Swimming is a sport like no other. You learn a lot about yourself throughout your years as a swimmer and the sport inherently instills valuable life lessons in you. Even when your time as a competitive swimmer is done, you still continue to learn more about the sport and have time to reflect.
Here are 15 very real and very honest truths about swimming:
1. Swimming isn’t like any other sport, so don’t expect it to be.
Swimming is unique for many reasons and is truly unlike any other sport. You don’t get a timeout in the middle of your 400 IM, no matter how badly you may need one. Swimmers don’t, and probably won’t ever, get the same recognition as other teams, despite the achievements in and out of the pool. You may see your friends who play other sports have the week off around the holidays while you’re on your way to doubles. That’s just the way swimming is.
2. The clock will never lie.
You always hear the cliché—the clock never lies. Well, it’s true. The clock doesn’t and will never lie, but that’s the beauty of it. The precise nature of our sport allows us to visibly see the outcome of the work we do. There is no judge marking off points for technicality or style: you swim, look up at the scoreboard and boom, there’s the result. If you were .01 off the cut time, you were .01 off the cut time. If your reaction time was -0.32, you left early. It’s an honest sport; you can’t make up excuses for numbers that are right in front of your eyes.
3. It’s okay to fail.
Swimmers often find themselves in the mindset that failing is not an option. But here’s the thing: it’s okay. Fail. Make mistakes. Try a new race strategy. Hold a faster interval in practice. Maybe you fade in the last 50 of your 200 breast, maybe you have to add a few seconds for the final reps. You won’t know unless you try and you will never learn or grow or get faster if you never push yourself out of your comfort zone.
4. It’s not always fair.
Some people have natural talent. We all know the type, those who may not necessarily put in the training but can bust out a fast time at meets. Others simply do not have that ability. Swimming was never natural to me; I was not one of those lucky individuals who had God-given speed. I had to train extremely hard to see minor results at best, if any improvements at all. But that’s just how it is. You cannot control what others do.
5. You don’t have to be best friends with all of your teammates.
You can choose what club team to swim with or where you go to college, but your teammates are like family—you don’t get to pick them. Despite spending a good portion of your time with them, it’s okay not to be best friends with all of them. Despite any differences, support each other and push one another to be the best athletes you can be. After all, you’re there for the same reason, and competing with the same team name on your caps.
6. You won’t always drop time like your 10-year-old self.
Remember when you were younger and you would drop three seconds in your 50 free each time you raced it? As we all know, once we get older, that stops happening. There comes a point in your swimming career when you simply won’t drop time anymore. As much as you’d like to and no matter how hard you train, the results just don’t seem to go your way. Plateaus happen. You may only drop a few tenths here and there—celebrate that success.
7. No one cares about your excuses.
I’ve made my fair share of excuses, don’t get me wrong. But here’s the thing: absolutely no one cares about your excuses. You can make excuses all you want—go right ahead—but those will be what prevents you from reaching your goals. As one of my 13-year-old swimmers once told me, excuses are the nails that build the house of failure. Wow.
8. The suit doesn’t make you go fast.
It’s the mindset you have while you’re in the suit that makes you go fast. Did the fancy new tech suit put in hours of training each day? No. Did the suit that takes 20 minutes to put on wake up at the crack of dawn to head to the gym? Not a chance. Was it the $300 piece of fabric that survived winter training? Nope. No one can swim your race except you. Put that suit on and feel—be—unstoppable.
9. Mental health matters.
If we’re sore, we ice. If something’s hurting, we see our athletic trainers. If we’re tight, we stretch and roll out. Mental health should not be any different. If something is bothering you, talk about it. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; your coaches, teammates, athletic support staff, family and friends all want to see you succeed. Swimming (and diving) are both extremely mental sports, and to perform your best in the pool, you must be in the best mindset possible.
10. Warmup also matters.
I once raced a 200 breast final at my championship meet without any warmup; I hadn’t touched a pool since my prelim swim that morning. Somehow, unbeknownst to me, I managed to go a best time, but let me tell you, I couldn’t walk the next day. Never underestimate the power of a good warmup. If you don’t have a pool available, do some dryland exercises to get your heart rate up. Get both your body and mind ready to race.
11. It’s impossible not to compare yourself to others.
Don’t pretend that you have never compared yourself to anyone. It’s inevitable in sport and swimming is no exception. Wow, that guy is so much stronger than me. That girl’s seed time is five seconds faster than mine. Although it’s impossible not to compare yourself to others, learn how to manage it. Stay in your zone, race your own race. If you start to hear that little voice in your head get to a negative place, reroute it to focus on you and no one but yourself.
12. It’s okay to not always love the sport.
Swimming is not always rainbows and butterflies—it rarely is. It’s hard. It takes an emotional, physical and mental toll on you. Sometimes you feel stuck, simply just going through the motions, even questioning what you truly want from the sport. That’s fine. It’s normal. You’re not the only one who feels that way, and you definitely won’t be the last. Even on the hard days, remember why you started. Somewhere, no matter how deep down it may be, that love for swimming is still there.
13. You are never alone.
It’s okay to admit when you need help and to seek out resources. Communicate with your coaches about how you’re feeling and let your teammates know what’s going on. Chances are, some of them are probably feeling the same way. Through the good times and the bad, you have an amazing support system. Even when the going gets tough, your swimming family is in your corner. It’s not easy and you never have to go through it by yourself.
14. You are a person outside of the pool.
Swimming is what you do, not who you are. Swimming is a huge part of your life, but it does not define you as a human being. It’s so easy to get caught up obsessing over trivial things within the sport, but that does not matter. In five, 10, 20 years from now, you will not remember the time you swam in your 100 back at a dual meet or the pace you held for 10×100 in practice. Your times and accomplishments within the pool will never tell the whole story; your character says a lot more about you as both a person and an athlete.
15. It doesn’t give up on you.
Swimming is like that pesky little mosquito on a hot summer night: it never goes away, no matter how many times you swat at it. There may come a time when you give up on swimming, but it will never give up on you. It will be there for you, days, months, or even years after you hang up your goggles for good. The pool will be waiting for you with open arms, calling you home. After all, you can never really leave a thing you love.