10 Things I've Learned Since Retiring from Competitive Swimming

This weekend, there was a barrage of the friends I’ve made from swim team posting the same Facebook status: “Officially a member of the swam team!” For those outside of the competitive swim community, allow me to explain:

swammer (noun): a competitive swimmer who has officially retired from the sport in favor of sleeping in, fully hydrated skin, and a normal social life. 

ex) “Yeah, I joined a Master’s team but I only go twice a week because I am a swammer.”

As of this week, it’s been one whole year since I joined the swam team. On the day I retired from swimming, I wrote that the decision I made as an eleven year-old to go to my first swim meet to just try it was the best decision I’ve ever made. A year later, I still sincerely believe that. Swimming gave me unparalleled health benefits, the greatest mentors in my coaches and the best friends in my teammates, and the satisfaction of truly knowing what dedication means. Even so, 13 years is a long time, and as I ended my senior year of collegiate swimming, I knew it was time to move on. I still find myself in the pool for exercise each week, but retiring from the world 5:30 AM wake up calls, long course season, and silver 50s was quite the adjustment!

10) You’re still, and will always be, a swimmer. For me, the first few months of retirement felt like a major loss of identity. Who was I if I didn’t go to the pool every day? Was I still an athlete? The thing I had to come to terms with was that no one could ever take away all my previous athletic accomplishments. I had heat sheets and awards and numerous people who could vouch for me getting up at 5:15 every morning for club swim practice. Whether you choose to go into Master’s right away, or are a person who’s happy to hang up your suit in favor of the elliptical, swimming will always be a part of who you are.

9) Go live someone else’s life for a while. I was a year-round swimmer. I alternated between club swimming and high school swimming, doing doubles with my club during high school season. I always went straight out of collegiate season into training for national meets. Prior to retiring, the longest I’d ever been out of the pool was four weeks to recover from surgery. Needless to say, retirement felt like living someone else’s life. For me, this other life wasn’t full of popping bottles in the club, but the simple things. Lay on the grass on your college campus in the spring when you would’ve had practice. Go on a vacation with your family and not have to worry about finding a pool to practice in. Go to a movie that starts later than 7:00 PM (#morningpracticeproblems). Have your nail polish last more than 12 hours. Eat Girl Scout Cookies because you’re not on taper when they arrive, for once! Enjoy your “other life” for a bit. You’ve earned it.

8) You never have to put on a racing suit in a gross locker room with 3 other people helping you. Ever again. Just let that sink in for a moment. I came across my paper suits (named because they feel like, well, paper) and my Fast Skins the other day and could literally still feel the famous swimmer tattoo: the red, raw indents on your shoulders and hips from the suit digging in too deep. For the rest of your life, you’ll be able to hold up your FS2 and say, “How badass is it that I used to be able to fit into this thing?”

7) Your swimmer friends will still be your friends. When I retired, I was afraid that I might lose touch with the friends I’d made from the sport. This simply doesn’t happen. My swim friends saw me every day at 6:00 in the morning, and they still love me. That’s a bond deeper than a diving well. Though swimming brought us together, the fun and inside jokes will keep us friends long after we’ve left the pool.

6) Sub-zero temps don’t scare you…much. I live in Minnesota and swam for my college in Iowa, where it’s always beyond cold and snowy. No matter the hat I wore, my hair always froze when I left the pool. When normal co-workers are complaining about braving the weather, swammers are game for anything. Because swim practice was never cancelled. Raining in the summer? We were at an outdoor pool and swam through it. Lightning? Your coach made you wait it out in the locker room until we could get back in (and we always did. Dang it.) Blizzard? School might be cancelled, but it’s always a tropical island on the pool deck. I survived swimming outside at 6:00 AM in the pouring rain and roaring winds at 50 degrees. Bring it on, winter.

5) Your coach will always be your coach. I was blessed with amazing coaches throughout my entire swimming career, and I keep in touch with all of them and value them in my life. At times, I saw my coaches more than I saw my own parents. I miss interacting with my coaches every day and the level to which they truly got me. When Nathan Adrian walked past me at a swim meet in California, I told my coach I needed a second cool down. And he agreed, because he knew I’d just seen my swimmer boyfriend and that my heart rate was too high. We just have that level of understanding. I spoke to my coach a few weeks ago about feeling down in my job search, and a pep talk from him was just what I needed. All those speeches about how to be a better athlete are really about being a better person. Those are life talks.

4) Swimming becomes just for you. I always swam for myself when I competed, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in time standards and percentages dropped when you’re in the daily grind of swim season. As a swammer, if you want to go in and bust out a 3000 yard swim because you love your body, go for it. If you want to swim a 500 that consists mainly of underwater screaming because the real world sucks sometimes, that’s totally an option too. You do you.

3) You’ll always idolize others, but give yourself credit too. My former teammates and I still talk about the D1 swimmers we saw on deck when we were in high school. They were like gods and goddesses to us. I still idolize those people on my team who were insanely good swimmers, humble, and fun to be around. When you retire, make sure to give some of that idolization to yourself. You dedicated your life to the hardest sport out there, and completed athletic challenges that most people can’t even fathom. Bow down to yourself.

2) Be sure to thank your parents. Thanking coaches and teammates at the end of your career is an obvious thing, but don’t forget your parents. They sat up in the stands for 8 hours each session, giving up their time on often beautiful days to sit indoors and watch you swim, sometimes only for less than a minute. They drove you to practice, sometimes before the sun came up. They bought you the newest technology suit even if it ended up being banned in a few months. They told you “Great race!” even if you both knew it wasn’t. Thank them for everything.

1) Looking back, you wouldn’t change a single thing. Believe it or not, swimming isn’t about the times or how much yardage you did, or how many people you beat. A year later, I don’t remember much of that. I remember the practice where my coaches believed in me before I believed in myself. I remember putting our swim caps over the shower drains, flooding the showers, and surfing through on our kickboards. I remember that random three day club meet where we organized a meet-wide game of Nerf Gun War. I remember the bus rides. The locker room dance parties to “Thrift Shop” and “Call Me Maybe.” I remember the training trip when, in between morning and afternoon practice, we ate cereal in bed and watched hours of Saved by the Bell. I remember the countless “you just had to be there” moments. The pasta parties. That club swimming Christmas practice where we made the mistake of eating too many Christmas cookies before practice. Studying for the SATs with all my teammates behind the diving well between races. I remember pushing together three of the long tables in the college dining hall. Everyone else hated us, but I wouldn’t give up those 2-hour dinners with our whole team daring each other to do weird things and laughing for anything. 

To outsiders, I spent the better part of 13 years staring at a black line. Swammers know it’s their loss that they didn’t. I wouldn’t have spent a second doing anything else.