GEORGE BOVELL III was TT’s lone Olympic medallist at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
Bovell III, then 21 years of age, copped bronze in the men’s 200-metre individual medley, becoming the first, and only, TT swimmer, to medal at the Games.
Recently, Bovell III and his coach Anil Roberts spoke about the journey they both shared – leading up to the 2004 Games, as well as the event itself.
Here is Part Two of the journey…
Anil Roberts (AR): We moved on to the 200IM a few days later. We were a little bit short of training, so I didn’t want him to overdo and overpush. In the heats, we had a strategy of just doing the first 100 at about 75-80 percent, get a lead, then cool it and make sure he’s in the top 16 for the semi-finals. I told him that, in the semi-final, the key is still to conserve energy because we are not as fit as we want to be. So (he’ll) swim through and, in the last 20-25 metres, shut it down and make sure that you qualify for the final.
Come second (and) let Laszlo Cseh from Hungary pass you. I had to insist that there was no medal in the semi-final. It was more important that he saved every bit of energy for the final. He listened and he did everything to perfection. George Bovell III (GB): I was preparing myself for the struggle of my life coming up, the 200 (metre) IM. I want to give you a quote, to describe how the 200m IM is. It’s about holding up a heavy weight that gets heavier and heavier with every passing second, and it crushes you.
You’re maintaining that impossible rhythm of exertion while executing mastery of technique, not one but all four strokes, and the transitions between the strokes. Total exhaustion must come long before the end of the race. You must have a really strong mind to force the body to hold on that rhythm and survive, to keep going, without drowning. That’s what the 200m IM is all about.
In the heats, I really played it cool. In the semi-final, I’m stacked up against a man I expect to beat to get a medal. Swimming is not only about physical condition, there is a lot of mind games that happen. I could have pushed and beat him. In the home leg, I slowed down and gave him a false sense of power over me, for him to feel like he broke (my spirit). I had to pull out all of the tricks in my book because my body was like 60 percent, because of my shoulder. That was a tactic that paid off well in the final.
Bovell III finished third in the second semi-final, in a time of two minutes 0.31 seconds, trailing Cseh (1:59.65) and Brazil’s Thiago Pereira (2:00.07).
AR: George qualified for the final, to be in lane two. We were going against Michael Phelps, (Ryan) Lochte and Cseh. In swimming, you have 25 minutes before the final where they’ll go into a ‘ready’ room. Just before I was to send him down into the room, I was seeing nervousness. I tried different things but I had to be careful because, in a high-pressure situation, you don’t want to add too much pressure because it will bring negative results. I just wasn’t getting it.
(Roberts called Bahamian swimmer Jeremy Knowles, his teammate at Auburn University). I said, ‘I want you to talk to George, I need you to get him ready, he’s looking a little nervous’. Jeremy took aside and I went out of earshot. I saw Jeremy take out a marker that he had in his pocket and he drew something on the inside of his right bicep.
Whatever he did, I saw this look of confidence, of self-esteem, of relaxation. George looked at me and I said, ‘let’s go’. He went and had the swim of a lifetime.
GB: This is everything that you wanted. You have a little voice that comes up in the back of your mind that tells you ‘don’t mess this up’. Before the final, everyone must go into a room, a very small room where you wait about 20 minutes. It’s very intense in this room. I was preparing myself since I had the injury, to lay my life on the line. A friend of mine came up to me and drew this hammer on my bicep.
I had a reputation (and was) called the ‘hammer of justice’. If you’re racing against somebody and you are very tired, and you know the other person is very tired too, and you speed up, even though you cannot sustain that acceleration, eventually what starts to happen is that the person you’re racing against, who’s looking over at you, they say ‘whey boy, George he’s fresh’ and they eventually give up, and you break their spirit.
When they have given up and drop back, then you can relax the pace. When you break somebody’s spirit like that, in practice, that’s called ‘dropping the hammer of justice’. I used to do this to people.
AR: His normal freestyle split could have 28.16, it was 29.0, but it was still good enough to give him that bronze medal. Guess who he beat for the bronze medal? The very said Laszlo Cseh who, the day before, he had allowed him to pass. George made history, it was a proud effort. It was the hammer of justice which was drawn on his bicep by Knowles which brought him into the mental state of readiness, to perform. The hammer of justice represented how George used to train with his teammates when they were under pressure. George’s father was the manager and I was the coach, we fell down in the pool deck, hugging up. All the countries were so happy because they love when small countries get on the podium because, in swimming, it’s very rare. It was a great time and it still goes down in history as the greatest swimming moment for TT. I was so proud of George.
GB: Even though my body was physically weak, I had competed in six races already. I had doubts about my physical strength. When (Knowles) drew that marker on me, it reminded me (that) my soul is strong, I am a warrior. I was ready to lay it all out. I had to pace it, I was physically weak, I was seventh after the first (part). In the backstroke I started to dig, started to put some energy and make up some ground.
I felt so weak at the end of that backstroke and I couldn’t believe this was happening in the final. I had a moment of weakness. In that moment of weakness comes the perfect excuse – the exhaustion, the injury. I was so tempted to take that excuse and just slow down. I didn’t feel like how I hoped to feel in the Olympics final. I pushed through the pain and I kept accelerating.
(Bovell III admitted that, during the turn and push-off for the breaststroke, he gained a lot of ground on his rivals).
I started to push the breaststroke like a fire burning in my heart. I kept accelerating as if the end of the breaststroke was the end of the race.
I moved up into second at the end of the breaststroke. Laszlo Cseh, the man next to me, I think he expected me to break. I kept my rhythm and it caused him to panic a little bit and lose his composure. I think it’s because of the tactic I played in the semi-final gave me a psychological advantage over him.
My freestyle was not a strong as usual, so I kept pushing and pushing. An interesting thing happened, when I touched the wall, it showed me in second place and then the clock had me in third place, it switched places with Lochte and myself.
Some people say America owns it because NBC has the tv rights, and a one-two America finish is good for the ratings. I came out of the ball with a headache, but a great sense of relief.