My Time Has Come: An Ode To Swimming
The meet was the American Short Course Championships, held annually in Austin, Texas. The University of Missouri swim team sends a group of men each year for a last chance to make the NCAA Championships. Around 6 PM last Wednesday, about an hour after we landed in Austin, we got word that the University of Texas pool was losing water rapidly, and the meet had been moved an hour and a half away to San Antonio.
From there, the meet continued to defy my expectations. I knew my chances of making the NCAA team were slim; I would need to drop about two-tenths of a second in the 50 free to potentially earn a spot on the 200 free relay. But I hoped to at least finish with a season-best time or two -- one last solid swim to validate the innumerable hours I had put in to this sport. Instead, on the first day of the meet, I went a half-second slower than my best time in the 50 (that's a lot for a 20-second race) and proceeded to disqualify our 200 free relay with a false start.
I don't want to make the situation sound entirely miserable. Knowing without a doubt after that first day that the meet would be my last allowed me to focus all my energy on enjoying my teammates' company and the rush of competition, regardless of the results. The last day of the meet, we went outside before prelims and played an impromptu game of baseball with a traffic cone as the bat and a tennis ball as the ball. Before finals, I had my teammates time me as I ran a roughly 40-yard sprint on the pool deck while hurdling three picnic tables. (Don't try that at home, kids.) I had a smile on my face all day. Still, when I got out of the water after my last race, a mediocre 100 freestyle that was 0.62 off my best time, I couldn't help but feel slightly unfulfilled. After 13 years of year-round swimming, this wasn't how it was supposed to end.
To say that I grew up a rabid sports fan doesn't do it justice. I was raised in a home where we pretty much only turned on the TV to watch sporting events; where my brother, cousin, and I spent hours on end playing a series of 10-second-long one-on-one basketball games in the driveway (whoever wasn't playing in the matchup counted down aloud from 10 while officiating the game); where the only acceptable excuses for missing school was traveling for a swim meet or, on a couple of occasions, watching the University of Louisville play in a daytime NCAA Tournament basketball game. I can't remember a time in my life when I wasn't a member of at least one sports team.
If I had to pick a Mount Rushmore of the figures whom I've held most dear as a sports fan, I can think of three that would definitely be on the short list: John Elway, Peyton Manning, and Michael Phelps. (I will admit that I don't actually remember a snap of John Elway's career, but my house is a virtual shrine to him, and after hearing my dad talk about him for over 20 years and watching Elway now serve in the front office for my beloved Broncos, I feel like I'm allowed to include him.) What do these three athletes all have in common? They all engineered a fairy-tale farewell from their respective sports. Elway won back-to-back Super Bowls before calling it quits. Manning rode the Broncos' incredible defense to a title in his final season. Phelps came out of retirement to make his fifth Olympic team and win five more gold medals in his final meet. I believe it is because of these figures that I've always hoped for a grand sendoff or a special last moment for the athletes I have revered, and for myself as well.
In high school, I got just that. I grew up splitting time between football, basketball, and swimming, but after my freshman year at St. Xavier in Louisville, Kentucky, I decided to focus solely on swimming. Each of the next three seasons, I improved steadily. As a sophomore in 2011, I made the Kentucky state championship meet for the first time. As a junior in 2012, I placed in the top eight in both the 100 and 200 freestyle. My senior year in 2013 I won the 100 freestyle at state. That meet was a dream. I dropped more than a second and a half over the course of two weeks in the 100, dropped over two seconds in the 200, and led off my school's state champion 200 freestyle relay in my best-ever 50 time. My high school won its 25th straight state championship and finished fourth in the NISCA national high school rankings with me as a captain. I couldn't have scripted a better way to go out.
When I arrived at Missouri, I expected the improvements to continue, and for a while they did. In my first two seasons, I improved my best times in all three of my primary events each time we tapered. Still, I wasn't satisfied. My main goal was always to make Missouri's roster for the SEC Championships, but each season I seemed to be only a couple tenths of a second away.
Lately, it's been more of a struggle. The first semester of my junior year, I had a crazy class schedule and felt I took a step backward as a swimmer as a result. I was frustrated, but I convinced myself that once I was able to dedicate myself fully to the sport again, I would get back to dropping time.
Then the following summer I missed the Olympic Trials cut by exactly a tenth of a second in the 50 free. That crushed me. Unlike missing out on the SEC team, there was no possibility of making it next year. I had been to Trials before as a fan, so I was well acquainted with its electric atmosphere. Plus, both of my younger siblings made their cuts. I wanted so badly to swim with them and my teammates in the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska, and I knew 2016 was my only chance to do so. But after taking a few weeks off, I did what all my coaches have always told me to do: I set my sights on the opportunity presented by my senior year.
This season has felt like an unending cycle of frustrating swims. It wasn't just that I failed to drop time at taper meets; even at dual meets, I felt like I was always getting out-touched or failing to score or simply swimming slower than I had before at that point of the season. From that standpoint, it's probably best that I'm done. I won't miss walking from the competition pool to the warm-down pool with my teeth clenched, slipping my goggles over my eyes, and just swimming without stopping until I calmed myself down. I've done that a lot lately. Through it all, though, that flicker of hope persisted in the back of my mind: that come taper time I could re-discover my speed and steal a spot on an NCAA relay.
In the weeks leading up to a big meet, when there's no more morning practices and I have more energy than I know what to do with, I often struggle to fall asleep. Almost every night for the past month, as I tossed and turned on my bed, my mind would turn to life after swimming. I got asked a lot, are you ready to be done? I'd think about the answer to that question.
I'd think about how much free time I would have once there were no more doubles, lifts, runs, team meetings, and three-day meets in my life. I'd get excited. I'd think about all the basketball I could play and the fishing I could do. I'd think about all the 6 AM practices and threshold sets that would leave me exhausted not just in my muscles but also seemingly in my very soul. And I'd think, I never have to do that again, and I'd get more excited.
Then I'd feel guilty and remind myself that maybe this wouldn't be my last meet, that I could still fulfill my goal of making it to NCAAs. I'd try to picture myself at the meet, on the block, arms extended in front of my face, one foot on the wedge and one foot behind it, ready to execute a relay start. But I could never imagine the race. At that point, I tried to tell myself that I could make the meet, but deep down I don't think I really believed it. I'd think about all of the near-misses, the disappointing swims, the goals that I made and never achieved, and I'd think, I'm ready to be done. But first I want, just once, to finish a race, look up at the scoreboard, and actually see the time I set as my goal before the season shining back at me.
As you know by now, I wouldn't get that moment in San Antonio. But since then, I've realized something: The vast majority of us are not John Elway or Michael Phelps. We can't choose how we want our career to end. One day, you're a swimmer; the next day, you aren't. And that's true for so many things in life -- for life itself. We so very rarely get to go out on our own terms. That can be especially hard for a swimmer, someone who has trained meticulously for years to prepare for every aspect of a race when the moment of truth finally comes. But at a certain point, you have to accept the reality that it's time to move on, and doing so is a lot easier if you can abandon the improbable notion of the perfect ending and instead enjoy the small, fun aspects of it. Like a carefree game of traffic-cone-tennis-ball baseball.