Sacrifice and Reward: A Swimmer’s Mental Battle

Photo Courtesy: David DeCortin

By Ailish Dougherty, Swimming World College Intern

It’s hard to describe that moment right before a race. I’ve heard of that mystical phenomenon of getting “in the zone,” where the noise, the movement, the thoughts in your head fade into the background and all you can see is the clear blue water underneath you and the opposite end of the pool in the distance. Confident and focused.

For me, it seems as if every thought I have ever had about my 10-year swimming career suddenly decides to appear in my brain. My hopes and goals, my anxieties and doubts, each a different voice shouting to be heard, until I take a final breath and the voices are silenced by the crisp splash of the water, my breaths echoing in my ears, the sharp whistles of the coaches.

Behind my every determined stroke is the memory of that killer morning practice, that time I chose to swim instead of go out with friends, that utter pain and fatigue at the end of a three-hour workout. My only goal in every race is to meet the expectations I have set for myself: to drop time, to improve in any way I can, to validate my hours upon hours of hard work.

ailish-tufts-team-David DeCortin

Photo Courtesy: David De Cortin

One of my first chances was the spring of my first high school swim season. I had qualified for the district championships as a freshman, and I was determined to get a personal best time. I had trained hard all year, my times had been getting better and better, I had rested up for the big meet – why wouldn’t I? But the second I dove into the pool, I felt behind. I could almost see one of those yellow lines that they draw on the screen during Olympic races (those ones signaling “world record pace”) moving further and further out of my reach.

When I finally crashed into the wall, my breathing heavy, face burning, and shoulders aching, I looked with hesitant excitement up at my time, only to see a gain of 10 whole seconds. It felt like I had put everything into this last chance, and my body had failed me.

Why wasn’t my best effort good enough? I always strive to be the best that I can be, but often it feels as if my races don’t live up to my expectations; to what I know I can do.

Swimming is a constant mental battle. As I’m beating myself up over a disappointing race, as I’m in the middle of a grueling 10,000-yard set and I feel like I just physically can’t keep going, as I’m waking up at five in the morning to go to practice before school, I ask myself is this really worth it? Have I really accomplished what I should have, proportional to how much time and energy I put into it, how many sacrifices I have made for it?

Yet even through the doubts, the frustration, the anger, I still swim. For every seemingly constant failure there is a success in between that keeps me going. For every second gained there is a second dropped, a best time set, a goal exceeded.

No matter how much I might want to, I can’t imagine life without swimming. I love being able to push through pain, be a leader, and support my teammates. I live for that invincible feeling of coming from behind and winning a meet for my team, of making a championship cut, of getting lost in the repetitive strokes of practice after a stressful day – it far outweighs the failures.

I have learned that success is putting all of myself into something I love, being pushed in ways I never thought I could handle, and refusing to give up despite frustration or resentment.

10 Comments

10 comments

  1. Tammy Munoz

    Tomás Letelier Alonso Mati Perez

  2. Irene Hisham

    Edwina Ed…Clement David….you guys would understand this so well

  3. Jenna Romig

    Angie Sterner Schaffer

Author: Ailish Dougherty

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Ailish Dougherty is a sophomore at Tufts University where she is majoring in Child Study and Human Development on the pre-med track. She swims distance freestyle for their Division III program in the NESCAC.

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