Musing: Five Things My Early Athletic Endeavors Taught Me

Here at BYOM, we’ve dedicated the month of July to celebrating the international female empowerment organization, Girls on the Run, by featuring a few of their most inspiring, status-quo-shaking alumnae. While these incredible young women all have similar roots in the organization, they have all chosen to clear their own unique paths in life. Their accomplishments, both within and beyond athletics, are notable, varied, and extremely motivating to us, and hopefully to you readers as well! They make us think about all the wonderful lessons we learned in athletics.

Although I am not personally a Girls on the Run alumna, I do feel as if I can personally attest to the enormous benefits that can be reaped from involvement in athletics at a young age. Oddly enough, I think the benefits that are particularly special are actually not directly related to athletic achievement at all.

They come from learning what it takes to compete at a high level and holding yourself to a high standard. From having a winning attitude. They come in the form of personal life lessons and an unyielding sense of self-awareness and confidence that can only result from intense physical and personal challenges. From pushing yourself farther than you believed possible and from knowing that it all came from inside of you, from your inner sense of strength, purpose, and power. To have these life-shaping experiences and realizations is a blessing at any age, but I strongly believe that the earlier these lessons are bestowed, the better!

As an avid competitive swimmer in high school, it is no exaggeration to say that I dedicated nearly every minute of my personal time outside of academics to swimming. During swim season, which lasted from the end of October to the end of March, I spent one quarter of every day in the pool, with swim practices both before and after school. Outside of those months, I was still expected to keep training. When I wasn’t swimming, I was either attending classes, doing homework, eating (which happened a lot), or sleeping (which happened not often enough). At the time, I had a very grueling love-hate relationship with it, and and battled often with myself about the commitment that I had made. But at the end of the day, it was my conscious choice and efforts that went into it. And there is a sense of power and purpose in that.

If I look back on my adolescence now, this intentional decision to commit myself to such a demanding, arduous endeavor was probably the first truly adult, mature decision I had ever made up to that point. And however difficult it was at times, I adamantly believe that this was the arena where I achieved the majority of my personal growth at such a young age, whether I was conscious of that fact or not.

It is easy to have retrospective bias on something that has already been and gone, but the more distance that I have from the pool and the competition, the more I know that I was better for it. The lessons I learned through swimming have proven to be immensely more valuable now that I’ve taken them out of the pool and into the real world. Here are five of my biggest takeaways from my swimming career.

1. YOU LEARN TO DO THINGS THAT YOU DON’T WANT TO DO. AND WITH A POSITIVE ATTITUDE, NO LESS.

I definitely didn’t want to wake up at 4:45 am in the dead of winter to drive through three feet of snow in Cleveland, only to jump into a freezing cold pool and then walk to school with wet hair that without a doubt was always frozen into icicles by the time I got there. But I did it. The possibility, determination, and will is there, for whatever you decide to use it for, and my high school swimming self proved it years ago.

2. YOU LEARN THAT THE IDEA OF A “LIMIT” IS REALLY ONLY A MENTAL OBSTACLE.

You might feel like you’re dying, and 99.999% of the time, it might have killed a normal person. But not you. Like the mural in the natatorium (wow, it’s been years since I’ve uttered that strange word) so proudly declared, “pain is weakness leaving the body.” Harsh, bro. But true. You really can do whatever you set your mind to, but that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt.

3. YOU MAKE SOME OF THE BEST FRIENDS OF YOUR LIFE BECAUSE YOU’RE GROWING (AND STRUGGLING) TOGETHER.

Either that, or you’re both going through a really traumatic, brain-washing experience together which induces strong bonding. It’s a lot like the military. No, but in all seriousness, you’re learning a lot about yourselves and growing together in the face of challenges you never thought you’d seek out, which creates relationships based on mutual trust, admiration, understanding, and some competitiveness as well. Like weirdly close, family-level relationships. People compare swimming to a cult more times than not, and they’re not always wrong…

4. YOU LEARN TO CHALLENGE YOURSELF, AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, LIVE UP TO THE CHALLENGE.

Especially in sports like swimming and running, your achievements are based on your personal best times, all within the larger team context. Which a lot of the time means that you’re racing the clock. Aka you’re racing yourself. If you can work yourself up enough to beat yourself, you’ll never face a more difficult obstacle. That’s initiative and drive in a nutshell.

5. YOU LEARN NOT TO SEEK OUT IMMEDIATE GRATIFICATION AND THAT IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THE LITTLE THINGS.

You commit to dedicating half of your waking hours to swimming, only to have to wait for one race at the end of the season. Talk about delayed gratification. Not only that, but the faster you swim, the shorter that moment is, and it’s all the better that way. Basically, you put in as many hours of training as you can to have the shortest possible outcome. You might even drop a full one to two seconds off your personal best time, if you’re lucky. And damn, do those two seconds feel AMAZING.

+ HOW DID YOU LEARN MOST OF YOUR LIFE LESSONS? WE WANT TO KNOW! TELL US ABOUT IT.

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