Czech athlete Emil Zatopek was a pioneer in the running world that popularized interval training. He was known for his radical approach to running - almost as radical as his approach to friendship.
He is most well known for his absurd display of willpower and strength during the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Emil had won the gold medal in the 5000-meter and 10000-meter races but then decided last minute to run his first marathon during the Games. Talk about super-human.
Now, this is where the story becomes one of legend. Zatopek was known for being a chatty person like me. But his favorite place to talk was on track during races! He appreciated how long-distance running allowed time for personal conversations and true deep connections. Now, this annoyed the officials for some reason and so when he entered the marathon, they decided to neglect to share the marathon rules with the newbie contestant. This resulted in Zatopek passing up on all the water, food, and refreshment opportunities throughout the marathon! 26 miles! 42 kilometers!
Zatopek, being the insanely talented and determined athlete that he was, decided to take it easy and follow the pace of the other contestants. Soon enough, he caught up to the leader, British runner Jim Peters. Peters and Zatopek had an exciting relationship altogether. Peters had switched to the marathon after he had been annihilated during the 10000-meter race by Zatopek in a crushing defeat.
Zatopek came up behind Peters, carrying a respectable pace, and stated, "Hello, I am Zatopek." Peters knew precisely who he was racing.
Halfway through the race...and Zatopek talks with his new friend... Zatopek asked Peters for some words of advice, “Jim,” said Zatopek, “is this pace too fast?” “No,” Peters replied sarcastically. “It isn’t fast enough.”
Although said in jest, Zatopek took the comment literally and picked up his pace to win the marathon and smash the world record. Now, I love this story. It doesn't even sound real. Here are some lessons we can learn from this remarkable athlete.
Zatopek didn't know that he was going to run the marathon. But he had been preparing for physical competition so that he was prepared to step up to the task when the opportunity arose. Always sharpen your mind, skills, and abilities. Prepare yourself to take on opportunities. Luck equals preparation and opportunity; if you are not preparing to be your best self, you may not be ready when the opportunity comes.
Second, Take on new challenges.
Zatopek recognized that he had the transferable skills that he could take to a new arena. He'd never competed in the marathon before and won gold after winning gold in a 5k and 10k - he earned an extra gold medal literally on a whim because he decided to take on a new challenge.
This wasn't Zatopek's first time trying something new. He was a pioneer in his innovative approach to training that popularized interval training. Today, this style of training is seen commonly all over the world.
Be fierce- take on a new frontier.
Lastly, lead with relationships.
Now, I recognize that not everyone was rooting for Zatopek in this story. Officials didn't tell him the rules, Peters tried to give bad advice, and not everyone was on Zatopek's side. But Zatopek was always rooting was everyone. He constantly lifted people up and acted as a cheerleader for others' success. Zatopek spent his time speaking with others and sharing in astounding acts of friendship.
My favorite story is about when fellow athlete Ron Clarke visited Zatopek in 1966. Both were retired from successful careers but Clarke’s extensive resume of 17 world records excluded an Olympic gold medal. Zatopek and Clarke had a pleasant visit as old friends and as Clarke was leaving, Zatopek handed him a package instructing him not to open it till he was on the plane. Clarke opened the package mid-air to find one of Zatopek’s Olympic gold medals with a note that read, “Great is the victory, but the friendship is all the greater.”
Zatopek was astounding by himself, but his goal was to champion the success of others.
So, here's what I want you to do. Identify one thing you can do today to prepare to be your best self and take advantage of opportunities and new frontiers when they arise. Also, take the time to champion the relationships and success of others within your field. Zatopek understood that a rising tide raises all ships - he sought to be his best and to bring out the best in others. Be like Zatopek.