Christian: Today, I’m joined by Sara Isaković. Sara is a triple Olympian, who competed in Athens 2004 Olympic Games, the Beijing 2008 Olympics, and the London Olympic Games 2012. She won the silver medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 in the 200-meter freestyle swimming and was European Champion in the same year.
Sara was the first Slovenian swimmer to bring home an Olympic medal, and the second woman to swim the 200-meter freestyle below 01:55 minutes.
Next to the sporting achievements, Sara has completed a Master’s degree in Performance Psychology and is a TEDx speaker.
Sara: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
The popularity of swimming in her home country Slovenia
Christian: Sara, assuming that you are the first Slovenian swimmer to bring home a medal, is swimming not a very popular sport in your country?
Sara: I would say definitely not as popular as skiing, and our winter sports. Basketball has been becoming more popular also recently because we have Luka Dončić in the NBA. People are going in different directions based on who’s the star of the season and of the year.
But yes, swimming, there’s a constant. I would say people like watching swimming, especially at the Olympics. Our country is so tiny that we really have very little people to choose from with regards to a bigger country that can have many swim clubs, many coaches, and many kids enrolled in swim lessons.
It’s difficult to compare, but I wouldn’t say as much popularity, because it’s not so popular and not everybody enrolls in swimming.
How she got into swimming
Christian: How did you get into it?
Sara: My mom used to be a swimmer and back then it was still Yugoslavia. My mom used to compete for Yugoslavia and she was a very good swimmer. Then she just wanted to teach my twin brother and I how to swim and her intention was just that. It was not for professional swimming, because she knew what it takes.
But then we both proved to have some sort of a feel for the water early on and I love spending time in the water. Then through my mom’s coaching in the early years, I joined club swimming and continued ever since.
So I spent a lot of my childhood in Indonesia and Malaysia where I grew up. I had the opportunity to swim in outdoor pools in hotels all day, every day. So I was in the water basically since I was two and a half.
My twin brother and I both proved to have some sort of a feel for the water early on and loved spending time in the water. So I was in the water basically since I was two and a half.
Christian: And Indonesia, why was that? Because of the war?
Sara: Yes, exactly. Because my father is Serbian, my mom is Slovenian. All of a sudden, when Slovenia had its borders closed in 1991 when I was three, my dad couldn’t get into Slovenia anymore because he was a Serb. So then he just packed his bags.
When I was three, my dad couldn’t get into Slovenia anymore because he was a Serb.
He was a pilot, so he got a job flying for any airline he could get a job for. Then in 1996, he moved to Dubai and in 1997, my whole family moved to Dubai with him so that we could be fully together in one place.
Christian: Oh, that’s nice. That would have actually been my question because I saw you were born in 1988 and the war started in 1991. You left the country in 1991?
Sara: Yes. I don’t remember this, but my parents say it was just for three days in Slovenia. So Slovenia wasn’t as affected as it was in the other Balkan countries.
But yes, my parents, they loved each other. They were determined that they were going to make it work, no matter the nationality because they felt they were still the same people.
My parents, they loved each other. They were determined that they were going to make it work, no matter the nationality because they felt they were still the same people.
So I had that privilege to grow up internationally.
Her darkest moment
Christian: In your life as an athlete, what was your darkest moment?
Sara: My darkest moment was definitely those eight months before the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, around November or December 2007. I was so burned out as an athlete and I felt in that period of time, a sense of urgency. The problem was that I was really burned out and drained and my body wasn’t moving.
8 months before the Olympic Games I was so burned out as an athlete and my body wasn’t moving.
I wasn’t training well, and my clock was ticking. I kept thinking that I had the Beijing Olympics in eight months. I had these big dreams and aspirations and I still believed in them.
However, I was a little worried then because every single day I would come home crying. I would already cry in my car, from practice to home. I would cry and say that I’m not moving nor making any progress.
I hated swimming freestyle, which was my main event, so I just swam butterfly instead. Anything else I could, just to get my mind off of freestyle, even though my big dreams were all written down for freestyle, how I wanted to break the world record and win an Olympic medal in Beijing.
Those were all dreams written on my wall and I hated freestyle. I begged my coach to swim anything else, but freestyle. It was sad.
My big dreams were all written down for freestyle, how I wanted to break the world record and win an Olympic medal in Beijing. Those were all dreams written on my wall and I hated freestyle. It was sad.
It was also a moment where I was doubting whether or not I should have stayed in Slovenia because I finished high school in 2007. Then I took one year off before the Beijing Olympics to just train. So I just swam and slept and ate.
That was my whole schedule in 2007 and 2008. I was questioning if maybe I should have gone to the US. I was wasting one year of school, where I could have gone directly to Uni to study.
But I had love and support and I was mentally very strong, so I didn’t let that get to me. But it was really difficult because I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to get ready for Beijing.
Christian: Considering in Beijing [at the Olympic Games] you had a personal best and finishing second, you must have somehow recovered from that moment. How was that?
Sara: This is what happened. I was always this child, like a little mental guru of my own. Somehow my mom always kept me realistic and she was even more worried for me.
So I had a lot of negativity in that sense, but my mom did everything for me on this planet. So I’m very grateful for everything she’s done.
But her mindset was that it was not going to happen and that I was missing Uni. She kept wondering what was going on. Her worries were being spilled onto me.
But at the same time, I had my dad who every day kept telling me that eight months was a long time. And when I came home crying because practice didn’t go well, he would say that I should stay calm, believe in my dreams, and visualize them.
But then two hours later, I was in bed crying because I was visualizing how I’m winning an Olympic medal. I was visualizing it so vividly, that for me, it was happening as if it’s happening in real life. So I would convince my mind, but basically, I would be still envisioning success eight months ahead of time.
I don’t know, there’s just so much heart and soul. So in my bed, I would close my eyes and I re-visualized bad practices, I erased the movie of bad practices in my mind and I would re-swim it in my mind, the way I was supposed to swim it. I did that for two to three months. I would re-visualize every practice and just convince myself that I’m on a good path.
I would close my eyes and I re-visualized bad practices, I erased the movie of bad practices in my mind and I would re-swim it in my mind, the way I was supposed to swim it and just convince myself that I’m on a good path.
Then January 2008, I was still struggling. We were in South Africa on a training trip and I was dying. I was complaining that the high altitude was killing me. But I still kept doing the same thing.
We came to March and the European Championships and my main event were supposed to be a 200-meter butterfly. My coach begged me, like, honestly, on his knees, to swim the 200-meter freestyle. I reluctantly agreed that I would swim it just for him.
Then I went swimming this 200 free; no pressure, no expectations. I actually got third into the finals and I thought that this felt like fun. Like 200 free, all of a sudden I liked it again.
I ended up winning and then I just convinced myself that I was there in lane three and I could win it. And I just went for it. Then when I won the 200-meter freestyle at European Championships.
Ten minutes later were my 200 fly semifinals and I didn’t even go. I realized that I loved freestyle. Then after that, I told myself that everything was okay and I was on a good path. I went, 1:57.00 and my goal time was 1:55.00 for Beijing.
So I told myself that I was good. Then things just kept going better and better and my body felt fresher. I was very fortunate the stars aligned my way, but I also know I did some work on that too.
I was very fortunate the stars aligned my way, but I also know I did some work on that too.
How she taught herself to visualize from a young age
Christian: And the visualization, is that something you taught yourself or someone taught you?
Sara: I was always told by my mom when I was little to practice my races in my head ahead of time. She would always tell me, even when I was 12 years old to close my eyes, go in the corner, just play out the movie, how I wanted to swim a hundred backstroke, for example, because I was a backstroker when I was little. So I listened to her.
My mom told me when I was little to practice my races in my head ahead of time. She would always tell me to close my eyes, go in the corner, just play out the movie,
I didn’t know exactly how to do it, but then the older I got and because I practiced so much, I understood that I need to make this environment as vivid as possible. I need to hear sounds. I need to feel the water. I need to see my race strategy play out.
So I got better at it through time on my own. We didn’t talk about really mental preparation in Slovenia back then.
Christian: So basically you trained yourself to learn.
Sara: Yes. I’m so lucky that came to me with a little bit of encouragement, but I took it very seriously. So I really believed that if I practice something ahead of time in my head, even though I didn’t understand the neuroscience that I later understood. So yes, I’m happy I had that skill.
Her preparation for the Rio Olympics 2016
Christian: I saw an interview with you when I made my research. You said you were enthusiastic about the Rio Olympics and the qualification for it. What happened?
Sara: That’s a nice catch. I liked that you saw that. What happened was, in 2012, I wasn’t happy at all with my London 2012 Olympics. Unfortunately, there were a lot of other events leading up to it.
I wasn’t happy at all with my London 2012 Olympics.
I came from a college in the US. I wasn’t good at communicating with my coach at that time. I was younger. Somehow, I guess, I was more scared, but certainly, the communication was off.
Coming from a US training environment back to club swimming in Slovenia, preparing for Olympics, training was different, everything was different. So anyway, I came to London, not being happy at all.
I was just thinking about the entire Olympics that I wanted to get out of there. I didn’t want to be there. Then I took a year off and I went back to the Uni in Berkeley. I finished Berkeley 2013, one full year off of swimming.
Then I moved to San Diego where I got a job as a Research Assistant in San Diego. So I just worked in the lab exploring brain mechanisms of resilience in US Navy seals and Marines and other athletes like BMX guys.
Then I met a Serbian coach there that I knew from childhood in San Diego. I couldn’t believe he was there. I kept calling his name, “Marco, Marco! Marco”, and asking him what he was doing there.
He also was surprised and asked me what I was doing there and wondered what was happening with my swimming. I told him that I was working and just enjoying life and I was thinking about my swimming over.
He expressed surprise and commented that I was just 24 or twenty-five years. He said that I should start training with him. I told him that I had not been training for one year and was out of the water. He said that it didn’t matter because I would be back in no time.
So he got me so enthusiastic about swimming again, that I was training incredibly. I was training better than I’ve ever trained. So maybe the interview that you saw, that was during my training period. I did not yet go to competitions.
But once I got to swim meets, I had zero pulse before the blocks. I was like zero excited to race and I just didn’t feel the passion to race anymore. Then once I figured that out, I just didn’t want to race anymore. Then I knew it’s over.
I was training incredibly. I was training better than I’ve ever trained. But once I got to swim meets, I had zero excitement and I just didn’t feel the passion to race anymore. Then I knew it’s over.
So, unfortunately, you must have seen the enthusiastic stage of training before I went to a competition. But it was the best moment of my life, just knowing that I’m done and that I’m okay, if I finished my swimming career and that I did everything I wanted.
Her best moment
Christian: That leads perfectly into the next question. What was your best moment?
Sara: I have to say my best moment is really winning an Olympic medal. This is just because I taught myself that life lesson, that I got through winning an Olympic medal.
No matter really where you’re from and what your background is, what your training condition is like, you can train in a gym that’s the 1930s, which is still like here in Slovenia at my pool, you can really make dreams come true.
I taught myself that life lesson, that I got through winning an Olympic medal. No matter really where you’re from and what your background is, you can really make dreams come true.
This is if, number one, you’re willing to work harder than anybody on the planet, which means I do everything that’s expected of me and more, and number two, being able to see the vision in my head. I think that was my lifesaver really.
The hard work is great, but the one who wins, in the end, is the one who believes more. I feel like athletes, when they come into pressure situations, the role of an athlete is to just let go and to just let the body perform.
They should not think about results and not wonder if they are going to make it or if they are not going to make it. They shouldn’t be asking who’s going to beat them and what their country is going to think. So with the mental preparation, I got myself at the moment where I could just go and just let it happen.
My biggest life lesson was if I train hard and if I prepare honestly, absolutely anything is possible. When people tell me that it’s not possible, I say that I’m not going to believe that. So that’s my biggest life lesson, which I carry with me.
Christian: I have an interesting one for you because recently I’ve spoken to Inge de Bruijn.
Sara: Really? Oh my goodness. She was like my hero when I was little.
Christian: Yes, she is amazing. Actually, what she told me is her coach always told her, you can do more than you think you can. So that fits perfectly with what you said. It’s like, nothing’s impossible, right?
Sara: Oh wow. He did? Wow. That’s really nice that the coach let her say that. I didn’t really have an environment where people are willing to dream. So it’s just hard work. Slovenians are just hard work and more hard work. The thought is that you should stay humble and no dreaming big.
I didn’t really have an environment where people are willing to dream.
But I had my family members, I had my dad especially who was willing to say those things to me and be crazy with me and dream big. But you need those people in your life. It’s so important.
How she reflects on the Olympic final 2008, where she was the second women to swim under 01:55 mins
Christian: A question – that Olympic final in 2008, you put down a phenomenal time of 1:54.97. This is below 1:55.00, which has never been done before. But then, unfortunately, there was one person who was point 0.15 seconds faster, right?
Sara: Yes, Federica Pellegrini.
Christian: How do you reflect on that?
Sara: I know some people don’t believe me and they say that I’m just justifying myself because I was second. Well, I have to say that I’ve never in my life since that moment thought that I wish I was first.
Actually, I cannot imagine a better life as I have. I wasn’t thinking that if it was gold, my life would be better and maybe I would get more things. No, it doesn’t work that way.
I cannot imagine a better life as I have. I wasn’t thinking that if I would have won gold, my life would be better and maybe I would get more things. No, it doesn’t work that way.
So for me, the silver medal was honestly everything. I have so much respect for Federica Pellegrini and I was genuinely so happy for her. And I’m still so happy for her because she’s still killing it in the swimming world.
I don’t think as an athlete, it makes you anything less. Of course, I get it. Olympic champion is a different level because you’re the champion. But in the end, when there are tiny little mistakes, I respect athletes in the top eight at the Olympics, but nobody even knows who was fourth.
So luckily I didn’t get fourth. If I got fourth, my life would have been different, that’s true. But silver, I’m on the podium. I’ll take it. In that pressured environment where absolutely anything can happen, I’m happy I made it happen.
Christian: And in addition to that, you put down a personal best at the moment where it mattered most. So everything that was in your control, you did.
Sara: Thank you. That’s very kind of you to say. Actually, that’s true.
Christian: I think so. You can’t influence what your opponent does. So you did the best performance of your life in the Olympic final.
Sara: True, yes. I envisioned the time. I was envisioning for two years before the Beijing Games, the 1:55.00. So when I slammed 1:54.97, I was like, “hello universe, are you kidding me? This is cool. I wish I would have written down 1:54.05.”
I’m joking, but yes, that was good, definitely. It was definitely a good race. It was a great race to watch also back now.
Check out the Women’s 200M Freestyle Final – Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Games
Her advice to a younger Sara Isaković
Christian: If you could travel back in time, 10, 15 years, what advice would you give a younger Sara?
Sara: So if I could travel back 10 years which would put me into the twenties, I would try and say be as genuine as you possibly can with yourself in a way that I’m really honest. I am glad, that I’m 30 now. I’m so happy.
My whole priority in my twenties was to please others and everybody had to be happy and my role was to make everybody happy. It was just my character, but it would be much better if I stood up for myself and communicated what I’m feeling and communicated even with my coach before the London Olympics.
And just being really genuine and honest with what I want, how I feel, and then going from there. But I was hiding a lot of unhappiness and pain. Swimming wasn’t going well when I was transitioning from college back to European Championships and World Championships.
I would say be as genuine as you possibly can with yourself. My whole priority in my twenties was to please others and everybody had to be happy and my role was to make everybody happy. But I was hiding a lot of unhappiness and pain.
But it’s also my fault because I didn’t communicate with my coach. He was just continuing the same training I had before Beijing. So same practices, same 14, 15 and 16 kilometers a day.
Whereas when I was four years older, my body was different than when I was training different than the US. So definitely as early as possible, really stay true. Just don’t lie to yourself or make somebody else happy while you’re suffering.
Why she decided to move to the US after the 2008 Olympic Games
Christian: You moved to the US after the Beijing Olympics in 2008, why did you decide to make that move?
Sara: School was always my first priority. I loved school. I was really such a geek at heart. But I always wanted to continue swimming and studying.
School was always my first priority. I loved school. But I always wanted to continue swimming and studying.
In Slovenia, the country itself doesn’t offer ways for athletes to continue education and sports at the same time. It’s either you become a pro athlete or you leave sports and you’re a student. I went to international schools all my life, so I knew I always wanted to study in the US.
Christian: You think you could have been a better swimmer if you would have doubled down and didn’t study?
Sara: Probably yes. It’s so difficult to say because I say that I wouldn’t change my Berkeley experience for a million gold Olympic medals because I learned how to be independent. I was always independent, but still living on my own cooking, cleaning, studying 24 hours a day, swimming for the best team in the country.
When I was at Cal, we won four National Championships in four years. So, for me, NCAA Championships were better than the Olympics. I was very excited about this. I actually feel a sense of belonging to a team and group energy.
Everybody works together for one common goal. There was brilliant coaching. Teri McKeever is one of those coaches in Berkeley, Cal women’s swim team, who you watch. You know you watch on YouTube, legendary NCAA coaches and you get goosebumps when you hear them talk?
That’s how our coach was for my four years. So in general, I loved every minute of it and I wouldn’t change it for another Olympic medal. I really wouldn’t. The education and the professors on the Berkeley campus, I couldn’t wait every day to go to class. So yes, definitely a very priceless life experience.
Christian: Really cool.
Her success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful athlete or person?
Sara: How I see habits in the way, if I reflect back on my swimming career, it’s doing things that moved me in the right direction. So at any point in day and time, I’m doing what matters most.
It’s doing things that moved me in the right direction. So at any point in day and time, I’m doing what matters most.
I’m taking care of my body. I make sure I go to sleep early. I wake up, I come to practice early, I warm up my body. I don’t just come to practice three minutes before. I warm up my body intentionally.
I stretch after and I take ice baths. It’s all about little things at the end. For me, whether it’s nutrition, whether it’s self-care, whether it’s routines also, these are just habits and getting in a routine.
Also, routines pre-competition are super important, but I guess every athlete on their own finds what works for them. It’s just so important that you’re genuinely staying honest.
Being honest by doing everything that is in your power and capability to do at that moment and not cheating yourself. Because the coaches are looking, you shouldn’t be doing 18 squats instead of 20 squats; you are going to do 22 squats.
So it’s all about in that sense, am I staying committed to my goals and then aligning my behaviors with that. Mental habits are just as important, how I talk to myself, how I view failure, how I perceive difficult challenges. Actually, at the end, it’s all about the mind and how you manage that.
Her morning routine
Christian: Do you have a morning routine?
Sara: My morning routine today is different than when I was an athlete. But when the alarm rings, I love just setting a mental intention for the day. So I would, for example, just envision, what’s waiting for me that day.
I would play a short movie of how I’m successfully going about and solving problems and achieving things and getting things done. So I’m envisioning that.
I love setting a mental intention for the day. I would play a short movie of how I’m successfully going about and solving problems and achieving things and getting things done.
When I was an athlete, at 5:00 AM, when I was walking to practice in Berkeley, I would repeat things that I’m grateful for, just to get me in a happier state of mind. But today, I sleep next to my boyfriend and I kiss him. I have breakfast.
I try not to check emails or phones until at least an hour into the day. I wouldn’t get on my phone and check Instagram. I take time to freshen up my body and shower like everybody else.
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: How do you prepare for important moments?
Sara: What is an important moment? It’s just a moment when you want to be your best. It all depends on how you perceive it. But it’s work, it’s preparation. It means that if something is waiting for me as an athlete, if I didn’t put in the training, I wouldn’t feel confident, definitely.
What is an important moment? It’s just a moment when you want to be your best. It all depends on how you perceive it.
As a lecturer today, if I don’t prepare my material, if somehow I don’t know what I’m saying, I wouldn’t be confident to carry out the performance. So it’s preparation in the sense of like athletes physically engaging. For me now, it’s like cognitively engaging.
Then like I said, I really, really believe in visualizing. If I have a big, big lecture hall and maybe I have a keynote speaking bout, which is just 20 minutes and it has to be like a Ted talk, I would put myself mentally on that stage before and rehearse.
The preparation for the Olympic final
Christian: We have talked about that Olympic final in 2008. Prior to that race, what did you do?
Sara: Just prior? Like 10 minutes prior?
Christian: Yes. How do you prepare immediately for that moment?
Sara: Well, can I tell you the real story? The real story was that we swam finals in the morning, not to blame the US, but the US paid millions and billions of dollars so that they could watch prime time swimming, their primetime hours. My final was around 9:00 AM or 10:00 AM.
When I woke up that day and went for a swim, because I need to warm up my body in the pool before I race, I’ve never felt more tired, more sore, more heavy. I begged my body not to do that to me because I had my final in one hour.
I’ve never felt more tired, more sore, more heavy. I begged my body not to do that to me because I had my final in one hour.
You have to swim these race-pace times just to get the body moving in the same kind of race, pace mode. I would swim at least a second off. So instead of going 30, 29, 28, 27 seconds, I went to 32, 31, and my coach for the first time in my life looked at me and asked if I was okay.
I was surprised because my coach had never said that to me, so I don’t know where he got that idea from. I told him that I guess I was okay. Then 45 minutes before my race, maybe 15 minutes, I was under the shower. It was just a hot and cold shower, hot and cold, hot and cold.
I was repeating to myself for at least 10 minutes that I was okay and I was ready. I told myself that I could do it and that I believed in myself. I used positive affirmations to a max. Then I guess I just felt better and then I went to the race.
There’s no real prep time that early before races. It’s physical warm-up; mentally, this was the state that I was in, as I was saying. I had to really boost my confidence that way. My last words before the race started, I just told myself to have fun. Those were my last words.
I told myself that I could do it and that I believed in myself. My last words before the race started, I just told myself to have fun.
Christian: Considering that the lead up to the race was so difficult, did you still believe you could win and set a personal best?
Sara: I was always one of those athletes that did such a good job at focusing on the process and I never ever obsessed with the outcome. At that moment, it wasn’t in my mind because I knew that my job was to just execute my best race strategy.
The plan I’ve been sticking to in the prelims, in the semifinals, in months before that, it’s a 200 freestyle, I know I swam it a million times before and all I needed to do at that moment was to swim another 200 freestyle. I really believed that if I left my heart and soul in the pool, I would swim well. So I knew the time would definitely take care of itself.
I really believed that if I left my heart and soul in the pool, the time would definitely take care of itself.
Christian: Really cool.
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?
Sara: I was pretty chill with failures, setbacks, whatever we call them. Somehow I knew that I had five minutes to be sad and I let myself be sad, but I’m way too much of a happy person. I wouldn’t let myself be sad for long.
I’m way too much of a happy person. I wouldn’t let myself be sad for long.
So I am like, “Hello sadness. Can you please go away? Everything’s okay”. Then I would just think about what I learned from that experience and what my job is and how to move forward. Every single time it’s the same thing.
It really turns out and you know yourself, that honestly, everything happens for a reason and somehow that was meant to be then that experience. And always keep moving in the right direction with the right kind of mindset, instead of sabotaging yourself and saying that it’s over. It’s more encouraging yourself to keep going and working hard. It takes a lot of patience as well.
Her role model
Christian: Who’s your role model and why?
Sara: I knew this question was coming. Can I tell you the truth? When I was very little my role models were Pieter van den Hoogenband. He was like my hero and of course, Ian Thorpe back then and Alexander Popov and Martina Maravcova was one of my first ones.
But in general today, I feel like every human is a role model in some sort of way. Luckily I’m surrounded by beautiful, capable people, doing lots of cool projects and I’m inspired by everybody that lives their passion and shares good with the world.
I’m inspired by everybody that lives their passion and shares good with the world.
Honestly, a role model could be a cleaning lady one day. I meet her and I think that it was nice of her to clean the whole place. So, yes, she’s a role model because she’s probably struggling with money or she has three jobs. So she’s a role model too.
The best advice she has received
Christian: What is the best advice you received and who gave it to you?
Sara: The best advice, I honestly don’t know who gave this to me, but I think I got it from my upbringing, from my parents actually, is just to be who I am. So they didn’t necessarily tell me that, like consciously, “Sara, just be you. Be you, be authentic”.
But it was more like, “we let you be you. So just be you. You’re not a result. We don’t judge you based on times. You’re, Sara, you’re a human being”.
Through my parents, I always somehow had the freedom to be fully me and never pretend that I am something I’m not. I never have to fulfill somebody’s expectations or wishes because in the end, all it matters is that I’m happy. So I love that part.
Through my parents, I always had the freedom to be fully me and never pretend that I am something I’m not.
Like I said, my parents through education, taking us around the world, showing us people everywhere around the world are the same and that it’s important to share, love, and care for other people showed us how to be genuine and authentic.
A lot of people live these inauthentic lives and they don’t do things that they like and then they’re just stuck. So luckily I had that and I could do that through sports and now I do that through my new career.
Her advice to live an authentic life
Christian: And what advice would you give someone who lives an inauthentic life?
Sara: First thing is to be super honest and admit it. You know what? I’m not happy doing this job and I’m not happy in this relationship and I’m not happy with the situation. People are just passive and then they feel a little bit like victims.
They just say that life is hard and things will never get better and they’re just not meant to be for them. It will get better. No, if it’s not okay, well maybe it can get better, but you have to put in intention, work, effort, and a little bit of just genuine energy when it comes to saying I want things to be better.
You have to put in intention, work, effort, and genuine energy when it comes to saying I want things to be better.
Then it’s changing the mindset because they are creating that reality for themselves. So with their words and their self-talk, people can get very, very destructive with their thinking patterns.
Sometimes it’s not their fault because the parents and the environment programmed this subconsciously and programmed this very negative perspective of life into a child’s brain. Then when we’re five years old, we have no control what kind of information we’re accepting.
Someone may be telling us to stop dreaming and asking us who we think we are. They may say it’s never going to happen. Somehow when we’re older, we have a choice which thoughts we’re going to listen to and which not.
So just first be very truthful, accept that it’s not okay and then try and change. Well, don’t try; just change because every one of us with a little bit of conscious awareness can catch those unproductive thoughts and then we decide how we want to respond.
It is the same with emotions. So trying to be the master of your mind. I know it sounds super cheesy, but it is what it is.
Christian: Thank you for that response.
A typical training day in the life of an Olympic swimmer
Christian: I know swimmers have long days with early mornings and long evenings. Take us through a typical day of a swimmer. How does the training day look like?
Sara: I would wake up 4:45, eat breakfast by 5:05, leave my house at 5:08, get to the pool between 5:18 to 5:20. Those minutes are so important. I know they don’t sound important. but they are. Then 5:30 would be jumping in the water and swim for two hours.
When I was younger, this was high school years and then college years was the same, I would then go to school or classes. In college, my practice was already from 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM, whereas in club swimming, it was from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM.
When I would come home from school when I was younger, I still had time for homework and to eat lunch. Then maybe I had an hour, not off, but doing homework probably. So yes, in high school years, I’d come home, around 8:00 to 8:45, eat dinner and go to bed at 9:15.
In college, I used to finish my training day at 4:00 PM. I’d still have some classes in the afternoon and then study in the evenings or hang out with friends. So yes, definitely twice a day training with the gym or some kind of cross-training or Pilates.
Christian: I’m just making my maths, so you go to bed at 9:15, getting up at 4:45. That makes it seven and a half hours. Is that enough sleep?
Sara: Definitely not. I know. I really learned how to power nap. So in college, when I would come home from practice, I would come home around 8:00, let’s say 7:55, eat my breakfast.
I really learned how to power nap.
Then from 8:20 to 8:35, I would take a power nap, and then in five minutes, I would pack my Uni bag with books and notes, and then 8:45, I would already be running to class. But the 15-minute nap saved my life.
How she developed a mentor training program for pilots and swimmers
Christian: I saw in the Ted Talk, you talked about that you developed a mentor training program for pilots, and now you’ve developed a new program, Between the Two Lanes [Sara’s book, available on her website]. What is it about?
Sara: Yes, thank you for saying that. I started off with pilots because my whole family is pilots and I genuinely care about the psychological states of pilots. Now I got this book printed.
Let’s say this is adjusted to all ages, young and old. I feel like we’re all kids at heart, but it’s more just to a younger population. I always wanted a young swimmer, 13 or 14, somewhere around then, when they start deciding what they want to do with their sports career, to have a manual in their hand. I’m definitely talking about myself.
How can I mentally power through all the grueling hours of training, all the competitions? It’s mentally really, really challenging to stay motivated every day; to stay confident when you need to; to manage thoughts, emotions; really stay present, focused; be aware of my body; be aware of my habits.
I always wanted a young swimmer to have a manual in their hand. How can I mentally power through all the grueling hours of training, it’s mentally really challenging to stay motivated every day; to stay confident when you need to; to manage thoughts, emotions; really stay present, focused; be aware of my body; be aware of my habits.
It’s all about attitude at the end and have the ability to learn how to visualize. So mindfulness training plus visualization. So with all my studies and experiences, I said I need to do this. Not, I need to, but I want to.
I want to do this because I wish that every young swimmer, for now, two swimmers, have this program in their hands. So I constructed, like I said, a five-week mental training program. It is four weeks of mindfulness training and a fifth week is learning how to visualize.
I intentionally teach swimmers how to close their eyes and practice scenarios and practice races ahead of time. But it’s a step by step process. So yes, that’s what it is.
Here’s just a book, but inside, is the QR code where I have access to 36 mental training recordings. If that individual goes through it intensely and does everything the way it’s meant to be, great results happened.
So I’m very happy. This makes me really happy that I can give back to the swimming community. Hopefully, in the next six months, I have the same program. Here I wrote Between Two Lanes just because we swimmers spend our whole life just between two lanes, watching the tiles on the floor.
This makes me really happy that I can give back to the swimming community.
But hopefully, in the next six months, I’m going to have one program for a general performer as well, because now I work with, not only athletes but musicians and businessmen. As I said, I started with pilots and extreme athletes. But basically, it’s for any individual who wants to just live a little bit easier and have the mind in the right place.
Christian: Really cool. And then after five weeks, after some time you repeat the five weeks?
Sara: So here’s the thing, it’s an intense five-week mental training program, but I encourage them to continue for the next three weeks, at least being mindful of where they’re paying attention to.
But what happens in the period of five to eight weeks, you’re actually reprogramming your brain and training the awareness part of your brain, which is called the insular cortex, through meditation and mindfulness exercises throughout the day. So what happens is you actually rewire a brain that helps you be aware in situations when you need awareness.
So, for example, I start complaining that my coach gives me a really difficult set. I’m thinking that I’m going to die and I can’t do this. I tell myself that it’s too hard and everything’s hurting. I wonder if he’s crazy and how this could possibly be true.
At that moment, if my awareness clicks in, I can say that that is interesting. I wonder where all the thoughts are coming from, bombarding me with all the negativity. I can then tell the thoughts, “thank you for the drama. I appreciate it. Now, please, let’s keep it calm and quiet.”
Then I get to decide how I want to respond and think constructively. How am I now going to be able to do this, instead of being caught in this drama of “life is difficult and I’m going to die?” Because then, all of that physically manifests in the body and as an athlete, if I’m not aware of my mind-body connection, the performance just doesn’t come about.
If I’m not aware of my mind-body connection, the performance just doesn’t come about.
it’s just more about this basic skill of how am I able to manage myself in stressful situations so that I can help myself, but without training the brain. It’s like training a muscle in the body, any muscle in the body. Awareness doesn’t click on its own. You need to train it.
Christian: Okay, cool.
Check out Sara Isaković’s TED X Talk Do Pilots Need Mental Training?
What is going on in the life of Sara Isaković
Christian: Okay, cool. So what else is going on in the life of Sara at this moment in time?
Sara: I’m really in a very happy place. Thank you for asking. I’m back in Slovenia and I’m happy I’m here because somehow people in this region are yet to explore mental health and well-being. It’s such a good topic for people here to talk about it.
So I’m happy I’m in a place where psychology is still new, more or less. It’s been around forever, but people are now more open to talking about it.
I’m happy to bring a more practical, easy, fun, and relatable approach to psychology within all those performance fields and work with coaches, parents, young athletes, and performers and just help them build more resilient mindsets.
I’m happy to bring a more practical, easy, fun, and relatable approach to psychology within all those performance fields and work with coaches, parents, young athletes, and performers and just help them build more resilient mindsets.
The nature of Slovenia is beautiful, so I’m in the mountains hiking. I’ve never hiked before because, in Dubai, there are no mountains. I’m breathing fresh air and eating healthy food.
Her interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed.
Sara: Yes, not because now you are in the Netherlands, but I’m really inspired by Femke [Heemskerk] because she is one of the toughest swimmers I’ve ever witnessed in the swimming career. She’s one or two years older than me, but she keeps fighting and she keeps going and she just loves the thrill and she keeps getting better.
Somehow at that age, it’s difficult to sustain such a high level of intense training and her level of excellence. So if Femke will have time, no pressure Femke, I hope she can talk to you about how she does it because she’s incredible.
Christian: Yes, really cool.
Where can you find Sara Isaković
Christian: Where can people find you?
Sara: People, you can find me on Instagram, of course. My name is Sara 3 ice. So number three and then ice. Don’t ask, it’s just a nickname. Then saraisakovic.com is my website, where I’m also reachable at email. So I guess those two platforms.
Sara Isaković’s social profiles
Christian: Sara, thanks a lot for your time. That was awesome.
Sara: Likewise, thank you. Thank you for your lovely questions. They were really great.