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Sean Conway and Sebastian Vettel: the stuff of champions

November 18, 2013

Sean Conway recently completed the first ever swim from Land’s End to John O’Groats, up Britain’s West Coast. He said it was the hardest thing he had ever done. Just moments after emerging from the water, he said It just shows that if you put your mind to something anything is possible. The hardest part was trying to deal with the weather, the cold and jellyfish in the face. I had to grow this ridiculous beard to stop the stings. That’s a great comment made in the moment of personal achievement. Check out his web site

Since 30 June, Conway swam 900 miles and estimates that he took three million strokes. That’s a lot of lengths of my local swimming baths. Hazards on Conway’s journey included the jellyfish – he was stung 10 times – swallowing seawater and feeling seasick. In the last few weeks his jaw was so cold he was unable to chew solid foods and had meals pureed.

Conway’s philosophy is simple: Adventure isn’t all about climbing mountains or rowing oceans. Adventure, in its purest form, is simply a way of thinking. He follows two simple rules in everything he does: Either do it to be the best, or do it because you love it. If you can combine the two then even better. 

Every year thousands of people attempt to walk, cycle or run the journey between Land’s End and John O’Groats, a distance of 874 miles by road. Conway said he undertook the challenge because people doubted it could be done.  He has so far raised £8,500 from the swim with proceeds going to War Child, which helps protect children from the brutal effects of conflict and rebuild their lives. To donate to War Child, go to

Conway is a champion in my eyes, and another holding that moniker is Sebastian Vettel, who emulated the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio’s feat of four consecutive F1 World Championships. He now has Michael Schumacher’s five-in-a-row record in hit sights.

An easy mistake is to assume that he’s only winning because he has the best car. He’s a very technical driver who really understands the car and how to get the best out of it, but with all the great drivers, whilst most of the work is done outside the car so what needs to be done inside it is easier, the a four-time world champion aged 26 is something special. Here’s his record:

  • In 2009, Vettel replaced the retired David Coulthard at Red Bull Racing.
  • He won his first F1 World Championship in 2010.
  • He dominated 2011, winning nine races and became the youngest back-to-back and double world champion.
  • In 2012 he won four back-to-back races in becoming the youngest triple world champion and winner of three successive titles.
  • In 2013, he claimed six wins in a row on the way to making it four titles in a row.

What is most impressive is that he’s done it at such a young age. Fangio was 45 when he took his fourth title, and Schumacher 32. Vettel is just 26 and well on his way to positioning himself as one of the sport’s great champions.

Vettel shows relentless passion for the sport, consistent striving for the perfection of his craft, unwavering commitment to discipline and determination, authenticity in accepting areas for improvement, focused goal orientation to achieve results, and positive views of adversity and danger. In the moment of victory, an F1 champion is someone special.

A carpenter’s son, born in 1987, Vettel began racing go-karts when he was just three years old.  Vettel isn’t your ordinary racing driver. The German doesn’t have a manager, instead negotiating all his own contracts. He lives in the mountains near Lake Constance in Switzerland, and drives around in a five-year-old Volkswagen people carrier, which he bought before entering F1. Apparently he does his own shopping too. Bet he speeds down the aisles with his trolley and corners fast. He’s a fast runner too, apparently.

I’ve never been a fast runner really, but I still recall, almost 40 years ago, running in my first competitive relay race at a school Sports Day. I remember the running track, grass freshly mowed and new white lane markings, and a sunny day. My race was over 400m, the second leg, one lap of the track. The baton came to me and I surged forward. I settled in behind the lead runner, calculating to overtake him on the last bend before the straight run to the handover to my next colleague.

My race went to plan until just as I reached the last bend, I tried to push on, but my legs just didn’t have the energy, my breathing was now hurting. The mental drive was there, but I lacked the physical capacity. I remember the feeling of shock and disappointment now as clearly as I did then, the disconnection between desire and ability. I came second in my leg, and we came second overall, but second was not what I wanted. I wanted first, not for the medal or the glory, but for my own personal reward as a champion, but it wasn’t meant to be.

We applaud Olympic champions, knowing that we would never have been able to do what they have, all attention on the champion athlete who epitomizes the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius – Faster, Higher, Stronger. There is something deeply captivating about exceptional performance in sport, Voltaire spoke of this phenomenon when he articulated, Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.

The fascination for extraordinary performance as we think of the champions who stand proud on the podium, with their medals and their nation’s anthem ringing in their ears, is about human dignity as well as human achievement. For me it’s about saluting the person.

Sean Conway and Sebastian Vettel are champions in their own right, and share many characteristics, none of which are determined by their talent per se. How can we summon up the true character of the champion ourselves, and take this into our business? Here are some of those characteristics. How many of these statements also describe you and your business life?

  • Success comes to those with passion who strive. Striving is more than simply being competitive, it is an attitude that illustrates that the individual is as much competing with himself as with the challenge, or others in the same race. What set Conway as a champion apart from the rest is his relentless passion and uncompromising pursuit of extraordinary endeavour. Conway mastered his mental game which became his competitive edge, he persisted in spite of fatigue, tenacious in discovering his own style of beating the elements.
  • Authentic and inquisitive Champions are aware of their strengths and limitations, there are no pretentions to portray a perfect self-image free from any flaw or weakness. Such manifestations of authenticity bolster the courage in taking on lofty goals, but also in dealing with their true selves as well. They always seek the new frontier, pushing the boundaries, refusing to accept the status-quo. They begin every day hoping to learn something new, always searching for new insights, for original thinking, for something that makes them better.
  • Application, hard-work and discipline That is more than just the hours you put in, it is the discipline to set aside other things and concentrate hard on your own development. It is about focus and single mindedness. It is not just about deciding to work an extra hour, it’s about deep thinking, about getting down to the core of what you are trying to achieve. It is about knowing in your heart, when something is not good enough and can and should be better. Notice that this is self-discipline. Past a certain point, you and only you can provide that intensity of will.
  • Courage. No champion is without courage. It may be of mind or body. When things are in the balance, when you cannot be sure, when others are uncertain or hesitate, when the very point is that the outcome is in doubt that is when a champions’ mental toughness lets them step forward. The courage lies not in acting without fear; but in acting despite fear. Crickey, swimming in a rough sea with a jellyfish sat on your face would see me bale out sharpish! As for Vettel, the speed and danger in his sport demands it.
  • Optimism Another common characteristic is champions’ optimism. Conway expresses an ability to reframe adversity as an opportunity for achievement, to learn and grow and did not stop him from pursuit of his quest. Champions consider adversity as indicative of the merit of the pursuit for a real champion and thus welcome it. They reveal that beyond physical skill and training, there exists a champion mindset. They all have distinct cognitive and emotional make-up that allows them to relentlessly push themselves on their quest.
  • Live with failure What this means is that you must also be prepared to fail. This is a tough quality to possess, but the strange irony of the champion is they must be able to live with failure as well as enjoy success. The very act of stepping out into the unknown means you must accept that the risk, however calculated, may not pay off. Virtually no one I have met who has succeeded has not failed first. The question is what you learn from the experience and about yourself, the strengths you exploit, the weaknesses you must eliminate.

Within this, I think the four major criteria that make a champion are hard-work, courage, tenacity and mind set. These are what we use when we are functioning at our full potential. We each have them, but do we use them? The capability to constantly get out here and make an effort, the capability to work at what you want, the capability to believe in yourself, the capability to keep going when others have thrown in the towel. The capability to realise that you can achieve your dream, the capability to keep focussed.We all have them, so lets use them.

Champions are not just athletes, they are authors, artists, teachers, bakers, lighthouse-keepers in days gone by. There are people who the world sees in photos and on TV, people of fame and wealth, but it’s not about the external validation to be recognised as a champion, rather it’s champions of the human spirit, like Sean Conway, which is my definition. Recall his words as he stepped out of the sea in Scotland: It just shows that if you put your mind to something anything is possible.

Conway undertook the challenge because people doubted it could be done, he was willing to do what he needed to do, to get what he wanted. It’s not about medals of victory, it’s more about taking on the challenge. Champions believe in themselves when no one else does, it means going beyond your comfort zone and learning to win the game your own way – every champion was once a contender that refused to give up.

A final quote from Conway says it all: When my body got tired, my mind said this where winners are made; when my mind got tired, my heart said this is where champions are made.

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