I can’t imagine what direction my life would have taken had I never discovered swimming.
By swimmer standards, I started later than many kids. I didn’t join the swim team until I was ten years old. By this time most of the kids I swam with had been swimming for at least two years already.
It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the sport, and by the time I was twelve, I was able to hold my own.
When I was thirteen and starting high school, I had to make a choice. Soccer or swimming.
I was a pretty good and natural athlete, and I was a better soccer player than swimmer.
But I just loved swimming. And so my soccer career came to an end in eighth grade.
I was never a swimming superstar. I was an okay swimmer.
If you took all the swimmers in the country at the time, I would have maybe been in the top half, but I never set a record, and I never competed at a super elite level.
But I was a hard worker, I had a good attitude, and I pretty much always gave 150%, so I improved quickly enough, and I was fairly competitive in high school and college.
As every other swimmer — even an Olympic-level one — would probably tell you though, my greatest memories, lessons, and experiences from my days of competitive swimming are not the fastest times I had in any event or the amount of hardware I received or the highest step I got to on the podium.
Everything I learned about life I learned in the pool.
I learned about managing my time, pushing myself, setting goals, making friends, being a leader, being part of a team, and being a gracious winner and an even more gracious loser in the pool.
I learned about success and about failure and about humility.
My first kiss was with a swimmer. My first date to a formal dance was a swimmer. My first boyfriend was a swimmer. All my best friends were swimmers.
The swim team was my family. It was my friends on the swim team who got me through the death of my brother when I was a junior in high school. And swimming is what kept me from losing my mind in the years that would follow.
My swim team friends saw me (and I saw them) at both my highest level of physical fitness but also at my most vulnerable. Half naked, makeup-less, and exhausted at 5:00 a.m. in the morning for swim practice before school or class.
I have laughed and cried harder with my swim team friends than with anyone else.
The pool helped me discover how resilient I am, how tough I am, and ultimately, who I am.
Back in 1986 when I wrapped up my high school swimming career, my high school coach told my parents I was destined to be a swim coach.
I scoffed at that.
Swim coach? Ha!
This past weekend, 30+ years later as I stood on the pool deck as both a swim coach and a parent at Connecticut Age Group Championships watching Number 3 and 4 swim, who did I see but my high school swim coach. Still coaching. A little bit more grey than he was in the 80’s but other than that looking pretty much exactly the same as I remembered him when I was seventeen years old.
“I told you you would end up coaching,” he reminded me with a smile.
He was right. Again.
But now I was a peer to the man who had taught me as much about myself, about being part of something bigger than myself and about life in general, as any other adult in my life.
I proudly pointed out Number 3 and 4, who both have more swimming talent in their earlobes than I do in my entire body, to him.
Number 4, at 11 years old, is faster than I ever was in a couple of events already.
Number 3, at 12 years old, totally kicks my ass across the board.
Back in high school I probably would have told you that the hardest thing I had ever done was a set of 100’s freestyle on 1:20 or something like that.
Ten years ago I’d tell you that being a parent was the hardest thing I’d ever done.
This past weekend?
This past weekend I learned that while parenting is a never-ending challenge and something I will never “master,” finding a balance between being your kid’s mother as well as his swim coach is the hardest thing I’ve had to do to date.
This past season Number 3 transformed from an 11-year-old goof off with a ton of potential to a focused and determined 12-year-old who worked his butt off. With his sights set since September 2017 on the meet this past weekend, he was a different kid.
Last year he had a rough season and was really sick multiple times.
This year, determined to stay healthy, he got himself to sleep every night by 8:30, even on the weekends. This all came from him.
I was shocked and impressed and the closer we got to the meet this past weekend, the more nervous I became.
As coach, I knew how much work he had put in.
As a mom, I knew home much this meant to him.
As a former swimmer who is admittedly living a little bit vicariously through her kids, I was a damn wreck leading up to this past Thursday, the first day of the meet.
Number 3 had set some very high goals for himself. He had times he wanted to achieve. And he thought, if all the stars were in alignment and he had the meet of his life, he might be able to win the high point award for his age group.
That was, as they say, his shoot for the moon goal.
A more realistic goal, he just wanted to win an event. He wanted to say he was the best in the state in something.
Knowing how much harder he had worked this season than pretty much every other season before it, combined, knowing what he had done both in and out of the pool, witnessing the transformation in him over the course of a year, I wanted him to have success. I wanted it for him so badly.
I wanted him to know the work, the discipline, the sacrifice — all of it was worth it.
And as his mom, I just wanted him to be happy.
He had earned it.
But boy did I lose perspective. I was so nervous for him and the line between coach and mom became blurred.
In the car on the way to trials and finals, I should have just been his mom.
While I am one of the coaches for the team, technically I am no longer his coach. He moved up to the next level a couple years ago. I’m usually pretty good about staying out of things. During the season if he asked me a question I’d tell him to talk to his coach about it.
But this past weekend it was so hard. I had to remind him. Of everything.
Be aggressive. Don’t doubt yourself. What do you want your splits to be?…
Because what if I didn’t? What if he failed and it was because of something he just needed to be reminded of?
Allowing my kids to experience disappointment and learn the lessons I learned in the pool on my own is probably the hardest thing I’ll ever do as a MomCoach.
And that’s what I realized this past weekend on the second day of the 4-day meet.
Although you’re always gonna have some nerves when you watch your kid swim, you shouldn’t be losing sleep over it.
It shouldn’t be stressful.
It should be exciting, and it should be fun.
And that is the biggest lesson I learned this past weekend as both a mother and a coach.
For Number 3, I cannot be his MomCoach.
Not now, anyway.
Right now, I just need to be his mom.
He doesn’t need reminders from me. He doesn’t need motivation from me. And he doesn’t need last-minute advice from me.
The only thing he needs from me is to know I am there for him and that no matter what happens, no matter how he swims, I will always be his biggest fan and his biggest cheerleader.
So I found some much needed perspective half way through the meet.
Going into the last day of the meet, he had four events under his belt.
He had four best times, two team records, a second place medal, two third place medals, and a fourth place finish.
Not too shabby.
But that goal he wanted, that first place finish, had still eluded him.
He had two events left at finals on Sunday night. It was down to the wire.
In his first event of the night, the 200 free, he finished second with a time of 1:52.48. If you don’t know swimming, that means nothing to you.
If you do know swimming, that is a respectable time for a 12-year-old kid. Especially when his best time in the first meet of the season was a 2:12. He had dropped 20 seconds in a single season which was pretty incredible.
He never dreamed he’d swim so fast back in September.
He had one more event. The 200 breaststroke.
It was the last event of the night, and although he went into finals seeded 2nd, he had the fastest time to date in the state. I knew he was going to do it.
I stifled the MomCoach as he went up to the blocks.
I silently put every positive vibe I had out into the Universe.
Number 3 dove in and took it out aggressively. He was about even with the number one seed at the first 50.
At the 100 he was ahead.
At the 150 he had maintained his lead.
The number one seed was a breastroker, but he was also a sprinter, so I knew he was going to die.
I was at the end of the pool cheering for Number 3 with the only two remaining teammates on the pool deck, one of whom was his sister. At the 175, he was still ahead.
After he turned, I hurried over to the side of the pool so I could see the scoreboard. I couldn’t watch the end of the race. I was too nervous.
I stared at the scoreboard with my back to the pool and I waited.
After what seemed like an eternity, the numbers flashed on the board.
Number 3 finished…
in second place.
The sprinter had come back and outtouched him.
Oh, I was heartbroken for Number 3.
It was not the ending to the meet I had envisioned for him. And it was not the ending he had envisioned for himself.
When he made his way to the side of the pool where I was standing, he was holding back the tears. Tears of frustration and disappointment and exhaustion and four days of emotional highs and lows.
I gave him a hug, told him I was proud of him, and left him alone to warm down and talk to his coach.
About a half an hour later he walked into the lobby where I was waiting for him.
I was prepared for an angry or upset kid.
But instead, he had a tired smile on his face.
“Mom?” he asked me. “I know what goggles I want to get.”
He had been using a pair of goggles that were on their last legs, and I told him I’d get him a new pair.
“Yeah?” I said. “Which ones?”
“Well, John* let me try on his goggles in the locker room, and they are really cool,” he told me.
John was the kid who had just kicked his butt.
And this is what I love so much about swimming.
As they said in the intro to Wide World of Sports…
The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the human drama of athletic competition…
There are always going to be ups and downs and drama. In swimming and in life.
But whether you are experiencing thrills or agony, at the end of the day or the meet or the weekend, you are still a part of one big swimming family.
And I’m so glad my kids and I are a part of it.
The mom in me wants to spare Number 3 the agony of defeat. What mom doesn’t?
But would he have been as gracious a winner as the kid who kicked his butt was?
I’m not so sure.
And so Number 3 just received one of those super important life lessons that I was also given as a kid in the pool. A lesson about what a true champion looks like.
He’ll continue to have experiences he needs — some painful and some incredibly fulfilling — which will help him to continue to grow and as a swimmer and a human being.
And I’ll be right there with him, because this weekend it was made clear to me that swimming hasn’t quite taught me everything I need to know yet either.
*name has been changed