With Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art serving as the site of Wednesday's Chicago Ideas Week "Making of a Champion" panel discussion, it was fitting to kick off the event with a poignant quote from Pablo Picasso.
Picasso's quote, part of an introductory video screened before the panel began, stated simply, "An idea is a point of departure and no more."
As each of the ensuing six speakers took to the stage to discuss reaching -- and remaining at -- a championship level, it became crystal-clear the many, many ways in which elite-level athletes take an idea and use it to differentiate themselves from their peers and take their sports in new directions. It's one of the characteristics that best defines Kelly Amonte Hiller, Northwestern's seven-time NCAA Championship-winning head coach, and why she is a natural choice to participate in any meaningful forum on how to build a champion.
In addition to Amonte Hiller and emcee David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune, the complete lineup of speakers at Wednesday's panel consisted of: Bob Bowman, longtime coach of decorated Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps; Dan McGlaughlin, architect of a plan to become a professional golfer after picking up the sport at age 30; Cynthia Bir, a professor of biomechanics and sports performance at Wayne State University; Natalie Coughlin, professional swimmer and winner of more Olympic medals than any other female athlete in U.S. history; and Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, subject of one of the most inspirational sports movies of all time.
One of the questions posed by Chicago Ideas Week in publicizing the event asked, "Are champions born or are they made?" But after hearing the evening's speakers, it was difficult to walk away from the MCA still believing it to be a question with only two possible answers.
In fact, the theme of the evening may have been best articulated by McGlaughlin when he said, "You are whatever you choose to do." In his case, his choice was to put 10,000 hours of practice into a sport in which he had no experience to see if he could become a professional (at a 6 handicap just 3,400 hours in, he's well on his way). McGlaughlin casts aside the common notion that there are "numbers people," "creative people," and so on; in his opinion, if he had chosen to commit himself to 10,000 hours of math, he'd eventually have the skills to be a mathematician of the highest order.
The idea was supported by Bowman, who recalled the day when Phelps weighed his options between swimming as many races as possible at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and specializing so as not to burn himself out. Looking Bowman squarely in the eyes, Phelps said, "I want to be the best ever," and minutes later they were hard at work crafting a plan to see him achieve that goal.
Coughlin and Rudy had similar tales of deciding early on what they wanted for themselves and not taking "No" for an answer, even when it meant hundreds of 5 a.m. swims or painful practices on the Notre Dame scout team.
As the only coach of a team sport at the seminar, Amonte Hiller's uniqueness in the speaker series stemmed from her perspective on collecting 30-plus individuals and asking them to buy in to the same mission every single day for the duration of a season. Her innovative methods for fostering unselfishness, resiliency, accountability and a spirit of togetherness within her program, while also fighting that perennial rival named complacency, caught the attention of the audience and Amonte Hiller's fellow presenters. (I wondered if the prospect of asking 30 individuals with Phelpsian talent and ambition to practice and perform as a single unit, day-in and day-out, was enough to have Bowman thankful to be coaching an individual sport!)
Whether the speakers definitively answered the "born-or-made" question or only made it more complex is up for debate, but the certainty of the evening was that Chicago Ideas Week had hosted a first-class event that brought together some of the most impressive people in the world of sports. As always, Amonte Hiller represented herself, her program and Northwestern University in the highest manner possible at the type of event that makes us thankful to live in a city as vibrant and forward-thinking as Chicago.