Why I Shouldn’t Have Quit Swimming

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Photo Courtesy: Taylor Brien

Why I Shouldn’t Have Quit Swimming (From the Archive)

By Swimming World Guest Contributor, Nicholas Zhu

First let me start off with why I did quit.

As a kid, I hated swimming. I would cry when my parents dragged me to the pool for basic safety lessons. They used to bribe me with White Castle Sliders out of desperation. Fast forward a few years, and I had somehow found myself on a competitive team. It was so ironic. I attended my first meet at 12 years old, which was relatively late compared to my peers. Leading up to my first race, the 100 breast, my nerves were off the charts. Behind the blocks, I was seriously considering making a run for the parking lot. After the race, I met my dad in the locker room. I still felt uneasy, but I vividly remember saying, “that was actually kinda fun!”

From that moment on, swimming became far and away my favorite activity. Every aspect of it was enjoyable. Even the 5 a.m. alarm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays became almost tolerable.

Almost…

For the next five years, I swam and swam and swam. Three dull weeks in August was all the break I got or wanted. Even though I wasn’t a great swimmer, September never came quick enough.

By the time high school rolled around, I had become the biggest swim nerd ever. I knew all of my times to the hundredth. I knew all of my teammates times to the hundredth. Heck, I even knew their splits to the hundredth. When I was in the pool, there was so much whirling about in my head, I wouldn’t have noticed if a meteor landed in the pool. Despite my obsessiveness, swimming was never in my plans beyond high school. For some reason, I thought that swimming was a recreational high school endeavor that wouldn’t be practical in college.

Sitting with my laptop typing this out, I wish I could go back in time and smack some sense into myself. But, I can’t.

My senior year, I was applying to colleges without even telling them I was a swimmer. It was so weird because at the same time I was swimming harder and faster than ever. During the 2016-17 season, I felt like I was two different people. One was online, artificially installed in a college application. The other was desperately trying to preserve my swimming career. Despite this strange personality split, I finally finished the exhausting college search, ultimately deciding to attend the University of Pennsylvania.

Soon after officially committing, I half-heartedly reached out to inquire about potentially joining the varsity team as a walk-on. At this point I was suspended in a state of conflicted uncertainty. Some days I was sure I should swim. Some days I knew I shouldn’t. That summer, I was at a team barbecue when two of my coaches approached me. They told me they had spoken to the university coaches, and I could start making preparations to swim. They then explained the countless benefits of college swimming and why I should absolutely go for it. In the moment, I was sold. A few days later, I was registered with the NCAA clearinghouse, and it was looking like varsity sports would really be a part of my future.

Then everything suddenly hit a wall. I don’t know what it was, but for some reason I knew I was done. I remember my final race: the 200 back final at 2017 Summer Senior Champs. The swim was fine, but I remember my eyes welling up in my goggles after. A few days later I sent the university coaches an email telling them I was retiring. I still can’t fully explain why I made such an abrupt decision. It’s likely I’ll never know.

Going into college I thought I had made the right decision. Things were on track to turn out better than great. However, mere weeks into school, I started to struggle. The endless memories of my swimming career became tainted with an internal bitterness. When I scrolled through my phone and looked at all of the pictures, I couldn’t help but feel regret. I don’t think I understood the value of swimming until it was gone from my life.

Coming into college my perceptions were filtered through a black and white lens. I thought I had to choose between school and swimming. In retrospect, I believe I could have done both. Athletics kept me in check. They kept me from going crazy. Swimmers are family. Before college I had that family. There’s something indescribably connective about the shared pursuit of athletic improvement. I know many of you will agree when I say that in the pool, teammates become friends, and friends become family.

I have no replacement for swimming. I’ve looked, but I know it’s not here with me. At school, everyone strives for different achievements. I want to apologize to my coaches for not listening to them. I acknowledge that you were right, and that I refused to listen. I want to apologize to my family for constantly jerking them around. I know I’ve been difficult, and I really appreciate your unwavering support.

Lastly to those who are considering forgoing college swimming, I ask you to stop and think. Forget the times, the sets, the hours; forget all that. If you haven’t been improving as fast as you like, who cares. That’s not what’s really important.

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

57 comments

  1. Kristie Wisniewski

    The University of Penn is a super intense school and college sports are no joke.

    Somehow I managed to juggle rowing Crew, being in a sorority, and working for the men’s swim coach at La Salle (also in Philly).
    But my major was Communications.

    I am sure your work load was intense and your priority. My cousin quit rowing when he went to Penn as well and he was valedictorian in HS but sometimes academics comes first as it should.

  2. Dagmar Reger

    I quitted in 1987 – and made my comeback in 2016 ^^
    It’s true “I used to be faster, now I’m a master” – but it’s so much fun 🙂

    • avatar

      That’s true. I’m so slow how but I did pretty good at the local senior olympics meet once a year the past 3 years. So, its more enjoyable.

  3. Jo-Ann Elo

    Swimming will always be part of your life. You could train on your own right at the college pool or look for a local masters swim team! Swimming never leaves your blood. Finding a masters swim team is finding a group of “like minded” people who understand you. They may all be of different abilities but they are all there to be part of a team, take a break from their busy lives (work, family, school) and keep fit.

  4. avatar
    Anonymous

    My son is going through this with me as he begins to focus on his studies….and I and he are confused

    • avatar
      Roger Karns

      You can successfully balance swimming in college and academics. A recent swimmer graduated with a 3.98 and is currently in Med School. We regularly have individual Scholar All-Americans and Team Scholar All-Americans and they are in every major under the sun. You learned how to study and manage your time before college, you can continue

  5. Mohamed Hassan

    but my shoulders tell me to do something else 🤣😂
    of course no quiting… this damn wierd felx sport…. hate quiting it more than hating swimming itself 😂

  6. Jo-Ann Elo

    Are you on Facebook Nicholas Zhu…if so, friend me…and the rest of your fans commenting on this article!

  7. avatar
    Anon

    Ending your swimming career isn’t always “quitting”. Quitting implies a type of failure. I stopped competitive swimming after my first year of college and it was absolutely the right decision for me. It allowed me to more fully explore other interests that I wouldn’t have been able to with the time commitments for college swimming. I enjoyed my short time swimming in college and I’m glad I was fortunate enough to have that experience, but I’m also happy I stopped when I did. I think It my case it also helped preserve my love for swimming. It is over a decade since I finished school, and I still swim several times a week. Almost none of my former teammates continued, most were too burned out. This isn’t to advocate against swimming competitively (college in particular), but sometimes you have to know when to move on.

  8. Susan L. Lansbury

    its a tough sport to continue, especially as a teen. no one “gets” it, in so many ways…..

  9. Hermine Terhorst

    I coached masters swimming for 20 years. It never ceased to amaze me how emotionally obsessed the swimmers were that had ‘quit’ on themselves in college. The ‘family fun’ aspect of team swimming is WHY it is so important when you go off to college. The feeling of having ‘quit’ on yourself appears to remain FOREVER from my vantage point. So, you may as well just SWIM and be happy. Forever! 💃

    • Eric Valley

      I didn’t letter in college – swam two years, didn’t make the post-season, so didn’t letter. Now I have a goal of winning an individual national Masters championship so I get invited to join the honorary alumni athletic “Order,” which comes with a big blanket emblazoned with the first initial of the name of our college – sounds like “lettering” to me! A friend called it redemption, which I “wore” for a couple of weeks, ’til I realized: It’s not redemption, it’s COMPLETION!

  10. Sue Marchetti

    Daniel Grant I thought you may like this article. 👍

  11. Glen Osborne

    Unfortunately it takes years to understand what you give up when you stop.

  12. avatar
    Barbara

    My best friends right now are my swim teammates from my Master’s Swim team. We train, compete, Open Water Swim, and use every experience we can for a potluck or a party. Best. Support. System. Ever. I think water people are just like that. That’s why you can’t find it anywhere else. Find your way back to your tribe. It’s not too late (I’m 48, and I just found them 2 years ago). Don’t wait as long as I did!

  13. Jim Bowser

    When you build a body to swim well in the company of great relationships, the bond with self and others always remains imprinted in a variety of personal DNA. The commeraderie, growth, lessons, fun, personal bests and great stories last for life.

  14. avatar
    Anonymous

    Nicholas,

    I went through a similar struggle years ago at a different Ivy League school and decided not to quit a varsity sport (not swimming) as it gave me close friends, exposure to upperclassmen to act as mentors (for better and worse !) , acceptance and exposure to many social clubs, and lots of great times. Years later, the games are not the things I remember. This was important as an insecure 18 year old whose developing identity was closely tied to the sport he played. In short I made the opposite decision as you and 25 years later and I regret it a bit.

    I wish I was confident enough to step out of my comfort zone and explore new activities.

    My oldest daughter embraces the grind of swimming and loves her swim friends. I am thankful swimming is such a big part of her life. My advice to her, however, when the time comes . . . swim freshman and maybe sophomore year. Develop those friendships, gain confidence and then expand outward. You can swim at college but you are not going to college to swim. Join that club you always thought about but never had the time and/or confidence. Challenge yourself to an internship. Write that thesis. In short get out of you comfort zone. Ultimately though it will be her call. I will embrace whatever she chooses.

    Obviously you can swim and still explore outside interests as you can not swim/ participate in athletics and remain disciplined, develop close friendships, etc. As my fellow LI’er would sing “shades of grey are the colors I see.” It is not black and white.

    Good luck in your remaining college years Nicolas. They go by fast. Too fast. You can find some of those things you miss about swimming elsewhere. Maybe join the water polo team–those guys (and gals) are usually fun and ex-swimmers like yourself and its not the same commitment, at least not at UPenn. Soon you will be out of college and then the real existential crisis will hit. Join a masters swim club then. You will need and it will help 🙂

    Stephen Buetow

  15. Debra Murane Eagleton

    My husband and I have swam most of our lives, still do for fitness. I started our kids @ ages 6 and 8. They swam competitively in USA age group through college. They also played waterpolo competitively. They both know our main reason for starting them in water sports for for fitness first, the rest was gravy. Swimming is the one sport you can do all of your life. Keep on swimming!

  16. John Cerreta

    Burnout and loathing, words that a swimmer should never know if their coach prepared for the enjoyment of life with swimming. Hammering sets demanding results and the finalized goal that may or may not have happened psychologically must have buffers, for the psyche of a age group swimmer to understand, winning is not the final goal.

  17. Simon Kelly

    Hay seguir con el deporte . La.educacion puede esperar

  18. avatar

    Nicolas,
    A very well written post. As a mom of 5 competitive swimmers who swam for 12 years since they were 5/6 years old, I appreciate the way you described your feelings. One of my son wishes to swim in University and I would rather he focuses on his studies and do some other extracurricular activities. Your post made me re think my position, hard to believe it.
    You sounded like an intelligent and thoughtful young man, I wish you the best going forward.

  19. Lorraine TC Nelson

    This also rings true with me. I was in swim club for 5 years (joined age 9). I got fed up and gave it up. Apart from doing my lifesaving qualification when I was 24 I never swam regularly until 5 years ago. I got back into swimming after selling my horse and found I had lots of free time. Despite having a 20+ year gap from giving up swim club I still hadn’t lost my technique (my fitness was severely lacking though!). Fast forward to today and swimming is my saviour. I now love the pool and my fitness is fantastic. I often wonder how far I would’ve gone if I hadn’t left swim club. I guess as an adult I appreciate the benefits swimming brings both physically and mentally. I know my sport will be part of my routine for the rest of my life now and that’s all that matters ☺️

  20. Patrick McBride

    Pools closed in SF for 6 months so basically I am out. Hard to maintain an aquatic routine but some are trying by switching to the bay. Risks are being taken and facilities (basic water access) are a joke.

  21. avatar
    Ann Marshfield

    Nicholas,
    There are two outstanding programs designed
    for swimmers like you. Your deep desire to
    continue competitive swimming and develop
    the strong sense of family being on a swim team
    with people who love swimming.
    US Masters Swimming has the College Club
    Swimming program at colleges around
    the country of which Univ. of Pennsylvania
    Is a club. The CCS ends the year in a
    huge championship meet (this year was canceled
    due to COVID) of which fast times are
    swum and it is a blast. Go to http://www.collegeclunswimming.com for details
    Second, you can join US Masters Swimming
    where 50,000
    adults swim for fitness, including high levelcompetition and for fun. There’s clubs
    all around the country. Check it out http://Www.usms.org

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