The Art of ‘Kaizen’: An Interview with Olympic Swimmer Brett Fraser

As a WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) hailing from North Florida, there was never any question that I’d be taught how to swim.  I have not-so-fond memories of being dunked underwater at Coach Carroway’s swim lessons to make sure I wouldn’t panic once I was submerged.

I can’t think of a summer where there was a black kid on my swim team.  I still never considered the opportunity of learning how to swim as a white elitist privilege.  It was more of a social outlet; we ascended the team echelons from Minnows to Guppies and were awarded participation ribbons regardless of performance.

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with University of Florida alum Brett Fraser, a two-time Olympic swimmer and Pan American Games Champion.

Brett grew up on the island of Grand Cayman and swam for the University of Florida from 2007-2011.

He attributes his first dose of competitive spirit to his early childhood days, when he would swim in his family’s pool with his brother after school.  They would place bets with bemused tourists who questioned if the two young boys of African descent could even swim, and then the two brothers would proceed to beat the others in races.

Fast forwarding a few years, Brett set the “formidable” goal for himself to compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  Brett began his collegiate swimming career in the fall of 2007 when he essentially walked on to swim with the Florida Gators.  He joined as a zealous swimmer and leveraged the experience of his older brother Shaune to motivate him to secure a spot on the team.  In his words, his freshman year performances were “satisfactory” enough to be kept on the team, but he was eager to prove himself to the program that he considered as showcasing athletic excellence and exemplary character.

Brett’s journey to rigorous training schedules and 10,000 calorie per day diets began in his backyard of beaches spanning 7 miles in Grand Cayman where he and his older brother Shaune would swim together after school.  He acknowledges that the marginalization of black swimmers isn’t fair nor is it just, stating that “many things in life aren’t fair, but I was in a different position than most African-Americans because I grew up on an island and had unrestricted access to the ocean at the minimum.”

Brett later regularly traveled to Jamaica to access challenging competitions and the only Olympic size swimming pool in his vicinity, where Sean Paul’s dad also happened to be a timing official.

Like any college student, he had to teach himself to juggle his business administration and finance majors with a social life and the adjustment to campus living.  But unlike the majority of college students, Brett was gearing up to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.

Following the Beijing Olympics, Brett was able to dodge burnout and immediately focus his attention on the London Olympics in 2012.  “Most of it is a mental game,” he continued, “you play with your limits and there is a point where you just get the right feeling, and you shift into a mode where you feel unstoppable.”  When November 2011 rolled around, he had qualified for every event in which he set out to compete in.

Before our interview, I had seen an Instagram post that showed a young black child in the pool. It was captioned, “Haters will say it’s photoshop.” Curious about Fraser’s thoughts on the matter, I brought up the Instagram post.

“I assume the meme is humorous,” he replied, “but it’s a real hard hitting issue that is widely unresolved in 2017.”

Dating back to before the Renaissance, young African boys were considered highly adept at swimming, and as a result, many were enslaved and forced to dive to the bottom of the ocean for pearls. The stigma associated with black people in the pool is a reprehensible byproduct of social injustices dating back to the Jim Crow era. Historically, African-Americans were denied access to public pools.  70% of surveyed African Americans have little to no swimming ability.

Brett is an incredible example of breaking those barriers that exist not only in sports but lie deeper in society. His strength and perseverance are a deep inspiration to many in the same field and beyond.  I had the chance to talk more with him about how he got his start in swimming and what it was like to compete in two Olympic Games:

What was the biggest culture shock you had moving from Grand Cayman to the States? 

Not having a beach in my backyard.  I had also never gone through a winter at all.  My brother really helped with my acclimation (to university life), so there weren’t too many surprises.  By the time I started competing for the varsity team, I had enough competition experience under my belt.

While in school, how did you make time for a social life, or dating, outside of swimming? 

My number 1 rule is to have fun at all times.  My freshman year was a very quick lesson in time management. I was up at 5 am and in bed by 10 pm.  I had to find a balance between a social life, family, school, and athletics, and quickly determine my most productive time allocation.  A ‘sleep-in’ morning for me was getting up at 7 or 7:30 instead of 5:30am so that extra time in the morning meant a few extra hours at Cantina and Salty Dog.*

*A watering hole in Gainesville, Florida, frequented by many university undergrads

What about dating?

I usually liked to take my dates – shout-out to the ladies of Delta Gamma, Kappa Delta, Delta Delta Delta – to the Dragonfly or Manuel’s (in Gainesville).

You and Ryan Lochte both swam for University of Florida. Did you cross paths with him often?

Ryan (Lochte) is one of the nicest guys. He’s extremely talented and hardworking.  I felt privileged to learn from him and better understand his path to success.

How do you remember the moment that you qualified in the Missouri Grand Prix?

 I remember it like it was yesterday.

With two Olympic Games under your belt, can you pinpoint the proudest moment of your career?

I would say the Pan American games in 2011. I touched the wall first and my brother touched second.  It was awesome standing on the podium with high government officials in the audience.  I’ve never felt more proud in my entire life. Tantamount with the Pan American Games success was the experience of sharing competition in the semi-final of the 100-freestyle with my brother Shaune at The London Games.

Does the Olympic Village Live up to its hype?

Definitely – however it can be distracting. There’s a lot to see and do. There’s an added pressure from having delegates from your country there.

What are some of the highlights from being surrounded by the best athletes in the world?

I can break it up into pre/during/post-race. Before competing, you check into the village and just want to explore, meet people, check out the food and amenities.  You can’t do anything too strenuous.  I loved mingling with other athletes from all over the world!  I reveled in the Olympic atmosphere while remaining focused on what I was there for.

During competition, the best part was my own racing experience and seeing my teammates perform at their peak athletic ability and achieve things that we hadn’t before.  It was definitely the most rewarding part of this experience.

After competition is when the real fun starts. Anything you want in the village is at your disposal.  You get unlimited food (namely McDonald’s), and you can just hang out/mingle with the other athletes.

Did you spend time with any athletes in particular?

I had my eye on a couple of girls, meeting the dream team was awesome. Besides that, I was with my brother and with close friends who also competed.

The most incredible night was in Beijing where we went to a club called China Doll.  Select guests were handed marbles as tokens to gain entry and led to a back room that hosted Usain Bolt’s private party. This was right after he ran a 9.69, so celebrations were properly in order!

Walk me through the moments in the locker room just before you were about to compete in the Olympics:

I distinctly remember listening to house and techno music, which is definitely not the same as EDM. Occasionally some hip-hop.  As soon as I’d step in the ready room, the headphones went in.  I didn’t want anyone talking to me, except for my brother.

Did you have any close calls with injuries from over-training before the London Olympics?

Not from training. I was scootering home after practice and was gazing at the UF Women’s soccer team conducting their evening run while a group of children were crossing the street.  The roads were wet, and I went to brake and pulled the wrong one.  I fell going about 30 mph. But I was bandaged and in the pool the next day fortunately without injury. This happened in December 2011, about 6 months from my first race in London!

What made you feel most confident on an off-day?

On off-days, I would reflect on previous practices.  Every single day, I gave everything I had, and this allowed me to trust in the training, my coaches, and myself.

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“There are two types of athletes,” Brett goes on to tell me, as we wrap up the interview. “There are the ones who go from the height of their careers and then submit to a nonchalant attitude.  Then there are those who continue to strive to be better, the best even.”

There’s a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement known as ‘Kaizen,’ and Brett closely identifies with this philosophy. He has prepared himself to channel the drive and passion he had for swimming into the next phase of his life and has smoothly transitioned into his career in New York City.

Brett’s profound triumph over unfounded and negative stereotypes serves as such an inspiration to me.  He is living/breathing/swimming proof that you should do what you love for as long as it makes you happy, all platitudes aside.

All Photos Courtesy of Brett Fraser

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