I was going through my freshman year of college photo book tonight, trying to find an early picture of James and me since the 15 year anniversary of our meeting/first date is a few weeks away, and I came across a page dedicated to the end of my swim career. My life as a swimmer all seems so far away it's hard to believe I had pages of material to memorialize the end of it, but in 2002 my competitive swim career ended, my hip never quite healing from the surgery I had to have after my senior year of high school. By the time my physical therapy ended and I was facing the realities of my physical limitations, my college life was feeling so much bigger than swimming. My life always was, thanks to very grounded parents and friends and my general need to be doing all the things rather than focusing on any one, but still, in college I felt so fulfilled and thrilled by this next stage of things, I felt okay moving on. I was in a liberal arts honors program, pre-med in my electives, holding a 4.0, and madly in love with my new boyfriend. Life beyond the pool was calling and it sounded awesome.
And yet I so clearly remember crying when I told my parents my decision, that it was over. I remember how hard it was to be the "girlfriend in the stands" at the future UT meets. I had national cuts! I was a former scholarship athlete for the team! Dammit I could swim too! But there I was, all dry, no swim bag and no suit, cheering and clapping along with the parents. It was still fun, and I loved watching James swim, but in those moments, watching the swimmers on the deck and not being one of them, it was hard.
I adjusted, as you do, and my life kept on expanding. Now as I watch swimming at the Olympics I cringe at all the events I hated (basically anything longer than a 100), revel in the fact I don't have to care if I'm no taper, and feel SO overwhelmingly grateful I have the memories of swimming that I do. Of the team, the cheering, the rush. Of hitting the wall and turning to see your time- hearing the cheers and yells but not yet knowing if they're for you. Of the racing, oh the RACING, all out till you give out, god I loved it. I never particularly liked practice, but I loved to compete and loved being part of a team and I miss it so much when watching big meets like this. I want to step out behind the blocks, shake out my arms and legs, wait to hear my name, step up to the block and fly. I'm full of nostalgia, but still my biggest feeling is of gratitude for knowing what it's like so I can miss it as much as I do. What memories to have.
In thinking about this tonight, I decided to find a little essay I wrote when I was 19, back in 2002 after I quit. This was before blogs- or at least before I knew of blogs- and I'd never just randomly written something before, so I wasn't sure what to do with it when I was done. I sent it to my parents and then, on a whim, I decided to send it to Swimming World Magazine. It was published sometime later that year and I just found my copy.
So, since I'm immersed in swimming and nostalgia, here's a little trip down memory lane.
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“So, do you miss it?” The poser of this innocent question by anyone who knows I used to swim or is watching a swim meet with me never really expects a full answer, much like the “How are you?” you ask everyone you pass on the street. Usually I just smile and make a comment about not waking up to a cold pool in the mornings or getting to stay dry during a meet. I tell them all that while I enjoyed swimming, it is a thing of the past; I have since moved on to bigger and better things.
But sometimes, after the person has turned the conversation elsewhere, I sit and think about it. Memories flood my mind. Swimming. Only in the context of that sport does it make sense to celebrate a drop in time many times faster than the blink of an eye, to mourn a relay lost by a fraction of an inch, to cry after a race you just couldn’t go fast enough for…
I miss the feeling of the water in the morning, the chance to swim in quiet solitude, the time to mentally organize my thoughts. I miss the hard sets, the ones you see written on the board and verbally declare impossible, but are already mentally and physically gearing up for. I miss the end of a good practice where only your sense of accomplishment pulls your body out of the water because your arms and legs long before gave all they had. I miss getting ready in the morning with twenty other girls in twenty minutes. The talking, hurrying, and laughter between people who were more than friends, they are teammates. I miss the immediate sense of family you feel among swimmers, you are all connected by the long hours in the pool, the constant soreness in your body, and the common understanding of the joy and despair a single race can bring. You share a closeness among near strangers that you don’t find among groups in the world beyond the pool deck.
Sometimes while watching a meet I find myself longing to be on the deck-- to be the one stepping up to the block, mentally going through my race, physically readying my muscles to be pushed to their max. I miss the time before the race, laughing and joking with teammates and competitors--friends right until the moment you step up to the block and friends again the moment after you finish. But for the time in between you’re the greatest of adversaries, pushing each other to the best you can do. After the race you’re glad for the competition, appreciating that they pushed you to your best, but during the race they’re just splashes in the water, splashes you have to get ahead of. I miss the opportunity to mentally will myself to a physical goal, touching the wall, and looking at my time. I miss being on the awards stand, feeling the medal on my neck, waving to my parents and coaches. I miss their assurance of their belief that I could do it, their smiles and congratulations when I did, and their hugs and shared grief when I did not. Most of all I miss that feeling of accomplishment that comes with the realization of a goal in the face of obstacles.
I even miss the heartbreak when you fall short of a goal you gave everything for. Not since swimming have I been involved in something I could shed so many tears over. Not since have I wanted something so badly that when it did not happen, my heart nearly broke. It takes an all-encompassing sport as swimming to allow yourself to wrap so much into one dream. Even after failure, the sport and the team are what make you go on—the force that gets you to move on quicker than you wanted and swim the next race. And in the end it’s your memories of that sport and that team that allow you to move from focusing on the heartbreak and failure and on to treasure the joys and successes. I miss caring about something enough to cry over it.
There’s no huge void in my life without swimming. I’ve moved on. I'm busy, fulfilled, and setting new goals. I only think about swimming occasionally, when looking through photo albums or reminiscing with friends. When watching a meet, I'm removed from it. When hearing about hard sets, they almost sound like a different language-- one I used to be fluent in, but now have to decipher into non-swimmer terms. Swim suits are no longer hung up in my shower, and swimming T-shirts no longer dominate my closet. Eating, sleeping, and school no longer revolve around a competition schedule. I'm focused on school and am working toward goals for my future career.
But do I miss it? Oh yes.
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And I still do, in a more abstract, grateful way. But now I've moved on to sobbing at Simone and Aly's gold and silvers in the all-around gymnastics. I don't have any memories there, but man- the parents with tears running down their faces... far removed from my 19 year old self, it's the parents I identify with now!
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