A lot of people, most people, ask a swimmer why.
Why do you swim?
It’s so boring. It’s so early. It’s so hard. You stare at a black line for too long. You stink of chlorine. You can’t go out and party.
The list is quite extensive.
Being a swimmer is a unique experience. It is both isolating and social. It’s hard as hell but almost impossible to leave.
I put up with the permeating stench of chlorine, the early nights and earlier mornings not because I want to stare at a black line for a couple of hours, but because I want to move forward. I want to improve. There is no simpler measurement of improvement than time.
In swimming there is no dispute over whether you are better than yesterday; it is brutally measurable down to a millionth of a second.
Improvements are not limited to time either. There is a multitude of ways to excelin swimming. There’s underwater speed, kick speed, pulling, diving, sculling, bubble rings and backward swimming.
I used to resist a lot them, especially pulling, because I genuinely just stunk at it. What I have come to realise as I get older is that the weakest aspects of my training offer the biggest reward. It’s like being ten years old again. Personal bests come down in seconds, not milliseconds. If I can’t hit a swim sets target times, I can always try to improve my kick.
I still believe I am improving in swimming. Stagnation is one of my biggest fears. I would not swim in a smelly stagnant pool; the same applies to my life in the sport. The day I believe I have exploited my potential, I have reached my limit, I will leave it.
Swimming is only boring if you lose the capacity to imagine. Swimming is only boring if you lose the will to improve.
There are many rewarding things in life, but the ones that mean the most to me have come from the biggest challenges. There’s not much beauty in tasting acid peanut butter in your throat during a lactate set, nor is there much prestige in finishing a session with a technique barely acceptable for a learn to swimmer. The beauty from those experiences is solely internal. It’s the knowledge that I have done everything I could to produce my best in that given moment. I wasn’t the fastest, not by a long shot, but if I gave everything to that one moment to grow as an athlete, to reign in my screaming mind, I go home with a sense of pride. I guarantee almost every swimmer knows the mental hatred that ricochets inside your head after conceding that you backed out of a set. That you slept in or went to the bathroom because you just could not hack another metre.
Of course there are times where the pain is too much, my mind is too tired and the effort of training is not rewarding. When sitting in the bathroom brings a wave of relief, not guilt. When I ‘hit the wall’ at training and literally feel like an 18 wheeler packed with bricks driving up a sand-dune. It’s during sessions where I spend more time swearing innately inside my head than trying to think positively that I resent swimming.
The challenge of controlling emotions and thoughts is one of the greatest skills swimming offers to athletes.
I have written down the same mistake I make during a set 100 times. Of those 100 times I may overcome it once or twice. I resist things as I get older because it is harder to learn. Imagine executing the same skill almost every-day, sometimes twice for 13 years, to find out that it is wrong. It’d be like being told to write with your other hand. Given that you’re not ambidextrous, the process of changing hands is going to be uncomfortable, intermittently illegible and exceedingly frustrating-especially when you know you can write fine with the other. I can’t breathe off the wall?! I’ve done it since I was ten years old.. Every part of my brain will try to tell me that I WILL pass out without that immediate inhale of oxygen. Being able to tackle such deep rooted habits takes persistence, effort and a willingness to be wrong, even slip backwards for a time.
There are also the magic sessions. There’s nothing like wanting to spew your peanut butter crumpet all over deck while your teammates are yelling at you to fight through. What makes these sessions truly memorable is that they are so rare. Looking at a white board smeared with the ugly words “max effort”, “90%”, “PT” (push target) or ‘FESP’ (front end speed) makes most swimmers clam up and focus only on getting themselves through the next 120 minutes. When one person decides to expend a few moments of their own energy encouraging others it makes a wave of difference. When a whole squad does it you can’t help but enjoy the pain.
Another reason ‘why’ I swim is being able to train alongside people with similar attitudes and aspirations. The beauty of training in a squad means that there is always someone willing to shine. One or two people who push the limits in a particular set consequently raise the bar for new people to fight through in another session. There is nothing more humbling than going from the top to the bottom every week as your own body fluctuates between feeling like a speed boat and a piece of pumice.
I’ll probably think of more reasons ‘why’ even after I’ve finished this blog. Swimming is so much more than a black line and early mornings.
As with anything, the more you give, the more you get back.
I pour a huge portion of myself in to the pool; I am emotionally and physically invested in the sport. I enjoy improving, I enjoy the challenge, I enjoy the camaraderie that comes from the squad and from the coach.