Some things just aren’t meant to be. It’s one of the biggest cliches in the books, but nothing sums up how I got to where I am now better.
I was a competitive swimmer starting at age 6, when I started on a small summer swim team. The team was about creating a fun atmosphere rather than a competitive one, and it is the reason I fell in love with the sport. In the years following, I started taking the sport more seriously, joined a club team, and began swimming year round. I joined my high school’s varsity team in eighth grade and carried on for five seasons.
Especially in the last 2 years of high school, swimming was a huge part of my life. I almost never missed a practice. I loved being in the water and pushing myself to the limit day in and day out. Even when I wasn’t in practice, my goals were always lingering in the back of my mind. Now, don’t get me wrong, I was no extraordinary athlete. I was, though, one of the most dedicated and hard working people on my team. Swimming made me constantly aim higher and dream bigger, and this determination didn’t just apply in the water, but carried into many other aspects of my life as well. It brought out an inner drive in me I don’t think I would have ever discovered had I not been an athlete.
As senior year came, I couldn’t imagine going to college without swimming. I had high hopes for what college swimming could do for me. I always wondered if maybe something would click and I would get really fast. In December of 2014, I committed early decision to a Division 3 athletics school that I believed was the perfect fit for me, both athletically and academically. I do not regret making this decision because in that moment it was what I truly thought was right for me.
Well, freshman year of college came, and so did endless hours in the pool. I knew college swimming would be a step up in intensity, but I didn’t realize how much of a toll it would take on me. We practiced two and half hours a day, 6 days a week, with extra morning practices Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for an hour and a half. On top of all of that, we did cross training (either weightlifting or running) daily. This was upwards of 5 hours of training in one day, and about 20-25 hours per week, plus more on the weekends we had meets.
The first month or so, I thought I loved it. It was a new, refreshing environment, and I was excited to see what I would be able to do in races. I was killing practices every single day and felt unstoppable.
By halfway through the semester, fatigue and anxiety set in. It became especially visible at meets. Almost every race I swam went poorly. They usually ended with me trying – and often failing – to hold back tears of frustration. I was thinking about swimming all the time, but not in a healthy way like I had in high school. Instead of building myself up and creating goals, I was tearing myself apart. I started criticizing myself for not competing well at meets, and was dreading every single practice. Even athletes don’t fully look forward to every workout, but this was more than that. I felt constantly anxious and on edge. I was always worried about if I would have a good or bad practice that day, if I would be too physically fatigued to perform well again for an upcoming meet, if I would let my coach down, if I would let myself down. I knew what I was feeling wasn’t normal but I still struggled to admit it to myself. I was afraid of needing to move on without something that had always played such a major role in my life.
In the beginning, only the meets upset me. Soon, however, my anxiety started affecting practices. I could barely get through them. I kept feeling that no matter what I did my hard work wasn’t paying off. One of the worst practices of my entire swimming career was toward the end of the semester. I fell behind in the set we were doing, stopped halfway through and lost it at the wall. I couldn’t stop crying because I was just so physically and mentally exhausted. My assistant coach comforted me and helped me finish the set, but at that point I knew that swimming no longer had a positive role in my life. It no longer brought me happiness or created the fiery drive within me like it had in the past. It was breaking me.
I ended up leaving that school after the first semester – before the season ended. I knew I didn’t have it in me to finish out the season and if I stayed it would have hurt me more. So, I took my second semester, went home and then went on to take summer classes to stay on track. This may seem dramatic, but I can’t put into words how much of an emotional toll that first semester of college took on me. Something I had looked forward to for so long turned out to be a failure. When I left, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I finally felt free after having been locked into the commitment of being an athlete for years. I applied and was accepted to Binghamton University, which was one of my top choices in my initial college search had I not decided to swim. I was so excited for a completely fresh start, and a new chapter of my life as a “retired” swimmer, or as I like to think of it now: just a normal college student.
I spent the beginning of 2016 experimenting in the gym. I didn’t have to lift weights to build strength for swimming, or swim x amount of yards to stay in shape during the off season. I just did what made me feel good – and let me tell you, I absolutely loved it. Exercise, which was always a huge stressor in my life, finally became my stress relief.
Now, working out isn’t about following a strict plan to be a certain kind of strong or fast. I don’t plan workouts or set a certain time limit. I just go to the gym and enjoy myself. Working out is my favorite part of the day because it’s an hour that I don’t have to worry about anything. I can just get into my zone and sweat away any frustrations. I’ve found that switching things up from a strict routine makes living a fit lifestyle so much more enjoyable and maintainable. Working out was my form of therapy to move on from that disappointing first semester of college, and I believe it is why I have come out of it stronger.
I am so happy with where I am now. I wouldn’t have had it play out any other way. I am in the best place I have ever been because of what I went through in the past year. I learned that being strong doesn’t just mean having physical strength. You can’t be a truly strong person without being mentally strong too. Although I am not in the kind of shape I was in when I was training for hours on end as a competitive athlete, I know I am stronger than I have ever been.
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