When Zach Harting sat down for his press conference after winning the 200-meter butterfly at the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., he noticed something new under his name on the placard at his seat.
Harting said he was in a bit of a daze when he saw that. Though he dreamed of the moment since he was a kid growing up in Madison, Ala., anxiety often gets to him on race days. Harting said he had no appetite and his gut felt like it was in a ball. His coaches and teammates pulled the “Hoosiers” move on him, reminding him that the pool is the same length as the one he trains in and the water is the same.
“(My teammates) said, ‘Look, dude, you have done this a thousand times, a million times. What's one more?’ And I was like, ‘You're right, dude,’” Harting said. “And when I left the team area to walk back for my race, it just, like, clicked, like ‘Eye of the Tiger’ game mode. I’m like, ‘I’m ready for this.’ Then a lot of those nerves that were in my gut just, like, vanished.”
Anxiety would sometimes seep into Harting’s training, too. Working on focusing that energy was one of the main ways he elevated his swimming to the Olympic level.
“My coach told me, ‘You've done this a thousand times, you've trained for this, you're ready, you're physically ready,’” Harting said. “You're not anxious or nervous. You're excited to race, and it's really easy to get those two mixed up. But physiologically, they do the same thing to your body. So it's a mindset thing.”
Harting, 23, is just a few years removed from his college swimming career at Louisville, and he took sixth in the 200 butterfly at the world championships in 2019. When he decided to keep swimming, he had one requirement.
“As soon as I graduated, I told my coach, ‘Look, if it's not fun at practice, I'm leaving,’” Harting said. “And there has only been one or two times when it wasn't fun, because I was sick and it's not productive, then like, ‘Let's get out of here.’
“But I like to have fun. I like to make other people have fun, and I like to make other people laugh.”
When he won his race at the Olympic Trials, he sat on the lane divider, splashing and waving his arms to get the crowd cheering louder. Sports are entertainment, and he wants fans to watch swimming because they find it enjoyable.
“Yeah, I think back to when I was growing up and you go to a local hockey game or a local football game or any football game really, and you are there as a fan and you are there to be entertained,” Harting said. “It's a night out, and it's a fun thing. I think swimming doesn't — not everybody takes it as — that role as seriously. I always have been a goof ball, and I kind of try to be true to that.”
Harting will get more chances to entertain the masses at the Tokyo Olympics.
As he stood up from his trials press conference, Harting shyly pointed to the placard displaying his newly earned title. “Can I take that?” he asked the USA Swimming representative. She nodded yes, and he grabbed it with a huge smile.