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Go for the gold with your personal finances

August 7, 2012

It wasn’t pretty when he ran, but it was good. Emil, here’s to you!

The Olympics is here once again and has captivated the world. From Sterling to Stockholm to Sydney, people sit at their televisions to watch the greatest athletes from around the world come together to compete.

We are enthralled by the drama. We love to see people push their bodies to the limit. We watch in awe as athletes perform amazing physical feats. Hopefully, we learn something from this excellence on display.

One of the greatest Olympic performances of all time was by Emil Zatopek. After Zatopek won the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races, he entered the the marathon for the first time in his life. His strategy was to stay with British world record holder Jim Peters.

At the quarter point, Zatopek asked Peters if the pace was fast enough. Peters knew the pace was fast, but he wanted to try and throw Zatopek, so Peters replied, “No” to get Zatopek to speed up and exhaust himself. But only half of Peters’ plan worked: Zatopek sped up, but Peters was the one who was exhausted and didn’t finish.

Zatopek became the only person to win gold medals in the 5,000- and 10,000-meters, and marathon races in the same Olympics during an eight-day span.

With a performance like this, it would be natural to think Zatopek was groomed from early on to be a star in long-distance running. But this wasn’t the case. He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1922 as the sixth child in a very modest family. At age 15, he started working in the Bata Shoe Company.

He didn’t realize he had a talent for running until 1940 when the shoe company sponsored a 1,500-meter race and Zatopek was ordered to run. Without a day of training in his life, Emil won second place out of 100 runners.

Zatopek didn’t rest on his talent, but used extensive training to turn him into a top worldwide athlete. His workouts were world famous. He would run 40 to 60, 400-meter runs every day.

For those who aren’t familiar, 400 meters is once around the track. When you add in some smaller distances in between, he ran 27 to 36 kilometers, or 16 to 22 miles, a day.

Zatopek even ran when it snowed, sometimes in Army boots. He probably wasn’t the most talented distance runner, but her took the talent he had and made the most of it. A lot of disciplined practice over time turned into world-class performance.

So, what does this have to do with personal finance? I think there are a couple of lessons we can learn from Zatopek:

  1. A little bit during a long time really can add up. Zatopek trained daily and demanded the most from his training. By starting to save and invest early and consistently doing it over the years, you eventually will have a nice retirement account. Start early, and stay disciplined.
  2. Make the most of your talent. By finishing second in a race he hadn’t run before, Zatopek knew he had some talent. He didn’t rest on his laurels; he worked every day to turn his local talent into a world-class talent. The most powerful wealth-building tool you have is your income. If you are good at something that makes you money, don’t be satisfied; work daily to take that talent and make the most out of it to increase your wages.
  3. Learn from the best. Even though Zatopek had never run the marathon, he followed the world record holder. When investing, learn from experience. See what the people who have consistently earned a good rate of return over decades have done, and emulate them.

Emil Zatopek had one of the best Olympic performances for all time. He used discipline, preparation and a recognition of a talent to get him there.

You may not be a future Olympian, but you can win the gold medal in personal finance by learning from him and putting yourself in a position where someday you can retire a winner.

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