As a swimmer and a coach, as someone for whom water has played a major part in life, the thought of drowning is beyond horrifying. Being in my wonderful, peaceful, familiar environment and not being able to manage the situation is the worst kind of helplessness I can fathom.
I was 18 years old, swimming for my summer league team. I had quit year round swimming the winter before, choosing instead to swim for fun and to coach for both my year round and summer teams. Life was good, and I was enjoying swimming wholeheartedly for the first time in a long time.
It was our All Star meet, our end of season championship, and I was going into it seeded first in my best event, the 50 backstroke. Things couldn’t have been better: great weather, the support of my team, my favorite stroke, the middle lane, my last swim of my career. I was ready to go out on a high note.
I got a great start, but then the unthinkable happened: my goggles came down. This almost NEVER happens in backstroke, but there they were, right across my mouth, positioned so they were dumping water up my nose, in my eyes, and down my throat. I swam on, thinking “What the heck? It’s only a 50, I’m in good shape, I’ll just hold my breath.” I was ahead going into the turn, which was usually the best part of my race. As I pushed off, another unthinkable thing happened: I came up under the lane line. The line was across my right shoulder, and I was stuck there, trying to fight my way up, having not been able to see or breathe since the start of the race. Thrashing my way to the surface, my lungs screaming, I gasped involuntarily, and sucked in water. That was it. The end of my race. I could not go on.
Here’s the kicker: as I got to the side and an official helped me out, I coughed out a big ball of water and looked up just in time to see my dad make a gesture of disgust and leave the pool deck. No concern for my well-being, just disgusted disappointment in me for “quitting”. I was beyond devastated. Crushed and embarrassed to have disqualified in my best event, scared to death by inhaling water and going under, I then had to deal with my own father’s lack of care and his misunderstanding of what had occurred.
Needless to say, I had emotions about this one for a long time. A loooooooong time. Finally, I was able to put this incident in a perspective that helped me deal with it and get past my negative feelings, by asking myself “what did I learn from it?” I learned that sometimes, for no particular reason, bad stuff happens. I learned that sometimes, try as you might to fight your way out of it, the bad stuff can keep coming and get the better of you for a time. I learned that sometimes stopping to regroup is the best choice you have. I learned that sometimes the people watching your struggle, even the people who love you the most, will misunderstand and have opinions and judge you. Most importantly, I learned that you don’t have to let any of that define you or become a permanent part of your self-image.
I lost a medal that day, but what I took away was far more valuable. In the end, that’s all that matters.