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After “suffering” through a couple of hours of Olympic gymnastics with my wife, we finally got down to the good stuff: Swimming. After a night of close races and upsets, it looked like the favored French 4×100 freestyle relay team would take the gold in world record-crushing fashion. With the third leg complete and the USA team nearly a full body length behind, it looked like the race was already won. And that’s where I was dead wrong.

Jason Lezak, the 31-year old relay anchor, posted a mind-blowing, fastest-ever 46.06 second leg and snatched the gold away from the French by 0.08 seconds and just a shade below 4 seconds under the previous world record. As I sat there in amazement at what might be the best relay in the history of the world, I realized the team’s individual and collective performances are a good metaphor for dealing with debt.

Phelps: It Helps To Have a Strong Start

  • Michael Phelps, whose (now 14) gold medals may be worth $100 million to him in sponsorships over his lifetime, led off for the American men and pushed hard though his leg of the relay. Although he came in 2nd behind the Australians, he set an American record with his effort.

 

What the relay can teach us about debt

The best way to stay out of debt is to never get into it in the first place. If you keep your mind focused in your early years, you can avoid or minimize your debt load. Yes, there are some debts you may not be able to avoid, like student loans, a car loan, or a mortgage, but by navigating around “stupid debt” such as credit cards, you set yourself up for success later.

A strong start is very important, but notice I didn’t say you have to have a perfect start. Heck, most of us won’t. But as long as you don’t make any huge mistakes, you’re at least going to be in the running and lead your way into later victories.

Weber-Gale: Never Coast; Never Look Back

  • Starting in a good position, Garret Weber-Gale responded by pushing even harder. By the time he was finished with his leg, the Americans were in the lead by nearly a half-second.

Once you see yourself going well, it’s easy to let up on the intensity and chew up some of your gains by relaxing. To be genuinely successful, you can’t ride the crest of a gain; you have to keep pushing. After watching the balances decrease while you’re eliminating your debt, temptation to return to your debt-growing ways will kick in hard.

It’s almost as if things will pop up deliberately just to try to get you to stumble. Your car’s radiator may drain out on the side of the road just a few days after you make a huge payment to your credit card; your computer will crash just after clicking the submit button on your bank’s bill pay website; your clothes washer will get fed up and decide to lock you out of your house. It seems so malicious, but it’s all part of the game. As long as you don’t give in and power through the pain, you’ll find great success.

Jones: Sometimes You Do Fall Behind

  • Although Cullen Jones posted a time better than more than half of the rest of the field in the finals, the Americans were in 2nd place by over a half-second after his leg. His consistent pace was simply outrun by the 3rd leg of the French team by over a full second.

Even the most successful debt warriors find themselves overrun upon occasion. As dutiful as you attack your debt, there are outside factors that weigh heavily on your ability to repay your balance. Interest rates change, jobs are lost, markets tumble, and emergencies happen – there’s nothing you can do to prevent outside problems and little you can do to adequately prepare for them. The best you can do is play through the punches and never lose sight of your goal.

The numbers may be running in reverse, you may see your opponent pulling away from you; but if you give up, you’ve lost for sure. The only way to have a chance at beating debt is to stay in the game and remember that bad times do not last forever. There will be a period of recovery sometime in the future, you just have to hold on until then.

Lezak: You Can Always Catch Up

  • Handed a difficult job – a half-second deficit and a pairing against the former world record holder in 100m freestyle – the race was up to Jason Lezak. Instead of bowing to the “odds” and letting the favored French make good on their taunts to smash the American team, he rode the wake of the French anchor swimmer until the time was right to attack and steal the lead.

You’re going to fall behind occasionally, but success depends on how you respond to defeat. The best thing to remember when facing what may be insurmountable odds is to remember that a setback is not a knockout. You may not be winning right now, but that doesn’t mean that you’re out.

There’s nothing more exciting than a come-from-behind win, and the American team is feeling that now. My family has been feeling that as well in our battle with debt lately. After months of what felt like just treading water, we’re finally making some serious advances against our debt as well as getting great news about interest rate reductions on our student loans (down to 4.22% from a high of over 9% earlier this year). If we had given up and stopped our assault, we wouldn’t be experiencing this joy right now and we’d probably be in even more pain.

Team USA: You’re Not Just Swimming Laps

  • This was a big race and theirs to win. All the projections had the French blowing past the Americans in the final – nobody expected to walk away from this final saying it may be the best relay ever. And that’s the clincher: The race isn’t decided until the swimmers actually get in the pool and make it happen. And when it was all over, the four unlikely gold medalists stood atop the podium with the pride of a nation ahead of them and a shattered world record behind.

Debt elimination isn’t some routine exercise; it’s not a preliminary heat; every day is a gold medal opportunity and results are final every night. None of the swimmers’ previous times counted in the final, but every one of your actions today count toward your running total. Are you going to swim like everything’s on the line and go for the gold, or are you going to let your red inked enemy win the race?

To hell with the odds or the “favored” team; this race is yours to win. Now get in the pool and swim!