There's a thing I've rarely talked about, something I've left firmly in the past. It's been brought to the fore my my girls' burgoening swimming careers and obviously, by the Olympics.
I quit swimming for good when I was 16, after nearly a decade of intense training. Toward the end, I swam thousands of yards a dayand had massages from the team trainer before and after practice to manage the chronic tension problems in my shoulders. I swam next to swimmers who qualified for nationals, for the olympics trials. I was always in lane 1, the injured lane, humiliation alley.
My mom will still remind me to this day that with dedication and effort, I could have been a world class distance swimmer. I see now, I could have. Without much effort, my best 500 time (I asked my dad, it was 5:47) was within 20-30 seconds of the qualifying time for major events. USS Junior Olympics. Olympic trials. In distance events, which were my natural home, 20 seconds was a matter of *wanting* it, *pushing* for it, committing to the training, none of which I wanted to do. I wanted to swim, but I didn't want to be *a swimmer*. It's a nuanced distinction that was too much for my 15 year old mind.
Until I was a teeenager, swimming was a neverending parade of humiliation and failure. Sprint events were the only thing available, and sprinting was not my forte. People I would dominate in long practices would kill me in a 50 or a 100 (let's not even talk about the locker room and the body image issues that going through puberty in a swimsuit would cause. That's another post). By the time the 500 and 1650 were options, I had developed a massive, immovable attitude problem. My coaches, who I loved with the adoration and loyalty of any young, talented athlete and hated to disappoint, eventually became frustrated and disengaged from me. The massages were a last-ditch effort to get me physically healthy enough to compete to my potential. After a brief freshman year season killing it in middle distance events, I quit swimming altogether when I got mononucleosis sophomore year.
That wound remained under the deepest cover until recently- I hadn't swum a full lap since the mid-90's- but suddenly I yearned for the water again. My girls have been involved in swimming for a few years now, and despite the meet related triggers and my parents' white-hot enthusiasm, I never felt any urge to re-enter the water myself.
I got into yoga in the spring and found that the breathing was unnatural in places when it should have been easy. I found that I had a deep seated, swimming-related anxiety about emptying my lungs completely- in swimming you breathe rhythmicallly but you never *ever* leave the tank empty. In yoga, this surfaced in my labored struggle to exhale completely. Yoga, done mindfully, has a way of exposing old wounds and bringing them to the forefront of your psyche. I was suddenly inundated with swimming memories, untouched and forgotten for nearly two decades.
So I re-entered the water, gently and carefully. Twenty easy laps at a time, relearning and remembering everything I ever knew of the hydrodynamics of my body. Watching for form breaks while my muscles rejoiced at being brought back to their natural home. My muscles remember- they recall the precise training in every stroke, and they also recall the tension. Withing the first 50 my trapezius muscles began their old process of locking tightly so that my shoulders hovered near my ears. Yogic breathing, slowing my stroke, consciously lengthening my neck, I began unlocking those old wounds.
Images came back with the force of crashing locomotives: the shock of cool water, the smell of chlorine and latex, mixed with baby powder in the locker room. My goggles filling up with salty tears as I swam through physical and emotional pain in pursuit of the lofty goal of not being a massive disappointment. (You know, in the pool, no one can see you cry). An REM song ran constantly in my head during practices in the trying seasons of '92 and '93: "I will try not to breathe I can hold my head still with my hands at my knees, These eyes are the eyes of the old, shivering and bold.."
What else came back? To put it simplistically, the joy. The natural feel and oneness with the water that I've enjoyed my whole life. In the struggle to regain my hard-won skills, I could feel my natural affinity bouying to the surface. I stroke, I glide, I am *whole*. I am a mermaid, built to live in water.
Suddenly my yoga practice changed: I could breathe more deeply, more steadily, with more control. A block had been released. I can breathe like a normal person again.
Today my girls competed in the yearly summer championship meet. They both swam well, but I was a wreck. They swam beautifully, joyfully, healthily. I relived every buried humiliation from when I was their age. Every undue pressure. All the things that sucked all the joy out of the thing I was so talented at: the swimming itself. I sat with the feelings and I bought some Swedish goggles- the kind of goggles with no padding that you have to assmeble yourself.
I am promising to myself: I am going to swim again. I'm going to train with no goal in mind, no pressure to perform. I'm going to set aside all the *crap* and work to my potential. My body and my soul are in enthusiastic agreement; my mind is cautiously optimistic. Now that the Big Rewards are off the table (the Nationals, the Olympics, whatever), I can strive for the personal, intimate rewards- the kind of benefits that seemed unimportant when there was a vast unwanted horizon in front of me.