I retired from swimming in 2010. I gave a speech at my high school banquet, rode out a swan song at YMCA Nationals a few weeks later, and completed my final year of eligibility of swimming for my summer swim club. By the end of July 2010, I was finished. I was tired.
Since that last competitive swim, my swims have been limited in number. Occasionally, I hopped back into the pool for 45 odd minutes of swimming, doing a modified version of an old meet warmup with considerably more rest, noticeably slower results, and definitely less breath to spare at the wall. These swims were usually separated by months. I made more attempts in the early periods of my retirement to swim than I did as time passed. The length of time between swims stretched longer and longer. I swam two whole times in all of 2015.
My disinterest in swimming was not connected to dislike of the sport. I was head coach of my summer swim team for the four summers after I retired. My passion for the sport didn’t wane. Each summer, I convinced swimmers who were ready to quit to swim for one more season. I refused to acknowledge “no’s.” The “no” was simply a temporary roadblock in the way of the swimmer’s happy reunion with swim practice and meets. I kept more swimmers than I lost.
Fear and vanity kept me from the pool. I hated that I had become a washed-up former athlete. I compared every set, lap, and stroke unfavorably to what I used to be. Even while recognizing that my capabilities would surely decline after I stopped practicing eight to nine times a week, I could not accept the physical realities of being a civilian. The labored breathing after just one sprint. The utter fatigue after a mere 30 minutes. The disintegration of stroke technique that was honed over several years. All served as reminders of how much faster and better conditioned I used to be, which proved to be quite frustrating.
Which is why I was surprised to feel a pull back to the water. I waited before acting on the impulse to verify its authenticity, but I really did want to start swimming again with at least a little more regularity than once every five months. The timing suggests that it’s a New Year’s resolution, but, in this case, the timing is really just a coincidence. I ventured to a pool close to my apartment this past Thursday to take the first swim.
I entered the building to find a swarm of parents who were waiting for their small children to finish their swim lessons. The short hallways were filled with parents, strollers, and siblings dribbling various sized playground balls, oblivious to the prospective lap swimmer who was seeking anything that looked like a membership sign-in desk. I took a walk around the floor, only to return to the entrance and notice an office which was occupied by two men who looked like employees along with a woman who was towing a toddler behind her. I said I was interested in buying a day pass. I was then informed that day passes did not exist for lap swimming so the middle-aged African American man walked me through the process of registering. There was a one-month and three-month option. I decided to be optimistic and take the savings that came with the three-month membership.
I was surprised by how liberating it felt to say “I’ve never been here before and I’m interested in swimming.” I am wont to act like I know what I’m doing, especially when I don’t have the faintest idea. In this instance, I decided to be transparently clueless. I asked for a lap swimming schedule and was given one. I asked for directions to the men’s locker room. When I was still unable to locate the locker room, I returned to the office and told them I got lost. The man who registered me walked me to the locker room’s threshold. I thanked him profusely and told him I would remember next time, which made him smile.
I was not yet finished looking like a foolish, half-witted, New-Year’s-resolutionist. By the time I finished donning my suit, the swim lessons had finished. Parents were leading small children huddled beneath enormous towels into the locker room to begin the Herculean task of showering and dressing three-year-olds. Not keen on witnessing that drama, I decided to enter the pool at 6:32 even though I knew lap swimming did not begin until 6:45.
At that moment, I realized I had forgotten a lock. Rather than risk robbery, I decided to just bring all my things with me to the pool deck. This proved to be challenging. My reliable swim bag—the same one I have used since the seventh grade—lacks the capacity to hold all my clothes and winter outerwear. Ultimately, I put my shoes and clothes in the bag, stuffed my winter coat on top of the clothes, hung my towel around neck, carried my cap, goggles, and water bottle in one hand, held the membership card I needed to show the lifeguards in my other hand, and slung my swim bag over my shoulder. I left the bag unzipped to give my black coat room to puff out. It looked like the Grim Reaper was in the process of arising from my swim bag.
Saddled like a mule, I walked into the pool. I was pleased to spy an odd structure that looked like a shelf to my immediate right that would be perfect for my possessions. As I unshouldered my bag, I heard one of the lifeguards call out to me.
“Oh, I’m sorry, but you can’t swim right now. We’re not quite ready yet.”
“Oh that’s ok,” I replied magnanimously. “I can wait.”
As I sat down on the makeshift shelf, the lifeguard saw that I clearly did not understand. “No, I’m afraid you can’t be in the pool area while we’re transitioning the pool. We have to have someone in the chair whenever a swimmer is in the pool area.”
“Oh, I see. Sorry, this is my first time here.” After seven years of lifeguarding, I had become the idiot patron who didn’t understand the rules. I regained my things and shuffled out to wait eight more minutes.
By the time I was finally swimming, I felt grateful to be doing something familiar again. The strokes were the same and the length of the pool had not changed. However, one very important change took place in my head. It did not take long for the lactic acid to start pumping. As I started testing out my sprinting ability, I was soon short of breath. But this time, I did not bemoan what I had lost. I simply observed and noted what I was.
During the part of my swim that taxed my cardiovascular system the greatest, I could feel the lower half of my body wobbling. Water is a chaotic environment and the fastest swimmers are usually the swimmers who can move most efficiently through this environment rather than the swimmers who move their appendages the fastest. It took me years to swim freestyle while keeping all parts of my body perfectly aligned. It requires a combination of steady kicking, controlled hip rotations, a strong catch at the top of each stroke, and perfect head positioning. Unsurprisingly, I had lost this magic combination. As I picked up speed, I could feel the lower half of my body drifting in the opposite direction of my torso like I was a car fishtailing down an icy road.
This is usually the part where I get mad at myself for letting my form go to hell. But not this time. This time, I coached myself up. I turned my focus to a potential solution rather than the problem itself. I decided to breathe every three strokes and see if that would even out my hip rotations. It worked well enough that I continued breathing every three strokes for the remainder of the swim.
I believe the awkward moments that preceded my swim were helpful in shifting my mental approach to swimming imperfection. The registration, the struggle to find the locker room, and the obliviousness to pool protocol made me feel like a novice. For the first time since I was 12, swimming felt very new. Once it felt new, it grew harder to compare my current swimming experiences to my past. I could swim in a mental vacuum, utterly divorced from all the other swims of my life. I was just a swimmer in a pool trying to improve my form and my speed from one moment to another. I was not coming out of retirement. I was starting a swimming career, again.
I am no longer an elite athlete and will not be one ever again. At long last, I’m finally comfortable with saying that. I am not moved to criticize myself for failing to meet a standard to which I no longer ascribe. I’ve stopped chasing a ghost. More importantly, I don’t even consider it a negative statement. It’s not an unfortunate reality or a resignation. It’s an opportunity to refashion myself, to paint a new masterpiece rather than continue to linger on the last one.