15-year-old Katie Ledecky was a rising distance star. A fast rising star… She finished 2011 ranked 55th in the world in the 800 free, the 13th fastest American. Her time was 8:36.05. She dropped over 21 seconds this year. (Note to the president of ASCA and others: Has anyone raised one eyebrow over Ledecky’s awesome improvements? As you have about Ye Shiwen, who improved far less in 2012 than her fellow teenage Olympic champion…)

Like Franklin (and Ye for that matter), Ledecky doesn’t seem to know what fear feels like. She swims from the start with ice cold confidence. Was Ledecky aware of the moment she stepped into? A moment she instantly spoiled for the home crowd from the very first 50. This was the race that the Brits had been anticipating more than any other. Their hometown girl, Becky Adlington, was the defending Olympic champion and the world record holder. She was their best – and only – real hope for individual Olympic gold at the pool. And Adlington was clearly on. She won bronze in the 400 free earlier in the week, with a faster time than her gold medal performance back in Beijing. She was ready to defend her crown. Ledecky put an end to that right quick.

She was out in 1:59.9 at the 200. Out in 4:04.3 at the 400 — her lifetime best time! (She was 4:05.0 at U.S. Trials…) If anyone expected her to die on the back half, that wasn’t happening. She widened her lead until she touched with a never-in-doubt four second victory. Missy Franklin was surely somewhere cheering her on louder than anyone else. She knows exactly how it feels. Or maybe how it doesn’t feel.

In the lead up to these Olympics, Time magazine ran a piece about the psychology of choking. Why do some athletes, no matter how well prepared, fail to get it done when it matters most? It has something to do with your prefrontal cortex, that area of the brain that processes information. When you think too much, when you go over every last detail of your race behind the blocks, your prefrontal cortex is flooded. When that happens, it is stealing precious energy away from your motor cortex – the part of your brain that executes. The part that athletes depend on most.

If you’ve ever wondered why certain athletes sound like, um, not exactly deep thinkers when interviewed, this is a big reason why. You can be a genius in one cortex, the motor side, and less-than-flooded with thought on the prefrontal side.

Clearly this simplistic explanation of brain function does not explain Missy Franklin. Her prefrontal cortex is doing just fine, thanks. She’s whip smart when speaking, the best interview on Team USA. Katie Ledecky’s post race interviews with NBC’s Andrea Kremer were also composed beyond her years. Which makes their fearless performances that much more impressive. Somehow these teenagers are able to shut off all thought behind the blocks and focus on the task at hand.

It turns out that clichéd phrase “in the zone” is quite literally true. When athletes step up and deliver all-time performances at the moment of truth their brains have entered a quiet zone of memory-free execution. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

To put it as your coach would: They just stand up and race.