Growing Up An Untalented Swimmer…And Being Better For It

Photo Courtesy: Thomas Hawk

By Katie Lively, Swimming World College Intern

If at first you don’t succeed, it’s probably not worth the effort, right?

That was how I felt all through elementary school, and looking back, it’s not surprising. I followed in the footsteps of many kids who find their niche at a young age: I was really good at school; therefore, anything that challenged me—particularly playing sports—was boring, unimportant, and/or beneath me.

It was pretty clear by around age 6 that a natural-born athlete, I was not.

I cheered when my soccer coach subbed me out. My softball coach almost always put me in the outfield because I couldn’t take my eyes off the molehills and focus on the game to save my life. When I was finally promoted from swim lessons to swim team at age 8, it was only because I had been at the pre-team level for longer than all the other kids and the team had lots of extra space for new members. At one point, I had by far the worst 50 back time in the whole state.

Even once I settled on swimming as my primary sport, “I didn’t take it seriously” would be an understatement. I spent most of my time ignoring the coach and chatting with my best friend on the team, who may have cared even less than I did. Years later, when I brought this up to the coach, he didn’t exactly deny that we had been serious contenders for most challenging kids on the team.

I was going to go to college and be a world-famous author when I grew up, so why did I need to waste my time on a sport— especially when I wasn’t even instantly good at it?

At age 10, I was bored of it and decided to quit— just like I quit ballet, gymnastics, soccer, softball, and, randomly, piano. My parents told me to stick with it for six more months. About halfway through that final six months, I started crying at the end of a swim meet because I was sad it was over, and I declared to my mom that swimming was my passion.

To this day, I’m not quite sure exactly what brought that on. Regardless, I’m glad my 10-year-old self had an odd little epiphany.

I didn’t achieve greatness in the sport from that day forward. It took immense focus, boosted by a talented 19-year-old age group coach who believed in me in a way no one else ever had, to even reach a point at which I was on par with other swimmers my age.

What I did achieve from that day forward was an appreciation for hard work and compassion for those who struggled despite their best efforts.


Photo Courtesy: Sandy Lively

Deciding to put my heart into something I was pretty awful at meant accepting that I was going to get it stomped on a few more times than the average kid. But it also meant seeing the steady improvement that can come from making that choice. To this day, I still remember the way my age group coach yelled when I won my heat for the first time at age 11.

Those feelings also carried over to the way I treated other kids at school. In elementary and early middle school, I privately grew irritated by the kids who held up class by failing to understand what I deemed basic concepts. At some point in middle school, it hit me that, just like me at swim practice, they had to work twice as hard as everyone else to even come close to keeping up with course material.

In the end, I feel like I ended up with the best of both worlds. It was great that school came pretty naturally to me as a kid. That said, I can’t imagine how my life would have turned out had I not worked my way up from being one of the worst swimmers in my age group to being part of a relay team that went undefeated in our district for two straight years and set school records along the way.

Since starting college, I’ve had no choice but to work hard and put in countless long nights of studying. Just being a high school student would have left me caught off guard by that reality. Swimming prepared me to work as hard as necessary to achieve my goals— and it showed me that I really can overcome major challenges by not giving up.

In addition, I’ve found a love for coaching in my spare time. During an assistant coaching transition my junior year, my high school head coach regularly asked me to help coach the new swimmers. I then worked to set up preseason practices for incoming swimmers the summer before my senior year.

More than anything, I work to find the positives in every frustrated swimmer’s situation. It’s not always about being the star athlete. I’ve never been the star of any team, yet swimming has improved my life and improved me as a person in too many ways to name here.

As an added bonus, I’ve also learned that taking forever to learn technique gives you an abundance of ways to explain it to the next generation.


  1. avatar
    Carin Montgomery Mileshosky

    This is awesome. I hope that these are the lessons my daughter will pick up from swimming. I’m in awe of her passion for a sport that she is not the best in. She doesn’t qualify for districts or counties. It’s still her dream and she doesn’t give up but if she never ever makes that goal I am super proud for her dedication and perseverance and pure love of the sport.

    • avatar
      Danielle Cassar

      same with my daughter she loves doing it we focus on PB’s rather than medals ! She does her utmost best and it shows in her PB’s just getting out there and doing something is an achievement in itself ?

    • avatar
      Carin Montgomery Mileshosky

      agreed! We have a personal best journal for her and that is all we look at!

    • avatar
      Angie Hector

      I feel the same, my daughters determination, drive and passion makes me so proud. She isn’t the fastest by far but we focus on pb’s and her coach is always telling her that she is in control of how she swims but not how others swim, and they can’t take her pb’s away from her. Xxx

  2. avatar
    Maria Huerta

    Jello Lopez

    • avatar
      Jello Lopez

      This is extemely inspiring

    • avatar
      Jello Lopez
    • avatar
      Maria Huerta

      My type of stuff right there

    • avatar
      Maria Huerta
  3. avatar
    john m razi

    Heart-candid thoughtfully delineated piece. Absolutely..not everyone is naturally talented. Your young coach (only 19) really connected with you and you responded in kind. “Hope” a most powerful force. – jmr

  4. avatar
    Eddie Ring

    What’s so great about swimming is that it doesn’t matter what level you compete on in swimming. All that really matters is that you keep making best times. That’s all you should ever ask of a swimmer. Anything else is just gravy.

  5. avatar
    Febryanti Angraini

    Pada hari ini dan seterusnya, postingan ini bisa mendapatkan banyak like dengan trik khusus! Segera kunjungi => www. unduhlike .com

  6. avatar
    Eloise Ganey

    While I did not start swimming competitively until a much older age, swimming was also a great experience for me. I was also good in school and it required little effort foe me. Swimming taught me how to work hard, what it means to be part of a team. I was never the best but I felt good when I bettered my time. And having people particularly, my dad, cheer for me greatly helped my shy teenage self. I also ended up coaching and even more importantly teaching swimming lessons to toddlers. I think of my swimming experience as one of the most important of my life!

    • avatar
      Wayne F. Frese

      I’m in the same boat you are! I used to scuba dive,but have now switched to long distance swimming. Aquatics is one of the best things that ever happened to me!

    • avatar
      Wayne F. Frese

      I’m in the same boat you are! I used to scuba dive,but have now switched to long distance swimming. Aquatics is one of the best things that ever happened to me! I’m 74,but look 44! 🙂

  7. avatar
    Sarah E O'Dwyer

    Rebecca Bowden Nickie Windibank

    • avatar
      Wayne F. Frese

      Let’s put it this way,”If at first you don’t succeed,try.try. again”! That’s what I had to do and I’m not ashamed of it! Look at athletes like Jackie Robinson for example!

  8. avatar
    Barbara Samuel

    LOVE this article and all the valuable messages and lessons to learn from it!

  9. avatar
    Tim Goggin

    Katie Goggin, I was an okay swimmer, but never great. However I certainly relate to the story. Amazing I still am doing it 50 years later.

  10. avatar
    Jacqueline Ann Olivier

    I enjoyed reading this,

  11. avatar
    Sagarika Jain

    Viraj Prabhu

  12. avatar

    Did she swim for the Willamalane Swim Club? She looks like she is wearing a cap our team used to have.

    • avatar
      Jeralee Salaets

      Yes. This picture looks like it was taken at Amazon Pool. She later went on to swim with TEAM Eugene Aquatics.

  13. avatar
    Jennifer Sprague Linton

    So true!!!!

  14. avatar
    Dave James

    Thank you Rachel Nevinson will read it later x

  15. avatar
    Carol Woodard

    Thanks for sharing I love reading this girl ‘s story.

  16. avatar
    Georgia Leng

    Catherine Robertson me? am i only growing up now?

    • avatar
      Catherine Robertson

      you’re better for it either way

  17. avatar
    Mary Crow

    I love this!

  18. avatar
    Swim Giggles LLC

    This could have been us too! That great coach came later in HS. Thanks Coach Spring! 🙂

  19. avatar

    My son is just like you , academically and swimming-wise. He has to work much harder than his peers and values other things from the sport, not “winning” or “making cuts”. I think there are more kids like this than we realize – the attention just tends to go to the top kids and louder kids.

    Kudos to the coaches that notice and motivate all the kids to do their personal best, whatever that will be!

  20. avatar
    Neil Morgan

    I was last or close to last in every open meet I ever entered, but now that it’s 15-20 years later, I appreciate just how good I was at swimming, because I can’t get close to the times I used to do. I don’t know what the other swimmers thought of my slow times back then? I suspect they were too busy worrying about the quicker swimmers and their own races to even think about it.

  21. avatar
    MT Dutton

    Charlie Stone

    • avatar
      MT Dutton


  22. avatar
    Sandy Baxter

    I love this!

  23. avatar
    Jessica Aldrich

    Lillian Aldrich

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.