Feature by Tonya Nascimento, Swimming World intern
TALLAHASSEE, Florida, December 10. ONE afternoon as I unpacked more boxes after moving, I lined up more than 70 swimming trophies on a high ledge in the living room of the house. There could have been more, but as I continued to compete in age-group swimming after college, I realized the trophies were just marking my efforts in comparison to my competitors, and were not symbolic of the true reason I was swimming.
At that point in my career, my focus was not on the trophy, and only partially on first place; rather it was on the race itself, on swimming the race well, and on enjoying the competition and the atmosphere. Thus, each time during my last four competitive years of swimming when I won highpoint, the trophy went to the younger swimmers.
When my dad visited the new house and saw the trophies lined up, he smiled broadly. After all, I am his daughter, and he is proud of the trophies as a symbol of years of dedication and hard work. Obviously, these small relics of a competitive past have great meaning.
Even so, I eventually took the trophies down. The trophies, medals, ribbons, and plaques of my competitive swimming days were each hard won, and each represents a race or a meet or a season of sacrifice and dedication. As they gathered on the floor, I wondered what to do with them now, at this new juncture in my life, when family and career and managing a new household takes precedence over sports. If I were to get rid of them, wouldn't the accomplishments still exist, and the lessons learned still remain?
How much does the title matter? What about life after age-group swimming? Even if you are fortunate and hard-working enough to become an Olympic medalist, there is still a time when the daily rigors of 6-10,000 yard practices give way to paying bills and feeding children. By then, you will have your own collection of ribbons, medals, and trophies to show for your swimming years, but what will you really take away from the experience?
Contemplate for a moment some of the lessons sports teach: goal-oriented behavior, self-discipline, work ethic, sportsmanship, perseverance, teamwork, leadership/followership, resilience, mental toughness. If awards, fame, recognition, and accomplishment are more important than the lesson, if these are the marker of your worth and identity, then leaving the sport creates an empty void in your life.
When motivation is mostly external and identity is built on recognition, the absence of actively competing feels like the absence of a sense of self. On the other hand, if the journey toward excellence is more important than the destination and your identity is built on the lessons learned as you handle the bumps along the way, swimming will enrich your life long after the days of grueling doubles and qualifying times.
A. E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young" is about an athlete who died before his record could be broken, his laurel wreath withered, or the cheering silenced. He writes that now the athlete will not face the same fate of his peers: "runners whom renown outran, and the name died before the man." More than 100 years since this poem was written, the fact remains that glory fades. A new generation knows few names of the one that has passed.
Who are you without swimming? Are you the sum of the accolades you have garnered? Are you worth only the weight of the medals? What if you were forced to stop tomorrow? If you were to never win a thing, was swimming worth the sacrifice?
"Swimming is life: the rest is just details" is a popular shirt at meets. To swim well, life often revolves around swimming. But there are still details. There is still life outside of swimming. Life is mostly about swimming right now, but it will not always be. Balance does not mean doing everything, but being clear about priorities and managing them well. In order to create balance, keep in mind swimming is part of you. Even though swimming is a high priority, and a huge part of your identity, it is not all of you. Once it is who you are, championship races take on too much significance. Losing might mean not just disappointment in performance, but also devastation as you ponder your life purpose.
There is more to swimming than winning. Strive to excel. Strive to win. But the pursuit is the point. The lessons are learned in the journey. Seize the day. Relish the process. Remember this is all a game where someone gets "home" first and the others lose, but it is so much fun that we all just keep playing. Once swimming becomes a life-or-death matter, there is too much pressure to enjoy it.
Learning to balance swimming as a part of the life you enjoy can lead to new-found freedom. Masters swimmers repeatedly mention this freedom. Their age-group days are over, their attempts at Junior and Senior Nationals and High School State now past. It is the freedom to have fun, the freedom to practice hard and race fast just because doing your best is invigorating. It is the freedom to race, unburdened from the pressures of winning.
This freedom comes only when swimming becomes a part of your life, but not life or death. It comes only when winning the race is what you strive for, but when you come up short, the loss is not the end. It comes only when you swim to reach your potential and race with all you have, caring deeply about the outcome, but defining success in terms of personal effort rather than comparison with others.
I have worked with Masters swimmers who discovered that swimming with this perspective led to surprisingly fast swims, even new personal bests. In fact, as a Masters swimmer myself, I was able to improve my personal bests in every event, even those I swam in college. Imagine your performance if you can harness the power of this perspective as an age-group swimmer!
Freedom comes with perspective. It comes with putting swimming in context by knowing who you are apart from awards, records, and an identity as a swimmer. Although those awards represent dedication and hard work, they are also symbolic of behaviors that can transfer in any direction you wish. Take a moment to think again about why you swim. What are you learning from swimming? What will you leave the swimming world? What will you take with you? I have a hunch it is much more than fabric, plastic, and metal.
Tonya Nascimento is a doctorate student in the sport psychology program at Florida State University. She was a competitive swimmer for 20 years, during which she swam for FSU. She also coached Maverick Aquatics for eight years and the Niceville High School swim team for four years.