By Spindrift Beck, Swimming World Contributor
I’ve never seen any stats on the matter, but I’d be willing to bet that the majority of folks who spent their formative years as competitive swimmers don’t return to the water in adulthood. As a former collegiate swimmer myself, I’ve watched old teammates go on to incredible feats out of the pool – academic, professional, even other athletic endeavors. But, rarely do they decide to continue swimming, even for fun.
Why is it that we, as competitive swimmers, tend to reject the idea of evolving into Masters swimmers, post-career? Is it because we’ve spent so many years training in the water that we don’t even really equate swimming with exercise anymore? Is it because we live in the United States of Pinterest where the “30 Minute Ab Killer!” sets that beckon us from beyond our Mac screens seem a million times more appealing than hopping in an icy pool and staring at a black line for an hour? Or is it because it seems kind of, in comparison to our former careers… anticlimactic? I mean, let’s face it: it’s hard to imagine Michael Phelps lighting up the USMS National scene in his 50s.
Post retirement, something about the idea of swimming Masters can feel, on some level, like an admittance of defeat; like getting back with an ex after a breakup, only to find yourself back in an all-too-familiar cycle of disappointment. Like it or not, a stigma frequently exists in the minds of post-competitive swimmers when it comes to Masters swimming, and I think, more than anything, there’s a fear of the judgment that comes with continuing to swim past one’s “real” career. Oh, this person just can’t seem to let go, can’t seem to move on. Poor thing. She just misses it so much.
In my mind, I framed it this way: why put my body through the same pain and stress of training – and especially competing – with none of the potential rewards? I like to win. And sure, you can win at a Masters meet. But I like to win against myself. Can you ever touch the wall faster than the times you clocked when you were 17 and weighed 120 pounds and your biggest concern was whether or not Matt was going to ask you to the homecoming dance? And, since the answer to this question is most likely no… then what’s the point? These were my thoughts – albeit ignorant ones – when it came time for me to retire from swimming. All the while, ignoring the voice in my head, telling me that maybe, just maybe, I would miss it. I already missed it so much.
For a while after I graduated from college and embarked on life as a swammer, I chose to speak of my new exercise regimen in hushed, reverent tones laced with tragically West Coast phrases like, “Um, well, I’m focusing on healing my mind before my body” (read: I’m focusing on eating literal quarts of gelato nightly on my couch and managing to never get my heart rate over 130 for two full years).
Plenty of former swimmers go through this weird, toddler-brained, exercise rebellion, I told myself. But soon, after binging essentially all of Netflix (you heard me: not a Netflix series, the actual streaming service, y’all), I began to accept that I would need some sort of productive workout method into which I could channel my energy. But what? Waking myself up in the morning to go on a jog? That’s adorable. Also, never. I have the ligaments of the elephant man; everything is double-jointed and pops out of socket if the wind blows the wrong direction, so yoga and Pilates were out. Given that I share its moniker, spin class seemed doable at first. But I just don’t know how many vaguely generalized platitudes about “reaching out and touching your goals!” shouted at you by a sweaty cycling instructor/actor/writer/producer/director/bodybuilder/vegan from West Hollywood a girl can really handle.
Even “fun” stuff seemed – to pick the least dramatic phrasing I can possibly muster – soul-sucking. I watched, literally horrified, as friends around me signed up for events requiring them to wake up early on Saturday mornings and hurl themselves through dirt, under barbed wire fences, all while enduring the screams of race organizers clad head-to-toe in Goodwill-provided Army fatigues. Oh, it didn’t stop there.
There were fun runs, beer runs, gorilla runs, mud runs, polar bear runs, runs to benefit Alzheimers, runs to send bags of rice to kids in Bolivia, runs to raise money for your 5th grade teacher’s daughter’s vet’s dentist’s weird nephew who needs money for the trip he’s taking to Africa to “find himself.” Listen, these are great causes, and I commend those who participate in them. But it’s taken me 18 months to find a decent dry cleaner in Los Angeles and I refuse to put the poor man through the torture of trying to get a rainbow of stains out of my favorite white t-shirts after some 6 a.m. 10k color run.
So, knowing both that I wanted to start exercising again and that my options were clearly limited, I threw a mini, internal tantrum, sighed, and signed myself up for a US Masters swim practice. And, with the sound of my frustrated, injured, college-swimming-self promising my teammates, “I’ll NEVER do masters swimming, are you kidding me?” echoing in my head, I found a team (shout-out to Southern California Aquatics!), plopped myself reluctantly into the car for the long drive to the pool, trudged on deck and introduced myself to the coach, squeezed on my cap and goggles, and dove in.
Dove in, and fell in love all over again. Hard. See, here’s the part of the story where I shed any semblance of chill. Because, put simply: hopping in that middle lane, feeling the past three years of retirement loosen away as I warmed up, watching the muscles in my arms – on autopilot – take their cue from distant memories to form strokes I hadn’t attempted in years, hearing the faint roar of the water rushing past my cap as I felt my brain click into that that terribly familiar setting that allows you to push your body to its absolute extreme – all alongside people of varied ages and sporting backgrounds and jobs and cultures who were doing and experiencing the exact same thing – well, it felt like coming home. Crap. I’d missed it so much.
A few days of workouts turned into a week, a week into two. Exponentially, as I counted tiles on the bottom of the pool with each lap, my contentedness, happiness, and general love of the sport grew. Or, re-grew, I should say. Every day at the pool, amongst my new Masters teammates, felt exactly like wrapping myself up in a comfortable, cozy, familiar childhood blanket knit with the scent of chlorine and the faint sound of a coach yelling at me to jump in for warmup. I’ve really missed this, I thought to myself.
Then, it happened. Hey, I have an idea, my stupid brain whispered at the end of a particularly satisfying IM set. Why don’t you enter a Masters meet? Pick an easy one, it’ll be harmless. If you don’t want to go, you can just scratch it. Could be fun… No no no no no, my brain screamed at my computer as I scooted around on Google, searching for a nearby SoCal meet to enter in February.
No no no no no, it screamed at my steering wheel as I drove to the pool the Saturday morning of the meet. No no no no no, it screamed at my fingers as they traced the heat sheet taped to the wall of the pool complex as I sipped my coffee and wondered how much time I should leave myself to warm-up before the first event. But then, of course, the sun peeked through the morning clouds as I hopped out of warm-up and slipped into my parka, I introduced myself to some teammates I’d yet to meet, my feet found their place behind the blocks so I could stretch and listen for the starter’s whistle, and suddenly, all was exactly as it should be in my little world. When I dove off the blocks for my first event, my brain whispered a new mantra. Yes yes yes yes yes, it repeated through that race, and the following four I swam that day. I’ve missed this so much.
They call it “flow”: the mental state in which a person performing an activity is entirely lost in the feeling of focus and enjoyment in the process of the activity. We feel it for years in the water as competitive swimmers, every day in practice and every weekend at meets. Then, we go on with our lives and get to experience it in other ways: at our jobs, with our families, pursuing our passions.
But the thing with flow, I learned on that sunny day at my first swim meet in years, is that there’s no shame in feeling it, no matter where you find it. Just because I’m an adult now, in a brand new city with job aspirations and a wholly different lifestyle than when I was a “career” swimmer, doesn’t mean that I can’t still swim, doesn’t meant that I can’t still enjoy swimming, doesn’t mean that I can’t also still be a competitive, proud Masters swimmer. Sure, it’s different than it used to be. I won’t lie – for all the joy I felt on deck that day, for all the confidence that surged through me every time I touched the wall first, there was a little sadness mixed in, sure. Something about dreams, maybe, and falling short of them. I have a feeling that slightly bitter sensation will turn to sweet, the more practices I make myself attend, the more meets I push myself into. I also have a feeling that, now that I’ve begun the journey of Masters swimming, I won’t be able to stop. I won’t want to. And how fun is that?
Swimming was my childhood, swimming was my adolescence, swimming was my college. Swimming was my religion and my identity and everything in between. Swimming has been for me, like for so many of us, my entire life. And how could I have ever been in such denial as to think that Spin plus water would ever equal anything but happiness? If you’re a post-grad struggling with how to fill that athletic void inside you, there are a lot of great options, each person’s choice unique. But, if you’re toying with the idea of Masters swimming, give it a try. It might be just what you’ve been missing.