Alex Massura doesn’t exactly look like a world-class athlete. Sure, he’s tall, makes smooth strides when he walks. But just look at those long arms that go on forever, or his leng thy Brazilian legs. He doesn’t have the compact muscularity associated with a football player or a hockey player.
But he’s pretty well-shaped for swimming.
The Minnesota swimmer cuts through the water with that aerodynamic body, but it’s the cutting edge of his mind that nets the wins.
“I’ve prepared for every big meet in my life the same,” Massura says. “You have to prepare your mind, and prepare your water. You think you’re going to get behind the box and it’s just going to happen, but your mind has to be focused and knowing what you’re going to do when you get there.”
Focusing is kind of hard to do when you’re flying past competition — in the Big Ten anyway. Massura, a 24-year-old junior, has won the 100-yard backstroke two years in a row at the Big Ten meet for Minnesota.
Not that he’s had to go out of his way to win the titles. Swimmers usually shave for important meets like the Big Ten meet. Massura won the 100 backstroke in Ann Arbor, Mich., this year without shaving or relaxing his practice schedule to get a faster time.
“That was a statement of what’s important to us,” Massura’s coach, Dennis Dale said. “With Alex, we’re focusing on the NCAAs.”
While Massura dominates the Big Ten in the 100 backstroke, he’s not any kind of pushover on the national scene. Massura has been an All-American twice in the backstroke, with next week’s NCAA meet at the Aquatic Center on the horizon.
Oh, and there’s that fourth-place finish he had at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. That’s one of the few meets Massura admits affected his concentration.
“I was afraid of all these things; if I was going to get there, get in the pool and do my job or be distracted by all the things there. Fortunately, I went there and did my job,” Massura said.
“But these next Olympics I expect more from myself.”
Massura finished fourth with the Brazilian 400-meter free relay team in Atlanta. When the 2000 Sydney Olympics roll around in September, Massura will be there in the 100 and 200 backstroke.
But to get there, he’s had to rely as much on his body as his mind.
While Massura might be built well for swimming, Dale says Massura isn’t exactly chiseled perfectly for the sport. So how has he gotten this far?
“The deciding factor for Alex is that he does everything, everything that’s asked for him in and out of the pool … he works hard on things and does everything he needs to do,” Dale says. “He watches a very strict diet, he’s very careful about what he eats so he doesn’t get too bulky. He pays close attention to what he does both in and out of the pool.”
That dedication to swimming shows up in his everyday life. Maybe it’s deciding not to have a Coke or maybe it’s passing up that dessert. Swimming and keeping his body in perfect shape, is always at the top of his mind.
The mindset carries over to the pool. In a short race like the 100 backstroke, a race rarely comes down to the training of the athlete. It’s what’s between his ears that count. And Massura says that’s virtually all he does to prepare for the race. Visualizing what he’s going to do and how the race should feel, is a big part of how he prepares for important meets.
And the more experience he gets in those big meets, the more dangerous he becomes.
“Now, I have much more in experience,” Massura says. “I know the people who are going to be there better. I already know the environment. I think now, it doesn’t matter if you’re racing here, there or at a national championship. It matters how you focus. I say, when you get to the race, it’s 90 percent mental.”
The hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed by Massura’s coach.
“Alex is a motivated, determined swimmer,” Dale said. “He’s not afraid to pay a price.”
When Massura finishes the NCAA meet, his thoughts will turn to the Olympics. While you might expect a swimmer to turn his thoughts to the training — hitting the pool for two or three hours and going to the weight room — Massura seems concerned with turning his thoughts to his mind, not body.
“Maybe I’m not going to be too anxious as I was last time now, but the way I’m going to perceive this and prepare my mind to go to the meet, in the water, I hope it’s going to be harder,” he says. “I can’t go any easier mentally.”
Jim Schortemeyer is the sports editor and welcomes comments at [email protected]