It’s What You Take Away From It

Swim-wall

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.

The Breakout

breakout

You wouldn’t think we would spend so much time talking about pushing off a wall, but I’m willing to bet that at least a quarter of our practice time was routinely consumed with just that: how to push, how to hold a body position, how long to kick, which arm to begin pulling with first, when to breathe. When you consider that a third of the race yardage in a short course pool takes place around the walls, the “breakout”, or how to get away from the wall and take those first few strokes, becomes enormously important.

Those first few steps in any endeavor are crucial. That’s where you set the tone and pattern for everything that follows. In swimming, a breakout done poorly, haphazardly, thoughtlessly, can limit what you can achieve and put you behind significantly, as well as waste your energy as you struggle to catch up. Being out of position or caught in your own turbulence creates resistance that tires you out needlessly and has a negative effect on you mentally as you fight to resurface and gain back that time just lost. A well-executed breakout, on the other hand, is an opportunity to leap ahead and improve one’s position, causing the swimming that follows to feel more powerful and efficient.

One of the uniquely beautiful things about swimming is that every length of the pool is a chance to start over, to do the breakout again, to readjust and set a different tone. It’s all part of the same race or the same training set, but it is still a fresh start in miniature. “THIS time I will push hard with both legs. THIS time I will squeeze into a tight streamline. THIS time I will kick hard. THIS time I will not breathe on the first stroke. THIS time my first strokes will be strong.” As a consequence, THIS time there will be a new outcome.

What an awesome life lesson! How many times do we face moments where we can choose to make some changes or continue on struggling? How many times do we choose the struggle simply because it’s familiar? How many times do we choose mindless habit, no matter how much it wastes our energy?

Our breakouts, our fresh starts, should always be mindful moments, moments of focus and concentration, because these are the moments where the pattern is set for what is to follow. Small, positive changes right there in that moment of pushing off and starting anew can lead to larger positive outcomes as you swim away. Capture those moments. Focus. Be mindful. It can make all the difference in your life.