It was almost fitting. My last lap of competitive swim took place in the same pool, in the same building, where my first lap took place. It was over a decade of freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly. It was over 10 years of kickboards, leg buoys, hand paddles, and swim caps leaving indented lines in my forehead. And it was more than one failed flop of a dive, missed kickturns, and goggles flying off my face.
It’s been nearly as long out of the pool as it was in. I took my first swimming lesson at the Melrose YMCA with rubber “swimmies” on my arms when I was barely four years old. I graduated to an inflatable buoy that wrapped behind my body, eventually joined my hometown’s swim team, went onto high school and made captain of the team when I was 17 in 2003. It’s been almost a full 10 years since I last swam in a meet, against someone else.
The United States Olympic Swim Trials kicked off this week on national television on NBS Sports Network. One of the “glamour events” of the Summer Olympiad, the men and women who qualify and medal are certified for rock star status. They’re well past college, well past an unofficial “amateur” status, and they’re some of the best, if not the best, in the world. I’ll sit down and watch because it’s the one time every four years I can actually watch competitive swimming (save for a Sunday afternoon on ESPNU when there’s nothing on or on late night ESPN Classic when, again, there’s nothing on television), and I’ll be reminded of the sacrifices these tremendous athletes made to make it onto the world’s largest stage. And in watching it, I’ll be reminded that I’d give anything for just one more turn.
Maybe I’ll never be Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, or Brendan Hansen. First off, I’ll never be six-feet tall. Secondly, I’ll never be as thin, as muscular, or as athletically-gifted as them. I’ll never be an Olympian. But I know what that feeling is when they’re standing behind the block, when that buzzer goes off to signal them into the pool. I know the exhilaration that comes with the whole shebang behind an event, and I’ll know what runs through their mind in some capacity.
It’s funny. I never thought I’d miss swimming. When I graduated high school, I couldn’t wait to stop. The luster of it was gone, and, at 17 years old, I saw no future for the sport for me. I had no desire to do it in college, even though I’d realistically never be more than a Division III slowpoke. I had no desire to train anymore, to regulate my diet, to live a different life evolving around when the next practice was. When I finished my last race of my senior year at Malden Catholic, it felt like the perfect closure. As the anchor of our second-tier relay, we were getting absolutely murdered in a four-lane pool. So that meant when I dove in, I would swim essentially the last two laps with every other team finished and out of the pool. I’d have the entire lane to myself with all eyes on me. And with a burst of speed on that final lap, I swam the lap of my life to finish my career against Melrose in the pool where it all began.
It was the perfect storybook ending for me. But yet here I am, 10 years later, and I miss it terribly. I miss the warmup laps, and I miss the intermediate warmups when people swimming the later events could loosen up and get some quick prep work in. I miss stuffing back 72 oranges a week (or thereabouts), and I miss the butterflies when my event would be two races away.
I even miss practicing at 5 AM. There was something so primitive about practicing before school that everybody hated. Nobody swam well, and our coach was always cranky. There was never a positive to it. But going through it, you couldn’t help but feel like you did something that made you tougher, even when you slept through sixth-period math. Ten years later, I want to go back to those days and see if I even still have what it takes, to see if I’m still as tough as I once was.
So what’s the point? Why am I writing this sapfest of an article that is definitely coming across like one of those ex-athletes who is remembering the “good ole days?” How does this happen when I’m watching something so simple on television?
In all honesty, it’s for a piece of advice. When I was 17, I wanted nothing more than to be done with swimming. It wasn’t fun, it had become my job, and my shoulders were in so many different pieces that it hurt just to finish a 20-lap race. At 26, I miss it, and I wish I’d appreciated it more.
For anyone who’s in high school or for anyone who trains on a day-to-day basis or for anyone who merely plays a sport, savor it. Savor the moment when you first tie your shoes, lace up your skates, put on pads, or stretch hamstrings. Savor the moment when the sweat starts pouring, when the trash starts talking, and the games get intense. Savor every moment of it because one day, when you decide it’s time to walk away, you’ll wake up after a bunch of years and simply miss it.
We’re all meant to stop what we love at some point in time; that’s just a fact of life. We’re all meant to cease our hobbies, move onto different things that excite and energize us. For me, I moved on from a world of competing to a world of journalism and broadcasting, giving myself some type of adrenaline rush every time I click “PUBLISH” or put on a headset. It’s fulfilling, and I’ve grown a newfound appreciation for watching a game from a press box or calling a hockey game in the world’s dingiest rink.
But nothing matches what swimming used to do for me. And nothing ever will. It’s one of those past loves that it took 10 years to really appreciate. I’ll never swim competitively again, but I’ll always remember what it was like. So when I watch these world-class athletes, I’ll remember because it lives on, and I’ll smile with a little tear that I just can’t do it. I’ve accepted it, but I miss it. I know I can’t have it, but I want one more kickturn, one more lap, one more shot to do what I used to do. I’m okay with it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t desire it. And I hope for everyone out there that you realize the same.
Do what you love until you can’t do it anymore, then remember what it felt like. You’ll miss it, but you’ll love it. And you’ll know.