Crashing Through the Pain Barrier

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Here's a thought-provoking article from Mike Hurst of the Daily Telegraph. If you read closely there are some interesting morsels in there:

"VINCIT Qui Se Vincit" reads the Latin inscription tattooed on John Steffensen's right shoulder. It translates as, "He conquers who conquers himself."

As the Commonwealth 400m champion fought off the temptation to stop in the interests of self-preservation during training at a super-heated Sydney Olympic Park yesterday, it was hard to think of a more appropriate personal motto.

After completing an hour-long warm-up involving 2.5km of accumulated sprints, Steffensen appealed via text message to his US-based coach, John Smith, to show a little humanity and let him break the session of 15 sprints over 100m (jogging the bends as recovery) into three sets of five 100m runs with more recovery time.

"I'm trying to get him to soften up," Steffensen said.

Predictably, the SMS reply came back negative. "That's bullshit, man. That's not cool," the runner complained.

Steffensen was a 4x400m relay silver medallist at the 2004 Olympics, but blew his chance to run the individual event in Athens.

Following the Games he flew to California to find Smith, a man whose ordinary name belies the fact he is an extraordinary coach – the most successful in Olympic 400m racing history.

After trials and tribulation, Steffensen adapted to the American's ways and he made a stunning breakthrough at the most recent world championships in 2005 in Helsinki where he reached the final of the individual 400m.

Last year he took another great leap forward, breaking 45 seconds and winning his first international event at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

Since then he has been training to tolerate the pain and sustain the rhythm of a sub-44sec 400m because that is what he and Smith expect it will take to win at the next world championships in Osaka, Japan, this year.

"My 25th birthday is on August 30 and I get my present in the 400m final on the 31st," Steffensen predicted cheekily.

Before that he will race again on the domestic Telstra A-Series and in the selection trial at the Australian championships in Brisbane on March 9-11.

But right now it's the training, a brutal cycle of daily sessions that stack up on each other to build – or break – the athlete.

"He thinks I'm like some superhuman being," Steffensen says of taskmaster Smith. Superhuman? A work in progress at least. The day before, Steffensen put in seven hours' training, including a feared track set of four 350m sprints splitting 40sec to 43sec at the 300m, followed by another set of five 200m sprints with short recoveries.

"If he had asked me to do that three years ago I'd have said, 'John, that's not possible'," Steffensen said.

"It used to be my toughest session, but this 15 times 100m is harder because you can't cheat. But I don't throw up any more. That stopped two years ago.

"Your body adapts, but at the moment I don't like these 100s. It's my toughest session right now."

Steffensen's rise is an affirmation of the strength of mind over body as he has dedicated himself wholly to the fanciful goal of being an Olympic champion.

That's why he went to Smith in late 2004 and implored the supercoach to take him on.

Steffensen left Athens with a silver medal as a member of the 4x400m relay, after which he fulfilled a pre-Games pledge to get that tat.

"A lot of athletes get a tattoo just for making the Olympic team but making the team is easy. I said I'd get a tattoo only if I won an Olympic medal," he said.

"I love what I do and I do it because I want to be the best in the world.

"The thrill I get from winning is a thrill I couldn't get anywhere else. I thrive on it."

Steffensen's eccentric celebration upon winning the Commonwealth title in Melbourne last year drew criticism from some who interpreted his confidence as arrogance. It can be a fine line.

"But I don't do all that stuff after a race because I want to be a funnyman," he says. "The people who have conquered adversity know how I feel. I pictured all that, winning in front of the huge crowd, and it came true.

"Now I've experienced victory, I want more."

So here's another Latin quote for you, Steff.

"Audaces fortuna iuvat"_ fortune favours the brave.

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Mike Young

Mike Young

Founder of ELITETRACK at Athletic Lab
Mike has a BS in Exercise Physiology from Ohio University, an MSS in Coaching Science from Ohio University & a PhD in Biomechanics from LSU. Additionally, he has been recognized as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) from the National Strength & Conditioning Association, a Level 3 coach by USA Track & Field, a Level 2 coach by USA Weightlifting.
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