Swimming begins at different ages for everyone, with some people being thrown in the water at 3 years old and others not joining the sport until high school. For those that do start out at a young age, there is a shared experience to be found there. I started swimming when I was 8 years old with a local summer league, and now, at 18, I only have one week left before I’m a “swammer.” There are thousands of swimmers just like me who will never be able to recall their childhood and teenage years without remembering swimming as well. Here’s a look into what it’s like to grow up as a swimmer.
These are the sweet, sweet years where the main concerns on a young swimmer’s mind are what snacks they get to eat in between races and what color ribbon they won. I have fuzzy memories of summer league meets ending in rolling thunder and warm rain. There were fierce competitions with my best friend to reach the wall first in our 25s and 100 IMs. Practices were only a few days of the week, and you were either a kid who looked forward to them with all their heart or begrudgingly attended when their parent lifted them into the car. Truthfully I don’t remember a whole lot more about these years, but something must have been positively ingrained in me because here I am, still swimming, a decade later.
When you leave the blissful 10-and-under age group and move to 11-12, things start getting serious. Well, maybe not really serious, but now you’re expected to swim 100s? And your coach starts making you do flip turns in every race or face pushups? And what’s with all these extra practices? Basically, this age group is when you start to step it up a little.
Let’s face it though, at 11 years old no one was succeeding in getting us to take everything seriously. Unless you were a truly motivated swimmer already, most people still signed up for one or two (or all four) 50s at every meet. There was a lot of goofing around with your friends at practice and maybe making some steam come out of the coach’s ears. I had just joined a new club team at this age, and personally, my main focus was making friends to goof around with. Eventually, I succeeded when one swimmer took a chance on the quiet new girl, and we’re best friends to this day.
Things are starting to be established at this point. You’re a teenager now, and even in swimming, there’s no escaping your typical teenage angst. Some of your friends start to drift away to different sports or schools, and you have to start deciding if swimming is what you personally want to stick with. There’s also more pressure put on you. You start memorizing your PRs and working toward cuts for big meets. No longer can you just do 50s—you’re now expected to start trying the longer events and set big goals for yourself. There are also all those lovely new feelings to deal with, whether it be a crush on a teammate or drama with a friend.
It’s not all as bad as I’m making it sound, however. By this point, you’ve become close with the people on your team, and I remember three-day swim meets with my friends being the highlights of my week no matter how exhausting they were. You don’t spend upward of 15 hours a week with the same group of people just to not have them become some of your best friends. Trying all the different events and finding what you’re really good at can also be entertaining—you may have been a breaststroker when you were twelve, but by the time you’re fourteen, you could be crushing it in the 500. The 13-14 age group was undoubtedly one of my favorites, if only because of how much fun I had.
The final age group. When you enter this one it seems like you have all the time in the world, and when you exit it either as a swammer or collegiate swimmer, it seems like you blinked and it was over. Being a swimmer throughout high school is a rather comforting routine. Unlike other sports that go straight to the gym when school is over, the pool is sort of a safe space that’s all your own. We’ve all seen the movies—I don’t need to explain what a hectic experience high school is. I think a lot of swimmers would agree that staring at a black line for hours on end takes away some of the stress.
By high school, you’ve got the hang of swimming. You know the strokes, and for the most part, you know what you’re good at. The 15 and up an age group is for honing your skill, putting in hours, and competing. There might be tears when you don’t get a cut, or celebrations when you do. Balancing your social life and your swimming life might be difficult at times, but being with your teammates can seem like a social life in itself. Ultimately, a lot happens in high school, but it seems swimming is always at your back to lift a little bit of the burden for you.
The End of Age Group Swimming
Some of us are partially raised by swimming—we might spend more time in the water than we spend alone. I wouldn’t change anything that happened along my swimming journey, and though people are asking how I feel about saying goodbye to swimming next week, I know it will never actually leave me.
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