9 Ways An Injury Shapes You

Photo Courtesy: Molly Griswold

By Molly Griswold, Swimming World College Intern.

It was just like any other day – until it wasn’t. Everything changed in an instant. Trips to swim practice became visits to doctors appointments; waiting for the weekend off became waiting for test results; minutes on the pool deck stretching before practice became hours watching during practice; and wishing you didn’t have to jump in the cold pool at 6 a.m. became wishing that you could.

Swimmers in Pool

Photo Courtesy: Jen Cournoyer

Injuries can happen quickly and eventually leave behind a scar or recurring ache. But injuries and illnesses much the same shape an athlete far beyond physical symptoms, causing mental and emotional pain as well. After personally suffering an injury and interviewing sixteen swimmers with past or current injuries and illnesses, here are some common thoughts and themes:

1. You May Feel Lost

Once you experience an injury, you might suddenly feel like an outsider – alienated from the rest of the team. During training, you might be directed to a separate lane in which to practice on your own or watch from the sidelines. You’re refilling water bottles you should be drinking out of and recording the races in which you should be swimming.


Photo Courtesy: Sally Wickham Zubero

You suddenly feel isolated from the group and crave the encouragement, infectious energy and motivation you once gave and received from your teammates. In these moments, you feel like everything is swirling around you at a fast pace, yet you remain motionless just waiting and wondering, ”Why me? Why now?”

Former Nova Southeastern University swimmer Laura White, who suffered a career-ending concussion due to a car accident, said of her experience: “[My injury] made me realize you could do everything right to work towards a goal and dream, and in an instant, it’s taken away without your control.”

2. Your Injury is Valid

Athletic injury

Photo Courtesy: Physio Pro

No matter what kind of pain you’re experiencing, the point in the season or the duration, your injury is valid. Although someone always has it “worse” than you, you are still entitled to your pain and feelings. Injured athletes are often worried about backlash from people in their circles, including their own teammates. Sitting out or modifying an exercise may be seen as faking or exaggerating.

For fear of showing weakness and being dramatic, needy or judged, injured athletes may put up a strong front. In reality, they may be struggling deeply behind closed doors. Showing vulnerability and succumbing to pain does not make someone weak, useless or less of a member of the team. Ultimately, you have to listen to your body and trust that you are making the right decisions for yourself and your health.

3. You Learn the Value of Relationships


Photo Courtesy: Sunshine State Conference

As difficult as the lesson is to learn, while experiencing an injury, you learn the value of the relationships in your life. At times you may feel ignored or misunderstood. While some people will have little empathy, thankfully there are others who will be emotionally available for you. It is amazing how much you begin to believe in yourself when people believe in you. During this time, you develop more compassion overall for people experiencing similar challenges. The compassion you have received from those who truly support you is, in turn, the same compassion you can pass along to the next injured athlete.

4. You Learn Patience

With the pressure and eagerness to return to the pool but an injury holding you back, you learn the importance of patience. Through the pure frustration, it is crucial to live one day at a time and take things as they come. Although there may be a sense of guilt for not “contributing,” Dr. Alan Goldberg describes how you must accept the unknown ahead and not rush the healing process. A lack of patience can even lead to a more serious injury in the long run. Extending this patience into competition may be beneficial to focus on simply swimming your best without any expectations.

5. You Make Your Health a Priority

Your health takes focus over swimming. After balancing doctors appointments, emotions and physical pain, you are forced to take a step back to see the greater picture. Olympian Missy Franklin shared her story of retirement with the world after years of chronic shoulder pain. In a letter to ESPN, Franklin described holding her future child in her arms without feeling excruciating pain as more important than achieving greatness in the pool.

Former college swimmer Annie Carr, who recently decided to retire after her battle with a chronic illness, similarly says, “I was worried I made the wrong choice to stop swimming because at the time that’s all I had known for most of my life, but everyone reassured me that I made the right choice and that my health is a priority.” In these moments, especially with a career-ending injury or illness, you soon realize that life is more than just swimming.

6. You Learn Not To Take Things for Granted

You may find yourself becoming envious of the person you were before your injury. Normal tasks – walking, showering, or even swimming pain-free for one length of the pool – that are difficult now were once taken for granted. Senior college swimmer Kaitlyn Honnick, who experienced torn labrums in both hips and acquired two herniated discs between those surgeries reflects back on her journey: “For a long time, my happiest moments were being able to sleep comfortably through the night or walk to class without extreme pain.” Like many athletes, these small accomplishments now become her most significant milestones. 

7. You Keep Looking Forward

missy franklin

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Through the struggles of an illness and injury, you acknowledge that you must continue to move forward. Although it seems as though your progress is stagnant, each small step will add up over time. As you heal from the pain you are experiencing, you need to remind yourself that there is no time to worry about the “what ifs.” Dr. Goldberg also describes that athletes have thoughts like, “What if I didn’t get injured? How fast would I have been if this hadn’t happened to me?” but reiterates that these thoughts can take away from successfully moving forward.

Leave those negative thoughts behind like you hope to do with your injury. Work through the mental and emotional pain as you tackle your physical pain. Nurture your mindset as you nurture your body.

After suffering from complications with a broken toe, NSU swimmer Liza Buluchevskaya expresses:

“Injury taught me that the sport doesn’t stop and wait for you. You must be willing to chase the sport by doing everything in your control to recover, and not waste energy feeling defeated by what is not in your control. Injury sees not right or wrong, it simply just happens.”

Try to find new and creative ways to navigate your injury. As difficult as it might be, resist the temptation to feel sorry for yourself in situations out of your control. Convert the energy used to indulge in self-pity into energy to fight. Move at your own pace. Only look back to monitor how far you have come, and believe that you will be better than you once were.

Ask yourself, “What if this didn’t happen to me? Would I be as resilient as I am right now?”

8. You Come Out Stronger


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

During the process of an injury or illness, you might amaze yourself with how strong you truly are. To fully develop your strength, you must continually remind yourself of all that you have overcome in your journey. Wingate swimmer Corinne Mahoney was forced to red-shirt a season due to complications from a serious eye infection. She says, “You gain so much motivation to want to prove that you still have the ability to be your best.”

Watching practices from the pool deck allows you to watch the strength in your teammates. Relying on encouragement from parents, family, friends, coaches, teammates, athletic trainers and doctors compels you see the strength inside yourself.

9. You Learn Life Lessons

Of course everyone’s injury or illness is different, and there is no single formula for recovery. Everyone has his or her own path, and each person’s journey is valid. Whether you have had to quit the sport that is all you have ever known, your injury is just another bump in the road or you are fighting an ongoing battle, your experience has changed you. It has shaped you not only physically but also mentally and emotionally.

Those scars and pain from your injury remind you of what was taken away from you before you worked twice as hard to get it back. When you fight through each day and push through some of the most difficult moments, one day, you can look back on all the ways you amazed yourself. Life can be unexpected, unfair and unpredictable. But the hardest times in life can teach us the most.

How did your injury shape you? Comment below!

-All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.


  1. avatar
    Swimmer Fan

    “wishing you didn’t have to jump into the cold pool at 6A.M. became wishing that you could.” Kinda sums it all up………..doesn’t it!