Swimmers' Shoes

October 6, 2013
You bend down to prepare to start, toes and fingers curled over the edge of the block. It is quiet when the announcer says, clear and crisp, “Take your marks,” and you burst off the block with a sharp inhalation and splash. There is no more time for thinking. You hit the water fast and explode on the surface, arms turning fast. However, there’s more to swimming than what you see on the TV every four years at the Olympics. The sport of swimming requires hard work, perseverance, determination, and a whole lot of time. Weak-minded people wouldn’t survive in the world of swimming, unless they learn to adapt and change what they value.

At a young age, around six or seven years old, I began to swim competitively on a team, and shortly after, I was exposed to stories of the greats, like Michael Phelps, Dara Torres, and up and coming star Missy Franklin. My dad seemed to have an obsession with sharing the accomplishments of now 18-year old Olympian Missy Franklin, and 18-year old local star Jack Conger. It was as if Missy never left the sports page of the Washington Post, and every single meet I went to, Jack was breaking his own age group records. I would think to myself, as plenty of big eyed 8-year olds would, “How can I become like them?” The answer is simple: hard work, determination, and motivation. Being as young as I was, I had plenty of motivation and I would put in as much work as I could, since I was determined to be an Olympian. I know, cliché. But as I grew up I started to realize, as did so many others, that not everyone could be number one. I went to the high school swim meets, just like all other hopefuls, and witnessed Jack and Olympian Katie Ledecky swim literal laps around the competition. It’s incredible to think that there are people in high school holding world records. While I was becoming bigger and stronger, and had so much more potential, it became easier and easier to just slack off when the going got tough or to let an unsatisfactory race mess with my head, or even just give up because of jealousy. The same goes with everyone, and as the years pass the small-minded are revealed as you find out they quit their sport.

Fast forward to a handful of 12-year olds sitting in a conference room for our swim team retreat. Every year a guest speaker comes to talk about how “different swimming was in the 60’s” or how “it’s stupendously important that you put the right stuff into your body.” Yawn. These are not the kinds of stories that make someone go “Wow, I’m really going to try harder during practice now.” So, not expecting much, I was in complete awe when Jack Conger walked into the room. I always knew that he swam at the same site as me, but it never occurred to me he was a real, actual, normal guy. To get started, he talked some about what it’s like to travel around the country for swim meets (I wish), and his friendly competition with an equally incredible swimmer. What really stuck out to me, though, was when Jack started to share how he reacted when he lost a race. For a long time, he said, missing important time cuts or having a poor race would really get to him and bring him down, but after a few chats with his coach (and also an Olympian) his attitude turned around and he began to take less than desired races and turn them into learning experiences. Jack also told how he stopped slacking off during practice, and started pushing himself so as to avoid as many bad races as he could. I don’t mean to sound immature, but meeting Jack Conger in real life, after watching him complete swim after incredible swim, I was left a little star struck, and with a few ideas growing in my mind. I thought to myself, “Jack Conger has an outstanding coach, trains with some of the best swimmers in the zone, and best of all, he swims on my team, at my pool,” and you can imagine my new goals.

Jack’s story really made me reconsider what I was doing with swimming, and after pushing myself during every race, every practice, every single stroke, I was invited to join the same group as the Jack Conger. I realized that, while self-determination is vital, surrounding yourself with other hard working, self-determined individuals is a significant part of success, in anything, school, swimming, or whatever else, and slacking off is intolerable, not only by the coach, but also by the team mates. If a college scout was to come observe any given practice, I would want them to look at me and think, “I’d better keep an eye on her for the next four years,” not “Everyone else looks like they’re working incredibly hard, except that one girl there.”

So long story short, I basically wanted to be the girl version of Jack Conger – elite swimmer, well-known, and liked by people everywhere. And I’m getting there, too. I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel for championship meets, and I have drawers in my dresser filled with swim t-shirts and boxes with my medals and plaques that I’ve won. Being older and out of that dreamy, 8-year old phase, though, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I probably never will make the Olympic team or be sponsored by Speedo. But that’s really not the point anymore, I realize now. I’ve had my time with Jack and he is now in college after being scouted by several top-notch schools. But being passionate about something, like I am about swimming, opens so many other doors. I’ve made some lifetime friends. I remember watching the live stream of the 2013 FINA World Championships with my parents and cheering for team USA with my parents. I think it’s clear that when you’re passionate about something you get so much more out of it than if you just go through the motions, no matter what the activity, and it makes the hard work that much more worth it.

I admit, Olympians sure make swimming look completely smooth and effortless, but when you put yourself in their shoes, you start to consider all the obstacles they have overcome, and how much effort they put in behind the scenes. After all, some train up to three times a day; even my idol Jack only typically does two. After nine years of competitive swimming and intense training, I’ve come to understand the importance of really working hard, acting almost as if I have my own personal coach shouting encouragement at you, as well surrounding yourself with friends that are equally, if not even more, motivated than you. It is so important to believe in yourself, like it’s your job and you’re getting paid for it. No matter what you’re doing, valuing hard work can take a person to high places.

You’re coming in fast and strong into the wall, arms and legs on fire, your lungs aching for one last breath. You can’t afford to take it though; it would ruin everything you trained for. You reach forward, head down, finger tips stretching to make the final touch, and when you look up at the clock, all you’re thinking is “success.”

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