Growing up, I wasn’t good at a lot of things; I was hopeless with a ball, or worse, a stick and a ball, completely useless as a runner, climber, or any sort of movement on land. But put me in the water, and I was a fish. A dolphin. A natural. I had always been told that I was destined for great things as a swimmer. When I was fourteen, however, I hit a wall; my times stopped improving and even started to get slower. I tried to push myself in training, swimming until my lungs burned and my muscles failed. I was in the pool at 5:30 AM every day for two hours, back again in the evenings for three more. And yet, at the end of every race, I would look up and see a time that was stagnant.
I continued swimming competitively until I was nineteen. Five years is a long time to kill yourself in the water for little gain. I couldn’t understand why my times weren’t improving. Was it because I had hit puberty and my body was no longer “built” for swimming? This was a time before Dara Torres, and female swimmers were believed to peak at fourteen or fifteen. Most girls quit. But I stubbornly stuck with it. Perhaps “greatness” was not longer in the cards, but I was going to get a best time, even if it killed me. Day in and day out, I lifted weights and worked out in the pool. It didn’t kill me, but it did kill my knees and shoulders. Although I had planned to swim in college, after one semester, my body and spirit had had enough. I quit.
Looking back, I may have worked hard in the pool, but I didn’t take very good care of myself outside of the pool. My eating habits were atrocious, and my sleeping habits weren’t very much better. I would kill myself in the pool and leave my body little to no support in the recovery. It was also no coincidence that not only did puberty hit at fourteen, but my parents’ divorce as well. Everyday, I swam distracted; swimming was easy and an escape for me, so my mind was never really focused at the task at hand. It wasn’t until I began training as a Master’s swimmer that I realized how important that focus is.
Five years and twenty pounds later, I began to train again. I missed the water, the camaraderie, and the physical challenge. I joined a Master’s swim team. We only trained an hour a day, five days a week. Many weeks, I couldn’t even make all five practices. It felt so good to be in the water again. My shoulders weren’t an issue anymore. And while my lungs still burned and my muscles just about failed at the end of a workout, I could finally see the effort paying off. Despite my extra weight and age, on top of the severely reduced training time, at the end of the year, my times were almost as fast as they were when I had left competitive swimming.
My coaches preached swimming and training smarter, not harder. We had a limited amount of time to train, so every moment had to be as close to excellence as possible. Every stroke, every turn, every push off the wall should be nearly perfect. This took an incredible amount of mental discipline, someting I didn’t have when I was swimming as a teen. It was doubly important for me because if I let up my concentration on my stroke, my shoulders would start to complain loudly. I started to understand how just simply mindlessly going through the motions, no matter how much effort I had put into those motions, had lead me to peak at such an early age.
When I teach writing, I try to get my students to understand that effort is important, but they need to work hard at doing the right things and doing things right. It doesn’t necessarily make the work any easier, but it does make the work more meaningful and rewarding.