You Are Defined By the Bad Days

Miya DiRado and Missy Franklin - Olympic champions who have known their bad days - Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

By Tera Bradham


Swimmer. It’s a word that encompasses a brutality known only by those to whom it pertains.

There is no sport more excruciating than swimming. While other athletes make similar claims, we know one day in our lives would silence them forever. When an outsider asks if we are swimmers, we nod politely, knowing that they do not and will not ever comprehend the true meaning of the word.

Yet in a sport as tough as ours, too many athletes focus on the brief, fleeting moments of glory it seldom provides. As great as victory feels, as rewarding as it is to look up to that scoreboard and see you accomplished your goal, you are not defined by those moments. You are not defined by the good days.


You are defined by the bad days.

You know, those seemingly life-threatening days when you feel as if taking another stroke could cause it to be your last.

The days when you can’t seem to wake up, even with your body being thrust into a freezing pool at 5 a.m.

The weeks where you give 1000 percent at every practice, but you just can’t seem to break through the wall.

The days where every breath is a gasp, every stroke is a struggle, and every lap is a challenge.

It’s the day when you’re simultaneously combatting a suit hickey, a goggle tan, your complete lack of visible eyebrows, your flaking reptilian skin, and fin blisters.

It’s the day when you’re three seconds slower than your 200 pace…on a 50.

It’s the day when you wake up and feel as if you literally have been run over by a truck. “Forget practice,” you think. “How am I even supposed to crawl to my car?”

It’s the day when you cunningly try to guess the worst-case scenario of a set your coach can conjure up, only to be proved wrong by an even more debilitating set than the one you imagined.

It’s the day someone asks, yet again, what those “weird little hairs” are at the base of your skull where your cap has been tearing away a layer of your locks for years.

It’s the day when you get lapped. And it’s long course.

It’s the day when you get pummeled by an oncoming butterflyer.

It’s the three-hour Christmas training practice where you spend the entire time playing wall tag.

It’s the day when you see the white board rolled out on the deck because your coach knows the set is too long to remember.

It’s the day when you finally put on real clothes and brave the real world only to realize your perfume mixes with the smell of chlorine radiating from your skin in such a way as to permanently scare off any and all potential suitors.

It’s the day you false start in the mile and the official doesn’t inform you until after your 66th lap.

It’s the day when you question your sanity and think of all the other sports you could have picked that toss balls around, or hit balls, or kick them, or do nice flips, or get style points, instead of swimming hundreds of grueling laps every day, staring at a black line.

It’s the day when you daydream about all the other people you could hang out with, organizations you could be involved with, and talents you could develop with the 30 hours a week you spend absorbing chlorine through your gills.

It’s the day when you genuinely consider quitting the sport.

It’s the months where you have injury after injury, and you just can’t seem to catch a break.

It’s the day when you’re having issues at home, you’re struggling with your grades, you just broke up with your boyfriend or girlfriend, you come to the pool for an escape, and on top of it all, you have an awful practice.

It’s that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you see you lost by a hundredth.

It’s the months where you can’t seem to break the mental block you have against that certain race.

It’s the day when you finally get to taper, miss your qualifying cut by a tenth, and have to train six more months until your next shot at the goal.

It’s the day when you feel like everything you worked for was pointless.

It’s the day you yield to what your mind has been telling you all along, believing lies people have told you about who you are as a person or swimmer.

It’s the day when you can’t fight anymore.

It’s the day you hit rock bottom.

And then, from somewhere in the recesses of your mind, a little glimmer shines forth. There’s a little part of you that refuses to be subdued – the part that knows it isn’t over, that knows why you do everything that you do. It fights its way to consciousness, vanquishing lies and emotions and burning circumstance as the fuel to persevere.

And then you overcome. You don’t quit, you fight back, you push through and you accomplish the impossible. You reach your goal, touch the wall first, and a shout of triumph bursts forth as your fist flies into the air. And you remember why you fought through all of those bad days in the first place. You endured for the good days, few and far between, that are only reached by persisting through the bad days.


Photo Courtesy: Susanna White

Everybody has bad days, but success is determined by what one does with those bad days. Successful swimmers are those who push through the bad days, who keep fighting when everything in them tells them to give up, and who keep believing, even when all hope seems lost.

Most people place too much emphasis on what they feel, rather than on what they will. You cannot let emotions rule your life, nor can you permit a temporary circumstance to deter you from a lasting goal. Success comes to those who make decisions based on what they will and not what they feel.

Never skip a practice. Not because you feel obliged to go and not because you don’t want your teammates to look down on you, but because you never know when you are about to knock down the wall; you never know how close you are to breaking through it.

You never know when your bad day could turn out to be your best day.

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


  1. Rick Cook

    Wow! What a powerful read – I will share this with our competitive swimmer!

    • avatar
      Gail Whittaker

      Great read .

  2. avatar
    Jeff Poppell

    Well Done Tera!! Awesome job!

  3. avatar

    It’s the day that you understand that medical school and even a surgical residency weren’t really that hard because of the discipline required of collegiate swimming prepared you so well.

    It’s the day that you are sitting with old friends at your college swimming reunion, reminiscing, and it seems as if your practiced with them the day before – only to realize that you NEVER actually swam on the same team with them. They were the college seniors who recruited you when you were a senior in high school.

    It’s the day, 30 years after your last swim meet, when your child is graduating from high school with more honors and recognition than you could have ever dreamed of, and you realize that you have passed on the lessons you learned through competitive swimming. And you understand that no matter the bumps life throws at her, she will be fine.

    THAT is the payoff.

  4. avatar

    Your poignant writing exposes hard-earned wisdom. I’ve watched my daughter persevere through everything you wrote, for nearly a decade. Her best days are coming! Thank you for writing such a wonderful piece. May your best days bring you unprecedented elation, this fall.

  5. Lyn

    I do its ruddy hard work and so is being a swim teacher in that environment I keep losing me voice lol

  6. avatar
    Pat becker

    Yes swimming is excruciatingly difficult. Part of that is the individual nature of the sport. However, as the mom of two wrestlers, I cannot agree that it is the most difficult. Wrestling is also a year round sport and those 6 minute matches are excruciating. To me there are several similarities. One is not better than the other.

  7. avatar

    Pat, as the wife/mother of wrestlers, our family has lived both sports, and my wrestler son asked me to respectfully ask you if your family stays up until 1:00 am regularly for homework to get up at 4:00 am to eat breakfast and hit the road in time to stretch 20 minutes and be in the frigid pool by 5. 30-35 hours, every week, mile after mile after mile in that pool, year after year after year. No sleeping in during the summer. We have lived both sports at the NCAA level and agree with this author, who didn’t say swimming is the best but only the most grueling. Most of us can’t fathom swimming miles per day and poop out after a 100 yd. She actually addressed those who haven’t lived it in paragraph 2.

  8. avatar

    Why does one sport have to be “more excruciating” than the next? As a wrestler and a swimmer, I can say without a doubt that BOTH are extremely difficult. The individual nature of both sports are very similar. The need for extreme conditioning is the same. The work needed to excel is the same. The 4 a.m. wake ups are the same…one to swim in cold water and one to run miles in cold rain, snow, etc. Props to all the hardworking swimmers and wrestlers. They are unique sports, requiring some extreme mental and physical toughness.

  9. Carrie Farmer

    I have swam laps (on and off) for the last 33 years. I love it plus I can do it for the rest of my life, it is good for my joints, I don’t have to have a bunch of people (team) to do it and I am very clean as a result. The big plus is no one can reach me by phone. 20 laps in 30 minutes. Not bad for 69.

  10. avatar

    This is why sport is for maniacs and masochists.
    Intelligent people swim for recreation, health or even as a form of yoga.

  11. avatar

    Most would not know that the author of this piece was at the top of her sport in her younger years. Had to battle through the toughest of times with injury after injury. She never gave up. Continued to push through and finished back up in the game. Resiliency is her middle name. There was and is no “quit” in Tera’s vocabulary. And she is one of the highest quality individuals to ever come through our program. Well done M’am! Coach Mike.

  12. avatar
    Haley Sofiane

    wow!! Definitely cried. Loved this article!! Never. Give. Up!

  13. avatar

    Tera is my Best Friend. And exactly what Mike said!!! Giving up and backing down aren’t in Tera’s vocab. You also wouldn’t know that she also received 2 majors in 3 years all while swimming and now is working on her Master’s – while still collegiately swimming!

    When Tera first shared her many battles with injuries she never once complained, or made me pity her. She’s the definition of a warrior, hero and a fighter. And she’s like this in ALL areas of her life- not only swimming. That’s what I love and respect about her. Proud of you Bestfriend! + love you more than words! ?

  14. avatar
    Lisa Marcucci

    ALL you swimmers out there… Remember this article and push through those bad days!!!! YOU can do it!
    (Swim Mom)

  15. avatar
    Jim Lutz

    Great read. To far from being an athlete to put this into words as you have done, but walk the deck each day giving this opportunity to young swimmers to give them something on which they can build. A swimmer IS a swimmer, no less, often more, but yet simply a swimmer. We take pride in what we know and understand and realize what we explain often falls on deaf ears. We are swimmers, we are proud, we are like no others.

  16. avatar
    Clive Rushton

    That is, without doubt, one of the best articles I have ever read. It sums up swimming to a ‘T’. Every Coach should distribute if to all and sundry and print it out for wall mounting. I will.

  17. avatar

    Our son swam from age seven through high school and D3 college. He groaned and complained about it the entire time but he went out every year. He improved in something every year and closed out his college career with lifetime bests and a school record relay.

    He was hurt, shoulder, knee, elbow, ear, and kept on swimming. He swam at high school state with a 102 fever and didn’t tell anyone how sick he was. I once asked, if swimming was so hard and such a pain, why did he keep on swimming? He said – “because the only thing worse than swimming is not swimming”.

    He met his girlfriend, now wife, on their college swim team. They now do triathlons to keep fit and compete. His years of college swimming and being team captain were specifically mentioned in his law school acceptance letter.

    His sister swam through freshman year of high school and had to stop due to bad shoulders. She couldn’t stay away and while in college (D3) she tried again because she couldn’t stay away. She couldn’t do it for long but she did swim enough to match and exceed her earlier times. She then “retired” happy and now swims laps for exercise when she can. Persistence and dedication also in her career and accomplishments outside the pool.

    The article rings true. I won’t compare it to other sports our children have done for dedication and difficulty. I can say the character it built, the perseverance it required are key to the people they all are today. I hope swimming is the wonderful place for our grandchildren that it was for our own children.

  18. Luanne Zuniga Aakhus

    Or something else.. I watched Stacianna Stits break a world record in the semi finals…. and not make the Olympic team after competing in the finals…

  19. Susan Howard


  20. Beth Jackson Glass

    Excellent and worthy of reading more than once! Thank you for sharing this essay.

  21. avatar
    Bud Dixon

    As a former coach, this article made me realize that my work on the deck made a lasting difference to many of my kids. I now know that getting to the pool before sunrise was worth it.

  22. Dennis Hatfield

    It’s the day you false start in the mile and the official doesn’t inform you until after your 66th lap……..

  23. Pete Lee

    Don’t let the bed days to find you. You are the captain of your own ship. The author of your own story. You are your own hero or heroine.

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