As someone from the land of 10,000 lakes, I’ve always felt that being a swimmer made up a major part of my identity. I’ve been swimming competitively on and off since elementary school, and swimming recreationally a heck of a lot longer. Everyone I’d ever known up until I came to college knew how to swim and did it often, and even though I now realize that not knowing how to swim is a pretty normal thing for people from other regions of the country or around the world, it still strikes me as odd when someone shares the information they can’t swim with me. I can’t help but wonder what their lives must be like without both the highs and the lows of the intense sport I’ve come to love. And because of my long history with swimming, I feel it’s only fair that I share the full truth about how swimming has made me feel about my body— the good, the bad, and the ugly.
When I started swimming as a kid, I felt pretty good about myself. All little kids are pretty chubby, so I never felt less than or out of place swimming on my team. But as I grew up and watched the girls around me get slimmer and slimmer, I felt really out of place with my own less-than-skinny body. It didn’t help that Minnesota is a land dominated by tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nordic types, while I was a short brunette with brown eyes. In all possible ways, I felt like I looked like an outsider. None of this really should have mattered to me, as body type doesn’t necessarily correlate with how fast one can swim. But it did. Despite the fact that I was a reasonably fast swimmer and always fell somewhere in the middle of the pack, my thick legs and torso made me feel like I was the slowest in the group, and my negative feelings affected me much more than my performance during swim meets.
By the time I joined my high school swim team I felt impossibly mediocre. But my coach saw something special in me and placed me on the Varsity team, even though I was only a freshman. This encouraged me to think better of myself and my ability as an athlete— if I made the varsity team than my body couldn't be so bad. I started to see my body as strong and capable instead of bulky and awkward. Coincidentally, at this point, I was at the slimmest I’ve ever been in my life. Unfortunately, this brief period of positivity didn’t last— I was basing all of the new good feelings of my body on my standing in my swim team, which was not a sustainable way to love my body. When I was demoted to the JV team my junior year, all positivity I had associated with my body transformed to hate. I felt that the reason I had been dropped from the elite part of the team was that my body had more cellulite than the other girls, and not because the new girls joining the team had more technical skill than me. I went to each practice full of self-loathing and would internally yell at myself, calling myself terrible, demeaning names in my mind to motivate myself to push harder. This behavior was far from healthy, and eventually it broke me. I ended up having an anxiety attack at my last major swim meet of that year, and it made me reevaluate my self-worth. Although I considered quitting the team, I realized that my toxicity wasn’t the fault of the sport itself, but rather the harsh judgments I inflicted on myself when I compared myself to my teammates.
The next season I resolved to just focus on using swimming to strengthen my body and mind, and to try to let go of comparing my achievements to the accomplishments of those around me. Every practice I would consciously tell myself “I am strong, I am valid, and I am enough” before I jumped in the water, and that made all the difference. This year, swimming on my college’s swim club, I may not be the strongest and best swimmer I’ve ever been. But what I am is the most at peace with myself I’ve ever been. My body is no longer something I compare to others to gauge my worth, but rather something that helps me do the things that make me feel happy, strong, and content. Swimming is a tough sport, (and I’ll admit I’ve had times when I wish I’d never had chosen it to be my main activity) but it’s also made me the person who I am today, and for that, I’ll be eternally grateful.