Mental Health Awareness: A Message of Hope to Former Swimmers Struggling

Jamie Kolar NCSA 2016-mental-health
Photo Courtesy: Julie Kolar

Mental Health Awareness: A Message of Hope to Former Swimmers Struggling

October is a month that is dedicated to mental health awareness. In swimming, we usually talk about our mental health while involved in the sport, which is important, but what happens to the conversation when everything you knew goes away?

No more competitions. No more practice. No more swimming. The sad reality is that we all have to deal with eventually. It will all come to an end. Swimming is not forever- as nothing is. Coping with that ending is a burdensome as well as mentally challenging.

My beginning was when I was 9 years old, I made my first state qualifying time. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but I was told it was a good thing. From that point, I became addicted, in the purest sense of the word. I dedicated my life to my sport. Swimming was how I defined myself. This definition being reliant on the success I had in the water and the friends I had made during my career.

I had a glowing career filled with amazing friends and accolades- including making Olympic Trials at the age of 17. Swimming made up a big part of who I was for the better part of 12 years. I was a student athlete in college for five of those 12 years. I didn’t have the normal college experience of staying out until 2 a.m. on a Wednesday or staying up all night to cram for a test that I procrastinated on- but that was more than fine with me. It was a choice I made willingly and happily (most of the time). It seemed like a never-ending career filled with endless possibilities until one day the possibilities are eliminated and the journey ends.

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My whole definition of myself was gone in an instant and it was never coming back. The person who I was proud to have become seemed to be a distant memory and it was only exacerbated by knowing that I would never again be anything like I once was. I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize who I was without swimming. I didn’t even recognize my own body without my swimmer shoulders. I felt an overwhelming sense of emptiness, loneliness, and failure.

I know I am struggling. It hasn’t been an easy transition. I knew exactly who I was in the pool and on the deck. I always had a goal and a consistent purpose guiding how I acted through each day- for example, my nutrition and sleep habits. Now there is no overarching guiding factor to my actions other than my will, which to me, seems directionless and pointless.

Those who weren’t athletes, go on this journey of self-realization through college but at lease have the comfort and safety of the school environment around them to keep them going and give them some direction. However, student athletes are left rudderless. I look around at my peers, and I feel like I am 10 steps behind. They seem to be handling the transition with more grace and ease, granted they lost less than I did. It feels like not many understand but how could they? They have never gone through an experience as hard and deep as being a student athlete- granted few are lucky enough to experience it.

I cannot expect anyone to understand my exact feeling however, I think that many former athletes go through a similar mental health experience when they stop competing. These emotions are brought on by such specific instances that it isolates you even more from others. I cannot say that I wouldn’t go back, if given the chance, but I know that isn’t an option. My only choice is to keep moving forward and try to figure out this brave new world ahead of me, hopefully remembering the core elements of what made me the athlete I once was. Hopefully those attributes will make me the person I hope to become.

The point of sharing my struggle is that it is OK not to be OK.

I understand that mentally, I am struggling with my concept of self and the direction of the rest of my life. My brain still wakes me up for 6 a.m. practice and I feel like something is missing in my day from the time I get up to the time I go to sleep. In terms of improving my mental health, all I can do is be honest where I am and open to feeling all the emotions that come with it. I always pushed down any emotion I felt through swimming in order to get to the wall first. In a way, it was my way of coping with any issue that came my way – swimming related or not. Now while that may not have been the healthiest thing to do, I need to find another way of sorting out my emotions and acknowledging how and what I am feeling and dealing with those obstacles. Every athlete, current or otherwise, have to know that is acceptable and it is more than okay to feel and express whatever emotion comes their way. So often we shove it down for the sake of being “mentally tough”, but in reality, that isn’t always the healthiest approach.

Additionally, I have to look at myself in a new way- not just personality wise, but physically. My body is different, as it should be. It is not being trained over 20 hours each week, which is a first. My shoulders are smaller and look less athletic. The body and shoulders I worked so hard for is gone as well.  I have to understand that physical changes are apart of this new territory I am in and for the first time in my life a coach isn’t leading my practice or telling me how to train. Now, training feels more alone and silent than when I was fully submerged underwater.

For all you recent retirees who may be experiencing similar feelings and who have gone through similar mental health experiences, know that someone emphasizes. No one can quite understand, because your career was unique and special, but we can relate to the feeling of losing a major part of your life. Swimming was a big part of our lives, and it will always be a special sport to all of us. It gave us a lot, which we will be forever grateful. But there comes a time where you both have to move on from each other.

Swimming will consume new athletes and continue on without you. You will be left alone trying to move on but sad that swimming left you. Eventually you get some directional footing, but for now you feel lost and unsure where to go next. Know that you won’t be lost forever. Eventually you will find your direction and with a couple of steps it may seem clearer because whatever is lost, must eventually be found- in due time and patience.

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