Competitive swimming is not for the faint of heart. It is a grueling sport that leaves me feeling hopeless and beat down for 350 days of the year and frequently doesn’t give me the result I want. 

Someone recently asked me how I’ve managed to keep up with swimming while still participating in school activities and maintaining good grades. I’m not an anomaly among swimmers; almost everyone on my team is just as dedicated to the sport and as proficient in school as I am. The question sparked queries of my own for my teammates and coaches; I wanted to see if there is a specific trait or characteristic in people who stick to swimming throughout high school. 

I asked my current club coach what he observes in athletes who continue to swim despite academics and the allure of social life. Without hesitation, he answered in his southern drawl, “Self-driven kids, who are OK not seeing success every time and who take failure as a part of the process, are usually the most successful.”

This makes sense, as it would be much easier for me to hit the snooze button on my alarm, sleep in and skip morning practice. Or to get out of evening practice early and do homework or study for my next test. 

That’s where time management and work ethic come into play. When I’ve skipped a practice to do homework, which is rare, I’ve always felt guilty because I probably could have planned better and because I lost an opportunity to improve myself in the pool.

My coach’s point about success also resounded with a teammate’s conclusion on why she swims.

“There is something about swimming that forces people to stay because it is such an unenjoyable sport to a lot of people,” she said. “Maybe just the fact that there’s always another meet or season that could be more enjoyable or successful than the last. No one wants to stop when there might be something more.”

Swimming is a lot like gambling. Not in the Dungeons and Dragons-style where if you roll a 1, no matter how good you are, you’ll go slowly, but in how frequently we don’t see the results we want. It’s like getting two lucky sevens and a cherry; we are so close to winning the jackpot that we almost hypnotically keep putting quarters into the slot machine for another chance. The next spin will be the big win. I trust in my training enough to know that I have the capability of swimming a best time during championship season, but will it be by a tenth of a second or more?

Right now, I’m facing a championship meet that I’ve set big goals for, and I had the unfortunate luck of falling sick. I can obsess over the fact that I feel like a leaf in a hurricane while I’m in the pool, or I can focus on getting healthy again and trusting my training. This meet is going to hurt, but I still have that glimmer of hope that I’ll pull off something great.

The splash of optimism in a pool of doubt distinguishes the athletes who stay from the ones who leave. Those who are willing to accept failure as a part of the process and grow from their shortcomings are usually the ones who stay — hooked on the cycle of hope for an even better next season. Beyond this is also the sense of being a part of something greater than a single person — the community at the pool.

Most of the swimmers on my club team have grown up in a pool and feel a permanent attachment to the sport. As my teammate eloquently put it, “I fear letting swimming go because it’s all I’ve ever known and I’ve invested so much time into it that I don’t see quitting as an option.”

I know a few swimmers who have left and stayed away for several months, but like clockwork they trickle back to the deck, slightly uncoordinated but eager to rejoin the community.

Or maybe I’m just crazy and we all get high on the chlorine and get addicted to that. (Has anyone checked if chlorine is addictive?) Who knows — it isn’t really scientific! All I know is that the swimmers I see competing year after year with the same vigor and intensity possess a tenacity and inner drive that sets them apart from those who have quit.

By Rebecca Waterson

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