Peter Bol: 5 exciting lessons from an Olympic 800m athlete

Peter Bol is an elite 800m athlete and Australian Olympian. We spoke to him about his running journey, his aspirations, and staying focused through uncertain times.
Peter Bol

If you are a fan of Australian athletics, Peter Bol needs no introduction.

The Australian Olympian is a world-class 800-metre runner who regularly competes in the Diamond League. He holds the fifth fastest Australian time in the distance (1:44.56), just shy of the national record (1:44.21), which belongs to his friend and teammate, Joseph Deng. 

Both athletes are based in Melbourne and sponsored by Adidas. And they’re coached by Justin Rinaldi, who runs the Fast 8 Track Club.  

Bol is a hopeful (and near lock) for the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, if they go ahead as scheduled. And he’s intent on turning heads.

“The goal is not to just rock up at the Olympics and be a passenger,” he says. “The goal is to be amongst the best.”

RunCreature spoke with Peter Bol in June, shortly after he returned to Melbourne. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, he went to Western Australia to be close to his family.

Understanding Peter Bol

We spoke at length about his training and work ethic, his career and his aspirations. The craziness of 2020 (so far) was also on the agenda. We talked race cancellations, and his stance on the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice more broadly.

We also talked about family, his journey to Australia from Sudan, and about the abstract idea of home.

Bol was incredibly forthright in his responses, and generous with his time. He’s someone who is extremely motivated and disciplined. He’s laser-focused on his short-term objectives, but also positioning himself for future success beyond the track.

It was a pleasure talking to him and gaining some insight into what makes this superstar athlete tick.

If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to read the inaugural RunCreature feature:

In the meantime, here are the 5 things I learned from Peter Bol 

1. Put “Pride Aside” and relish competitive rivalries

Peter Bol and Joseph Deng are currently the two fastest 800-metre runners in the country. On paper, they should be rivals. And in a way, they are. But they’re also friends, training partners, teammates and flat mates.

They have committed themselves to establishing a high-performance culture in Melbourne, and have together spearheaded something called Project 1:44.

It might sound like a covert military operation, but what it’s actually about is running world-class times on Australian soil.

Usually elite Australian athletes need to head overseas to chase fast races, but first they need to get invited. And in the ultra-competitive world of Diamond League, and International track racing, that’s not always easy.

With Bol and Deng pushing each other, they believe they can hit sub-1:45 times in domestic races.

“We have a huge advantage [in Australia] because our season starts first,” he tells me. “So, if we can run fast early, it makes our managers’ work a lot easier, in terms of getting us into top races.”

“It also gives you confidence,” he says. When you race against the best, you need to show up ready or you run the risk of getting exposed. 

Leveraging rivalry to improve and succeed

Bol says the relationship with Deng is competitive, and admits that neither athlete likes to lose. But he says they put their “pride aside” for the purposes of self-improvement. 

Their coach, Justin Rinaldi, says the athletes handle the dynamic better than any duo he’s ever coached or encountered. He says they have a mindset where they are not worried about being the best in Australia. Rather, they are challenging themselves to the among the best in the world. 

And it’s not just the rivalry with Deng that Bol relishes. When we talk about Olympian and 2018 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist, Luke Matthews, Bol is adamant: “We really missed him this season.” 

“Luke is a competitor, and he’s been dominant in Australia,” says Bol. “He’s run 1:45, which is fast, but he doesn’t really lose in Australia… There’s something about it. He’s super fit, and when he comes here, he’s at his best. So, yeah, we missed that.”    

2. Be in the moment for races and always stay ready

There are lots of ways to get out of the zone when you’re lining up on the track.

For Peter Bol, staying locked-in means “being in the moment” and not worrying about variables beyond his control.

That includes the weather, temperature, humidity, the crowd, his sponsors, unrealistic goals, even the person lining up beside him.

The goal is to have races feel like training, he says, and for the running to be automatic. That only happens through repetition.

Bol is also also acutely aware that, as a professional, he needs to stay ready. That’s perhaps truer in 2020 than ever before.

Coronavirus uncertainty

When race cancellations started in Australia, he was only a week or so away from the nationals.

He and Deng were both targeting an Olympic qualifier. They were in such great shape, Rinaldi believes the Australian record might have fallen.

But they never got the chance to prove him right.

Throughout the uncertainty of the pandemic, Bol had to maintain a mentality that races could resume at any moment. That meant staying focused, and staying ready.

That was no easy task in the current climate, especially as the situation in Melbourne worsened over winter.

But to his credit, Bol pulled it off. His commitment never faltered, and in August he travelled to Europe to race in the Wanda Diamond League and other major competitions.

In his first race overseas, in Monaco, he notched a qualifier for Tokyo.

3. View every interaction as an opportunity to learn

This takeaway I didn’t actually learn from Peter Bol himself, but some of the people closest to him.

They told me about his penchant for striking-up conversations with strangers, and his desire to learn; to take something useful away from every interaction, no matter the person, their status, or their credentials.  

“He doesn’t have this mentality of bravado, or ego. His mentality is always growth-mindset,” university friend Yosef Asresse told me. “Peter goes to every single event to learn, to meet new people. For him, he’s so grateful to have those opportunities.

“He’ll talk to the barman, he’ll talk to the person cleaning the floor. He’s always willing to learn. Every single person that Peter meets, for him it’s an opportunity.”  

Coach Rinaldi has seen this character trait in action too: “Peter is amazing. Anywhere we go around the world, he can manage to strike up a conversation with people.”

“I remember driving to one race, from somewhere in Germany, all the way down to France. It was about a 5 hour drive. We stopped to get some petrol, and next thing I know, we’re giving a lift to someone Peter met in the petrol station, taking him down the road.”

4. Bet on yourself and buy into a high-performance culture

In 2015, Justin Rinaldi told Peter Bol he should move to Melbourne to train with his squad. At the time, it included the national 800m record holder, Alex Rowe.

Despite winning the national junior championships in 2013, Bol had failed to make an Australian team. This offer was an exciting turning point, but it left him with a massive decision.

He could stay close to his family in Perth, get a job putting his construction management degree to use, and continue his training and hope to improve enough to get selected.

Or, he could take a leap of faith and bet on his potential, and his relentless work ethic. 

Moving to Melbourne

In the end, he took the leap and moved to Melbourne in November 2015 to become a full-time athlete. This was not the path of least resistance.

“There were some trying times,” Rinaldi told me. “He moved to Melbourne and he didn’t know a lot of people. He didn’t have a job and he didn’t have a lot of funding… and struggled just finding money for rent, and a place to live.

“It was a real struggle when he first got over here… but it showed me how committed he was to reaching that goal of making the Olympics.”

Six months later, at age 22, Bol did just that. He ran a qualifier at a race in Germany and booked his ticket to the Rio Olympics.

He bet on himself, persevered, and it paid-off.

5. Home is about the who; it is not about the where

Peter Bol was born in Sudan, but he is now an Australian citizen. His family live in Perth, where he spent his formative teenage years. But he now lives in Melbourne, across the country.

And during a typical racing season, he might be away from Australia for months-long stretches. At various times over the last five years, he’s lived in Leuven in Belgium, the German city of Cologne, and has stayed with extended family in Paris.

So, where exactly is home?

At various times, different places feel like home, he tells me.

But, really, home is never about a specific location. For Bol, it’s about the people he cares about, and the life-enriching experiences he has.

Home is an idea the athlete has written about more eloquently than I can.

In Peter Bol’s words

To me, I generally think of ‘home’ not of a place made of bricks and mortar, but by the people who help to define my life, my journey, and my story. They are the familiar faces that I see whether in real life or maybe even in my mind at times, regardless of what country or location they or I happen to be in. 

So, in that respect, ‘home’ to me is so often the feeling I get around my family or my training squad – the latter of which is another family of sorts. In my mind, if I have those people around me, or they’re safe and secure and just around the corner or even at the other end of a drive or a plane trip, I am convinced that I can live pretty much anywhere!”

I love this brilliant, insightful breakdown. Home is a universal concept, but all of us experience it differently, depending on our personal context.

I am an immigrant to Australia. I have lived here more than 10 years, and it usually feels like home. But sometimes it doesn’t. My immediate family is in Canada. Far away. And sometimes I feel a sense of social and geographic dislocation.

When I read this passage, and when I listened to Bol speak on the topic, it gave me comfort.

I encourage you to check out Peter Bol’s website and his excellent blog post: Exploring Home. Not only is the man fast, he writes brilliantly!

For more, you can follow Peter Bol on Instagram. Or you can follow the Fast 8 Track Club on Twitter.

And if you haven’t already, read our feature on this incredible athlete and check out more RunCreature interviews.

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