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  • Writer's pictureLily Kernaghan

Knowing When to Come Up for Air

4:57 A.M. From seventh grade to my sophomore year in college, my alarm went off at this time five days a week, fifty of the fifty-two weeks in the year. I would start off every day by diving into an ice-cold pool. Most people wince when I tell them that. I loved every minute of it.

At eight years old, I began swimming competitively. When I started, the pressure to clock a new ‘best’ time at every meet, become nationally ranked, or get the attention of college coaches had not settled in for me. All that mattered was what song I would repeatedly sing to myself for the two and a half hours spent with my head in the water, looking down at a black line on the bottom of the pool.

At ten, I was a double winner at the Connecticut State Swim Championships, breaking a 22-year-old club team record and making me the fastest ten year old backstroker in the state of Connecticut and seventh on the East Coast. At thirteen, my swim team broke five records for girl’s relays in the 13-14 age group. I was the only swimmer to be a part of every one of those relays. Each year I continued to get faster, making me a mainstay in the ‘A’ (fastest) heat for every race I entered. I started to travel around to compete against swimmers all over the country.

In my sophomore year of high school, I switched club teams to join a YMCA team that had a national team and attended the YMCA Nationals (Y Nats), a meet that drew the fastest swimmers and numerous prospective college coaches. In my first year, I felt no pressure competing in Y Nats. My parents dropped me off for the team bus with the “good luck” and “have fun” sentiments which mirrored the light feeling I had as I was unranked. I just wanted to enjoy the experience. With no pressure on me, I swam some of my fastest times, qualified for finals in multiple events, and clocked my first Speedo Junior Nationals cut.

College recruitment started on September 1st of my junior year. On that day, a switch flipped for me. Every race of every meet became a test. I would internalize every bad or even average swim as “failures,” beating myself up for anytime I didn’t measure up with myself at my “best.” In and out of the pool, I made changes to secure top performances at meets, moving my life around to minimize the “failures.” I added extra weights and strength training, more swim practices, and changed my eating habits.

But it didn’t take. That year, for the first time in my high school swimming career, I didn’t make the A final, in my top event, at my high school state championships. On the pool deck at Y Nats five months after this, I remember looking up in the stands at all the college coaches, who all seemed to be staring right back down at me. A physical representation of every possible future for me was in those bleachers, each wearing a different golf shirt with a University crest embroidery. Who did they see when they looked down at me? I had always been the calm swimmer without any concept of race anxiety, but that girl was nowhere to be found. Replaced was this new person, quivering with anxiety and unable to measure up to the pressure of performance. The weight of my own expectations felt like rocks tied onto my shoulders, and in every race at nationals, I felt myself sinking lower in the pool because of it. The results that year seemed to reflect this.

At the onset of the college recruitment process, I only considered D1 schools. However, the more I spoke to people about how intense a D1 school could be and some of the college experiences I would have to give up, I began visiting D3 schools. In the end, it came down to two teams; one D1 and one D3. I chose Denison.

With my college decision behind me, I could relax and enjoy my senior year of swimming. I had three high school records, five club state records, and four years of being nominated to the All-State team under my belt. My last goal was to conquer Y Nats. With a new anxiety-free attitude, I was swimming some of my fastest times leading up to the meet. I had been training for 11 months and my confidence was high. I started to feel like myself in the pool again.

Then COVID-19 hit and the entire world, including my own, halted. Everything was canceled, including Y Nats. My club swimming career was swept out from under my feet. Eleven months of training with nothing to show for it. I didn’t realize it then, but this was the beginning of the end for my swim career.

I was eager to swim for Denison and train under new coaches, and I understood the many opportunities that laid ahead. Things started off great - I made friends on the team, was swimming well, and got into the rhythm of balancing practice with my schoolwork. We all had high hopes that the worst was behind us, and that we would be back to a normal swim season.

A few months into the semester, athletic anxiety began to settle in. I would go to bed nervous about sleeping through my 4:57 A.M. alarm or about performing poorly during practice. I was getting a lot of positive feedback from the coaches, but felt overwhelmed with what-ifs. What if I couldn’t maintain that pace? What if I let my coaches and my team down? On my way to afternoon practice, my neck would break out in stress rashes. I knew that in the couple of hours to follow, I would push my body to its physical limits. Following the practice, I knew that for all the hours remaining in the night, I had the week’s worth of school work waiting for me on my desk. I would get spikes of anxiety with each stroke the clock made beyond midnight, knowing that I still hadn’t finished my work and my alarm would be going off in less than five hours. I began counting down the minutes until Saturday afternoon when I finally would have a break.

Despite the anxiety and stress I felt, I was still swimming fast and achieving my goals for the season. Though meets were getting canceled or being held virtually, I was still winning individual and relay events and had even qualified for NCAAs. But just like the year before, all of this training and preparation was swept out from under my feet when NCAAs were canceled due to COVID. With the cancellation of the season’s championship, I wondered if my lack of sleep, anxiety, and stress from training were really worth it.

We were fortunate to have a big season closure meet and virtual NCACs and NCAAs. I placed well in all of my events, making me a four time first-team All American. While I was proud of my accomplishments and grateful to my coaches and teammates, I felt none of the excitement or joy I should have felt (and in the past, did feel) when I swam well. All I felt was a rush of relief that the main season was over, as though the weight had been lifted off of me.

Swimming is a full-year sport; there is no “off-season.” When the short course season ends, the long course season begins. I went into the year with the same mindset I had for the past ten years: once this short course season ended, I would jump into training for long course. But this time felt different; I didn’t have it in me. I didn’t want to get back in the pool. I wanted to leave it behind me, and try a life without swimming; something that ashamed me.

I spoke to my parents about my decision to not swim long course and they supported me. I threw myself into my school work and college life as a non-athlete. I joined a sorority. I visited friends at other schools. Without practice, I was finally able to do things I never did before. Everyone thought, including myself, that after taking a few months off I would be ready to get back into the pool. With a solid freshman year behind me, expectations were high for my sophomore year.

Before coming back to school for my sophomore year, I mentioned to my parents that I was anxious about the upcoming swim season. They told me to take it one day at a time and to put less pressure on myself. As the season neared, my anxieties grew. I began dreading my alarm. The two-hour practices felt like 10 hours. While physically I could do the work, I was struggling mentally. Instead of losing myself in the rhythm of the practice laps, I found myself counting them. And that’s overwhelming. We swim up to 10,000 yards (400 laps) a day, the equivalent of almost six miles. It’s a long time to be in your head. I knew that I would have to do it all over again in the afternoon. And the next day. And the day after that.

I knew I had to do something. But as anxious as I was about swimming, I was even more anxious about quitting. Swimming had been a part of my life for as long as I could remember. Quitting meant letting my coach, my teammates, and my family down. Quitting meant letting myself down. I began calling my parents every day, crying after getting out of the pool. They reassured me that I had to do what was best for me. But I didn't know what that was. I spoke to my coach, old teammates, current teammates, and my high school club coach; anyone who could tell me what to do. A lot of them were shocked that I was even considering quitting - I was the one that never complained about having double practice everyday, getting up before the sun, missing out on weekends, and staying back from vacations because of practice. And I was still swimming fast; physically, I could do this. Finally, my parents pushed me to talk to a counselor - someone removed from the situation. And she said all the right things.

She told me there comes a time when you have to do and accept what is best for you as a person and not just as an athlete, and sometimes what we want doesn't align with what we need. She was honest in saying that yes, people would be sad because they enjoyed watching me swim as much as I enjoyed swimming. It was a part of our family dynamic and it was going to be an adjustment for everyone. My parents were sad for me, but not disappointed - they were sad I never experienced big collegiate swim meets, or got to race at NCAAs, or stood on a podium. Wasn’t that what I was training for since I was eight?

But in the end, all anyone wanted was for me to be happy. And so I quit. I packed up my swim bag, thanked my coach and teammates and left the pool behind me. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities and experiences swimming gave me, but I don’t regret putting myself first.

And neither should you. Maybe, for you, putting yourself first means putting more time into your sport. Maybe it means making a point to embrace the experiences that sport can bring you - the distraction, the friendships, the camaraderie. Or, maybe you are like me, and it means saying goodbye to the game altogether.


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