A Masterclass From A Four-Time Paralympian

Published by Tate Wilkins 5 min read
Health & Wellbeing One Wellbeing Inspiration

There is a myth that us humans only use 10% of our brains. Others argue it is less; others argue it pertains more to our physical capabilities. While this is still debated, it does bring up an interesting point in that we usually only do as much as we have to. We do our jobs and that – but it’s rarely life and death stuff. What would we be truly capable of if we were pushed to the absolute brink?

4 time Paralympic swimmer Matt Levy is certainly operating well above 10%.
Being born 25 weeks premature left Matt with cerebral palsy, legally blind and one hell of a fight through over 50 operations. Just living day to day was a challenge yet when Matt was 5, he began swimming as a way to get his limbs moving and improve his overall health.

Each week, One Wellbeing presents an athlete with advice on preparing themselves to transition from sport to retirement. This week, Matt Levy will teach not just athletes but all of us how to transition from our comfort zone of daily life to finding that other 90% of untapped potential.

Matt Levy

Support networks

Swimming. You couldn’t invent a more individual sport if you tried. Head in the water; staring at a black line. Your mind talking to itself for up to 140 laps per session; over 10 sessions a week. For Matt Levy, however, the first piece of advice he promptly gives is the need to have a support network. “They say it takes a village to get to where you need to be” he explains, adding that a team serves to instill belief and skills. “Learn from everyone – parents, coaches, swimmers, education – all areas….be a better version of yourself – in sport and in life – each and every day’.

Follow your passion

The last operation I had was for a small breathing problem with my nose. I was off work for almost a fortnight. Matt Levy has had over 50 operations, with most coming in the first half of his 33 years of life. If he had 2 weeks off every time, it would be nearly 2 years wasted. Yet wasting time simply isn’t in his vocabulary. University degree completed. Employee at Westpac for over a decade. Plus the little side hustle of training full time for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics – his 5th Games. How does he approach an operation which would derail most of us mere mortals? “I guess the only way going into an operation is to think about feeling better after the operation.
It has to happen, it needs to be done”. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger might be a cliche’ these days but could be a tagline for the Sydney swimmer. Having to do an extra lap at the end of a session really doesn’t seem that hard when you’ve gone through 50 operations, does it.

Become comfortable with being uncomfortable

Craig Lambert, talking with Matt Levy on The Be Ready podcast, describes he feels tired just hearing about Matt’s 3-4km swim sessions. But then he sums up the main message of this article. “It’s what you’re comfortable with; and you’ve learnt to become comfortable in the pool”. Matt discusses that he could barely make 50m continuously when he initially wanted to take swimming more seriously. Yesterday, I personally felt tired from going 5kg heavier on a barbell squat for 10 reps. We all just adapt to what is our norm and Matt, by consistently getting out of his comfort zone and being persistent, has now made swimming 140 laps several times a week his. Make being uncomfortable your norm and you will adapt!

Don’t give in to short term gratification

Ask yourself – if you were making $400,000 a year playing NRL, would you really be busting your gut to go and study when you’ve just spent 2 hours of pre season fitness training? Sure, you can say that you would but until you’re in that situation, no one really knows. As Mike Tyson says “Everyone has a plan – until they get punched in the face”. (not saying 400K is a punch in the face but you get the point). But for Matt Levy, going home and resting is the short term gratification approach – it feels good for those few hours but it makes you feel worse in the long run. He explains

“Eventually, I didn’t want to finish training, go home, sleep and sit around thinking about training (or sport). I wanted to have that avenue where I could think about something else – an outlet. The 7-time Olympic medallist further adds “Work/training, training/study – they compliment each other…..when I’m staring endlessly at the black line; I can think about work. When I’m stressed at work, I can think about the upcoming session”.

Turn your negatives into positives

There’s countless stories of athletes turning a weakness in their game into a positive. Cooper Cronk was originally a centre but was forced into playing halfback and the thousands of extra training hours to learn those skills he didn’t then possess. Being vision impaired, Matt cannot drive. This again may seem like a hindrance but he uses this negative as a positive. “Most people have the luxury of driving 10 minutes to training. I have to catch public transport which takes 45 minutes. To me, that’s 45 minutes of time to study or get some work done (at Westpac)”. And with Matt also sitting on a number of boards, being an ambassador for several initiatives and studying his MBA, it appears this method is more than just working.

What’s your excuse?

Matt reveals that receiving an Olympic gold medal and hearing the anthem is over in about 1 minute. Yep, that is after 140 laps per session, often 2 sessions a day, up to 10 sessions a week over a 4 year Olympic window. (And here I am complaining about the heavy set of barbell squats). “For me…” Matt proclaims “….the experiences and lessons learnt have been far more valuable than the medals I have won – and those memories I can actually use to help others too”.

Matt Levy: a legally blind man with cerebral palsy and 50 operations down, who has achieved all of this and is continuing to his 5th Olympics – while also looking to “become better and better every single day”. Just think – are there things in your life stopping you or are you actually stopping yourself? After hearing Matt’s story, I know for myself there’s more room left in that remaining 90% than I actually realised.

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