St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students were treated to a special presentation by Olympic gold medalist and swimming legend, Bruce Furniss, last week as part of the school’s celebration of Catholic Schools Week.  The inspirational message and anecdotes shared by Mr. Furniss had an impact on the young men and women in attendance as he encouraged them to set goals, determine the path to reach those goals, and persevere day-in and day-out in order to reach them. 

As a 7-year-old in 1964, Furniss was inspired by the four gold medal performance of American swimmer Don Schollander, who broke the 200-meter freestyle world record ten times during his career. With a measured plan to consistently improve his time each day, each week, each month, and each year, Furniss set his sights on his own world record and an Olympic gold medal.  He trained through physical discomfort caused by the crippling arthritic disease, Ankylosing Spondylitis, the self-doubt that comes with any athletic endeavor, and the boredom and antipathy that accompanies rigorous long-term exercise.  Eleven years later, Furniss became the twelfth of fourteen Americans in history to break the 200-meter freestyle world record. During his career he broke the 200-meter freestyle world record four different times.  Only Schollander (10), Australia’s Ian Thorpe (6), and Japan’s Tsuyoshi Yamanaka (5) have broken the event’s record more times. Furniss laid claim to the 200-meter Freestyle World Record from 1975 to 1979. His 1976 Olympic Gold Medal victory would outlast seven Olympic Quadrennials (32 years) before being equaled in 2008 by another American, twenty-two time Olympic medalist, Michael Phelps.

Sports lessons like Furniss’ story, often lend themselves to life lessons.  At the presentation, students were reminded that the top of the mountain is not reached in a day, and that they are all trying to reach the next rung on the ladder toward their dreams. He said, “Anything worth pursuing in life starts with a dream.”  Furniss went on to explained that the person next to them is on their own ladder reaching for the next rung as well.  He told students not to assume that their journey is more or less difficult than the journey of their peers.  We are all working toward something.  The odds of you succeeding depend on what you put into moving up that ladder.  “If you are consistent over time, amazing things happen,” he said.  The most important step is getting on the ladder. “I liked that he acknowledged that there were days he didn’t want to go to practice and that things can get boring,” said eighth grade student, Samantha A.  “He did it anyway because of his goal.  I can relate to that.”

Furniss is the third of four successful aquatic brothers, often referred to as "Orange County California's First Family of Swimming." Older brother Steve Furniss, a two-time swimming Olympian (1972 Olympic bronze medalist and 1976 Olympic team captain), and Furniss are among a rare group of siblings, in any sport, to make the same Olympic team.  He explained that in addition to setting goals and working with discipline, students should surround themselves with other people who are champions in order to succeed.  Those mentors may not be in their family, and students may have to seek out their role models.  Learning from the experience of others and sharing their own experiences with those who look up to them will make them better at their chosen discipline and better as people in general. “When you see someone that is better than you, get around them.  When you become them, help others get better.  Seek someone else outside of your world you can be challenged by,” encouraged Furniss.

Furniss also emphasized the importance of how true champions should always conduct themselves. It is easy to have great character in victory, but few are able to do it in defeat. Most big dreams are not accomplished easily and there will be failures and disappointments along the way.  These moments of failure are difficult to experience with grace, but doing the right thing in a tough time will make them stronger and proud as they look back.  He shared the story of his own disappointment in disqualifying during the last race of his professional career.  How the moment when he had to acknowledge his mistake was painful, but in hindsight it is one of the proudest moments of his life. “The part of the talk that stood out to me was the story of how one of his greatest accomplishments happened in a moment of defeat,” said seventh-grader Jordan M.  “It is a different way of looking at things.”  Eighth-grader, PJ C., agreed.  “The biggest lesson he taught us was about being honest and having dignity.”

St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School, located in the foothills of Yorba Linda, CA, is dedicated to developing students from preschool through 8th grade as Christ–centered individuals with an academic focus.  Exposure to ideas and insights of successful individuals like Bruce Furniss is another way that students are encouraged and inspired to make a difference.