Welcome to One Page, a newsletter that transports you into the world of an outstanding book for a few minutes. A couple of times a week, we'll send you a great passage from a book we love. (To subscribe, unsubscribe, or donate, see below.) Red Room Editors Gina and Huntington selected a page from Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing (2013), by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, to share with you today:
He peered to his right and saw Bernard ahead of him. Briefly, he abandoned hope. His muscles and lungs hurt intensely. He knew his speed was about to fade. "I told myself there was no way I could do this. He was the world record holder." It seemed the USA would be happy if it could even hold on to the silver medal. "I told myself just to swim my own race." But the fade he expected didn't happen. He felt strong and told himself so. "I got a little confidence back from getting up to his hip, little bit by little bit. And then I thought I actually had a chance." Right at the point where Lezak expected his body to die in the water, the recognition that he had a chance generated a supercharge in his body. "I'd never felt it before." Over the last 15 meters, Lezak caught Bernard and took the gold medal by an outstretched arm.
It was one of the most exciting relays in history and one of the closest. Fans around the world were stunned by Lezak's time: 46.06 seconds-a second faster than the world record and almost two seconds faster than he'd ever swum in a solo race. No matter how his race was dissected, it was still considered the swimming equivalent of a mom lifting up a car to save her trapped child.
How did he do it? What caused this phenomenal demonstration of competitive fire? By the time you are done with this book, you will recognize that dozens of factors came together and contributed to that very special 46 seconds. Yes, dozens of factors, each one taking a few hundredths of a second off his time.
First and foremost, the tightness of the race was inseparable from the result-without Bernard to chase, it never could have happened. You'll learn how important it was that the Americans had a fierce rivalry with the other nations in the pool. You'll learn why it was crucial the Americans were underdogs-that Lezak could swim to win, but wouldn't be faulted if he lost, and how this altered his body's physiology. The roaring crowd contributed. Another element in the win was that the Americans had not won the gold medal in the prior two Olympics; their silver in Sydney was considered not "second best," but an absolute failure. To win, it was essential that Lezak believed he had a chance, both before the race and at that critical moment when he reached Bernard's hip.
There were biological factors in Lezak that made this moment possible-from the gene variation he likely carries that enables him to perform better under intense pressure, to the levels of hormones that were present in him when he was just a gestating fetus in his mother's womb. Other biochemicals kicked in the day before this race, which switched on genes in his cells and altered the production rate of neurotransmitters he'd need on race day. Then there was a surge of hormones the hour before the race, followed by different hormones at the starter's gun, which he would burn up in seconds. You'll learn what happened to his lungs and his blood vessels, to his pain sensitivity and his decision making and his attentional focus.
Then there were team effects. On his own, in the solo final two days later, he'd finish in a comparatively slow 47.67 seconds. Were there two kinds of people: those who perform best solo, and those who perform their best only on a team? Lezak knew how to compete with his teammates. He'd taken them all aside to talk about the importance of being a team, not four separate individuals. Subliminal cues they gave one another bolstered their confidence and sense of support, which turned on yet other hormones for the collaborative effort. He was doing this for himself, his teammates, and his country, all at once.
A $1 donation allows you to buy any of Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's books today at 40% off. For a donation of $5, $25, or $100 you'll get 40% off all books purchased in the next week. For $250, we'll send you a copy of today's featured book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, and the authors' 2009 book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, plus a Red Room Author in your neighborhood will take you to lunch. Onerous restrictions apply.
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-The Red Room Team