Picture the things that define your life the most. It might be a sport, an activity, a talent, a hobby. What’s the first thing you say when someone asks you about yourself? Now, imagine if that “thing” disappeared. Who would you be?
This is the question I have been struggling with for a while now. I’ve had a lot of answers for it. I’ve been a competitive swimmer for 15 years, I’m a hard-working student, a daughter, a sister, a Harry Potter nerd. But, if I picture who I am without the things I am most familiar with, the answer is: I really don’t know.
Hailing from small town Indiana, Pennsylvania, when I was in middle school my parents drove me two hours round trip every day – sometimes twice a day – for a more elite club team in Pittsburgh. At the age of 16 I made a decision to move across the state with my mom and consequently geographically separate my family for the duration of my high school years. I loved my age group years, but the travel and the three years apart from my family were emotionally difficult, and I was ready to find some more happiness and peace in college.
I had success in the pool and the classroom, but the 3.7 GPA I got first semester and the handful of points I scored to help UGA win the NCAA National Championship did not feel good enough. I struggled medically as well fighting through mono and lingering asthma problems. I became wrapped up in drama and destructive social habits. My ways of coping with my feelings were not exactly healthy, I passively fell into a trap of sadness and worthlessness.
Sophomore year, I thought the answer to my problems would be found by defining myself through success as a student and a swimmer. I vowed to achieve a perfect 4.0 GPA, to score more points for my team, and to not have any health problems standing in the way of this.
I started off sticking to these promises pretty well but, as time went on my schedule started to wear me down. My nights of studying left me ridden with anxiety and worry about my grades that kept me up late into the night, just hours before my daily 5 A.M. wake up call. To top it all off, I had lingering shoulder pains that kept getting worse as time went on.
Growing up a devout Catholic, I had accepted Jesus Christ as my savior from a young age, but my faith was almost put on hold when I got to college. I went through the motions attending church and Bible studies, but I compartmentalized my faith, leaving it out of the other aspects of my life.
One night after a particularly thought-provoking Bible study, I had a moment of clarity. I didn’t really like the person I was, and though it might not have been true I felt like my peers did not either, but one fact rang clear through my head: I am saved by God’s grace. I knew this all along, but I was so wrapped up in trying to become the perfect student athlete, I forgot there was no such thing. Sports and school had become my idols that I worshipped in place of God. I needed to put Him first and have faith and trust in His plan for me.
I still stressed about school, but I didn’t let it consume me as much as it had been. I had success in the pool despite my shoulder pain. But, just when things started to pick back up again, the nagging shoulder pain became a little more than just that; a MRI showed a partially torn rotator cuff in my left shoulder.
I was blindsided by this news. Sure, I had some minor injuries in the past, but in my 15 years of competitive swimming this was the first very serious one. As I sat in the doctor’s office in January, listening to him speak about surgery left me in denial.
I was left with a choice: swim through the pain of a muscle torn nearly 90 percent of the way through or bite the bullet and get surgery, forgoing competition for the rest of the year. I decided I was going to swim for as long as I could, and I would stop if it got to be too much.
So many emotions came over me during this time: anger, fear, worry, shock, sadness; I was struggling. Physically, practices were sometimes so agonizing that I couldn’t carry on. There was rarely a moment in the day when I wasn’t thinking about how bad my shoulder hurt or how nervous I was to swim.
Again, I turned to my faith to help me through this difficult time. Gradually, I began to accept my fate and developed a different perspective. It was my choice to keep swimming through this; nobody told me that I had to. I began to look at each day as a gift from God and a blessing that I still had the chance to do what I love, no matter how painful it was.
I’m not going to say that I never got frustrated and never felt like giving up, but I accepted that no matter what happened, whether I swam my best or worst at the end of the season, I would be okay with it. I began to look at what an accomplishment it was to be carrying on through this injury. I trusted God and knew that no matter what happened, there was a purpose to this journey.
Gone were the concrete goals of achieving a 4.0 and scoring a multitude of points; I just wanted to complete my season and the semester to the best of my ability while being an asset to the team by carrying a positive attitude.
At the SEC Conference Championships in February, I did not swim very well by my normal standards, but the times I put up were competitive enough to carry me through to the NCAA Championships.
My freshman year I was a nervous wreck for NCAA’s, but this year even though I had a lot more to be nervous for, I was oddly calm. It was a miracle that I was here, so I really had nothing to lose. When I dove in the water, I remember thinking “Wow, I feel pretty good!” I proceeded to have the best performances of my life. I finished eighth place in the 500 freestyle and sixth place in the 1,650 achieving All-American status in both events.
I was in so much pain at the end of the 1,650 I could barely climb out of the pool, but I looked up to my family in the stands and my teammates on the side of the pool cheering and thought: “This is what it’s all about.” Sure, the trophies and the All-American status made me proud, but the positive, faithful attitude I had achieved along with the support and love from my family and friends was the real victory.
I ended up also achieving a 4.0 for my sophomore year; It’s funny that I had the most success when I stopped worrying so much about being the perfect swimmer and student and focused more on the person I wanted to be. I was loving swimming and my life more than ever at this time, so I was pretty nervous to what my life would be like without swimming when I had to get surgery.
These past two months I have gone without swimming is the longest break I have taken from the sport since I was six years old. My goals as a swimmer are set even higher than ever, so I spend hours a day doing cardio, kicking in the water, and rehab in order to make the transition back into swimming as smooth as possible when I am finally allowed.
The process is slow and frustrating, but every little step, whether it’s a better range of motion or a couple minutes of extra kicking time in the pool, encourages me. It has been a difficult and trying time, and I have been struggling with the question of who I am without swimming. I miss it a lot, and I can’t wait to get back to it, but I am fortunate that in this case I do.
Some people experience injuries that end their careers. While working hard to get back in the pool, I have also been working hard to develop my faith and my relationships. If I never had the chance to swim for another day in my life, it would be sad, but I would not want it to ruin my life.
I do not want to put my worth and define myself in material things. This is a hard attitude to maintain, and I often have to remind myself of the commitment I made. I realized that I don’t have to know exactly who I am. I know that I don’t want to be known for my awards and my grades, and I do want to be known by my faith and how my attitude can impact others.