Penny Heyns is, without doubt, the world’s greatest female breaststroke swimmer of the 20th Century. She is the only woman in Olympic history to win both the 100 and 200 meter breaststroke events in Atlanta 1996 and broke 14 individual world records during her career. Her achievements brought her personal audiences with Nelson Mandela and catapulted her into the world of sporting celebrity. While she spent much of her time in the United States and Canada, her heart remained in South Africa, where she now lives. She has now established herself after her retirement in 2001, as a businesswoman, guest television presenter, coach and a sought after Inspirational speaker.
My Definition Of Success | I believe true success is when one can honestly say you’ve done your absolute best given your circumstances on the day. Success is being the best version of yourself that you can possibly be and this outcome is merely the reflection of excellence in the details.
I Am Driven By | I’ve always maintained that the day I leave this world and stand before my Maker to account for my life, I want to hear ‘Well done!’ and not be asked Why did I not use my talents & opportunities. In my swimming career this was the golden thread that kept me going in the difficult times of failure and disappointment. I never wanted to wonder ‘What If’ but rather wanted to look back and know that I did the best with my God-given talent and made the most of my opportunities.
My ‘MAGIC’ comes from | My swimming career was an expression of my personal conviction of faith and a reflection of my relationship with the Lord. I always made decisions prayerfully and obeyed what I felt was God’s will, often despite what I felt like
doing. Difficult as it often was, these decisions always lead to an outcome that blew my mind and blessed me beyond what I could imagine. When standing before the blocks moments prior to the race, I would simply rest in the knowledge that I had trained hard and to the best of my ability and that now it was in His hands. That the outcome would be His will and that I could enjoy the race.
The Difference Between good And Great | I believe the ‘Great’ achievers are able to focus on being excellent in the details. They are driven from within, motivated intrinsically and base their pursuit, of whatever it may be, based on a deeper foundation than just mere fame, external accolades, money and such. I believe they are driven by a deeper sense of purpose and hence are willing to do what must be done even when they don’t feel like it, even when circumstances are not perfect and when it’s not convenient. This can also only be so if the person is passionate about what he/she is doing.
A Key Talent | I believe one strength is my Mental Toughness and ability to single-mindedly focus on that which I was doing. I was able to train well but more importantly, I believe I had what we refer to in sport as ‘Big Match Temperament’, ie Mental Toughness. I believe some are born with a more natural ability to be Mentally Tough. However it is a skill that one can develop. The Navy Seals identified four techniques to help their cadets become more Mentally Tough. These same techniques I naturally applied in my career and I believe are relevant in all areas of life:
1. Goal Setting – (Goals must be realistic but challenging). They should be written down as a goal not written down is merely wishful thinking. Your goals should be accompanied with a plan, also written down or charted. Both are however just a working document to guide you on your journey to success.
2. Visualization or Mental Rehearsal – One cannot do something if you haven’t first ‘seen’ yourself doing it successfully in your mind. Every time one visualizes you form pathways in your brain which in effect then mean that when you actually physically do the action, it’s not the first time that your mind has done it. Science has proven that the brain does not recognize the difference between when an action is visualized or actually performed in terms of forming new circuitry. This visualization when done often leads to a sense of calm and control, giving one confidence.
3. Self Talk – Science says that the average person speaks between 300 – 1000 words per minute in their mind (Thoughts). Often the majority of this ‘automatic’ self talk is negative. The key is to identify your negative talk and train yourself to replace them with positive talk. Thoughts lead to emotions / feelings. Feelings lead to actions and actions become habits which effect our performance. Science shows that when we think or speak negatively versus positively actual chemical reactions occur as different hormones are secreted in our brains. These, such as the stress hormone Cortisol, secreted when negative, can either inhibit the speed of the messages (in the form of electrical impulses) or conversely when positive, speed up the process when hormones called neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine are released. All effected by our negative versus positive thoughts or self talk.
4. Arousal Control – The ability to control ones nerves and excitability through methods of breathing control. When one takes deep controlled breaths it has a calming effect and helps to focus as more oxygen is available to the brain.
The Navy found that each of these techniques were helpful however when all four were employed the improvement in the pass rate of trainee cadets rose form a quarter to over a third, a remarkable improvement in the defense training industry.
Lastly, a skill or practice that science has proven is the effectiveness of Power Positions and the actual chemical effect that positions or posture could have on individuals in terms of hormonal release and hence performance. An experiment was done with a group of people where a baseline was established in terms of Cortisol and Testosterone levels. The group was then told to adopt an insecure, nervous or depressed posture such as slumped shoulders, eyes turned down, nail biting etc. It was found when hormonal levels where measured that every participants Cortisol levels rose sharply while the Testosterone levels dropped severely. The same group were then instructed to stand or sit in what we refer to as Power Positions such as the Victory pose or the Superman pose (Hands on hips and chin raised) and others. When measured it was found that the Cortisol levels of all participants dropped sharply and that there was a significant rise in testosterone levels. As a swimmer one of my habits was to stand upright on the starting blocks with my hands on my hips. At the time science had not yet proven the effect but somehow this ‘superman pose’ came naturally to me.
Principles I Live By | I have always valued hard work and sacrifice. Our company name is OMNI SHARE. SHARE is an acronym for our values which I also try to live by:
S – Spirit: I believe we are Spirit beings and as such our priority must be to feed our Spirit through daily fellowship with God in prayer and Bible study
H – Heart: I believe whatever we do we should do it with all our heart
A – Attitude: Your attitude will determine your altitude. A positive but humble attitude is key.
R – Respect: Respect for oneself and others
E – Equality: All humans are equal, thus fairness is very important
Lessons I Have Learnt | The key lesson learnt from my swimming career and which I feel is still applicable in daily life is simply ‘Swim your Own Race’. Do that which you can do to the best of your ability, control the controllable and be true to the calling
you feel on your life. Do not get distracted by the dreams and hopes of others, by what they have or do or want for you. Don’t look around and compare yourself to others. You can only be the best version of yourself if you focus on what you are doing right now in the moment. Identify your talents, make the most of your opportunities, make wise and brave decisions, not on the whim of an emotion and lastly take personal responsibility.
My Future Dreams And Ambitions | I am truly in the happiest place in my life. I feel fulfilled in my work as a Professional Speaker, Swimming Clinician, Business woman and Athlete representative on the highest governing body of international swimming (FINA). I feel privileged to travel the world and share the lessons I learnt from my career and life after swimming. I am very blessed to be surrounded by people who love me for who I am and not my achievements and who support me in my career and daily life. I would hope to continue improving as a speaker and swim technique coach and constantly aim to speak at more conferences both internationally and locally. I love contributing back to the sport that gave me so much and should the opportunity allow for me to continue serving on the International, Regional and National Aquatics Federations I would be honored to do so.
Balancing high performance with happiness and contentment | As an athlete living abroad for just short of a decade I did experience bouts of homesickness and a sense that I just wanted my career to be over with. My first year or so in the States was very difficult and I would often cry in my goggles. Eventually I made some hard decisions and found ways to get my focus back on swimming and away from all the negative thoughts. Post retirement I also found the adjustment to normal life, the return back to SA and the passing of my mother shortly thereafter to be very tough. I think it took me almost 10 years to get to the place of inner peace and a sense of feeling settled. It certainly was a roller coaster time of adjustment. I was just very fortunate to have the support of some key people, one of whom is my business partner and former manager (during my swimming years) Zelda Jansen van Vuuren. Surrounding myself with the right people carried me through the post retirement valley to a place of peace and contentment.
The Legacy I Would Like To Leave | I would hope to be remembered more for the impact & contribution I make to the lives of my listeners / audiences and the people around me, than for my swimming achievements. While my swimming journey was amazing and I feel humbled and grateful, I believe the true value is in the lessons learnt which impacted my life and believe can impact the lives of others. I want to be an instrument in my Makers hands to touch lives & inspire others to reach their full potential as they Swim their Own Race to reach their respective destinies