by Claire Forrest
By now, we’ve all watched Michael Phelps’ newest Rule Yourself spot for Under Amour a few times (or since this is SwimSwam and we’re among friends, let’s admit it: we’ve watched it dozens of times.) The clip claims: ‘It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light.’
Twenty-two time Olympic medalists or not, the commercial is striking a chord with swimmers everywhere because we know all the work we put in when no one was looking—or heck, even awake. We woke up before dawn, swam, went to classes, and went back to practice, returning home again when it was dark. And we repeated that for years and years, until we decided to retire.
But beyond the tugs of swimming-related nostalgia comes a bitter sting: am I as accomplished as I was when I swam? or as I like to call that feeling: Post-Competitive Swimming Guilt.
A swimming career teaches you a myriad of things, except how to deal with its absence from your life. I haven’t gotten up at 5 A.M. to swim in about three years, and I confidently told my Masters swim team I don’t plan to attend weekend morning practices because I was done selling my soul to the sport. These days, if I make it the pool three days a week, I feel vindicated. I very much value my physical health and look forward to working out, but I am still a person who is in a pretty committed relationship with my couch and carbohydrates, and thus from time to time, deal with Post-Competitive Swimming Guilt. If you do too, here are some ways I work through it.
Realize you have a whole host of additional responsibilities now. (Luckily, your swimmer shoulders are big enough to carry the weight all of them.) Yes, you juggled academia when you were competing, but chances are these days, you don’t arrive back from practice to a home cooked meal or hit up a dining hall full of food after your day of work or graduate school. Most swammers are working, continuing their education (or both!), providing for themselves and/or their families, managing their home lives, budgets and personal relationships on a level we simply didn’t when we were swimming multiple hours a day. It’s okay that your athletic life has changed to accommodate this new schedule.
Understand that, in some ways, you’re healthier now then you were before. Fever or head cold? You went to practice. Strung out on lack of sleep or the stress of finals? You went to practice. And yes, sometimes it helped. But sometimes you felt like you were hanging on by a thread. I find my mental health is a lot more balanced now that I’ve been able to step back from the grind of competitive swimming, and that balance has allowed me to pursue other interests and hobbies with a renewed passion.
Set realistic fitness goals simply for yourself. Consider checking out a cool fitness class at your local gym that you never had the time to try. Join a Masters swim team with the revelation that you can get out when you want to! And that thirty minutes of swimming is a workout! Best of all, whether it’s running through your neighborhood on a sunny day or nailing a sprint set, you did that not for your coach, or a National’s cut, but for you, because you value your body. That’s awesome.
Take off your rose colored glasses. A few weeks ago, I overheard a college swim team in the locker room. What I would give, I thought for a second before I heard more. One was injured, one had missed an important meeting with her professor because practice ran long, and they were all angry with their times for that day. The post-swimming life is no cakewalk, but it’s amazing what you forget when you’re a few years removed from your athletic life. Nostalgia has a tendency to force you to remember only the good times. You’re allowed to miss the good things about swimming (and there are countless!) but yearn for them in a realistic way.
Talk to your former teammates about what you’re feeling. I thought I was alone in feeling this guilt until I brought it up to some of my former teammates. If you’re frustrated about your fitness level, talk to your friends. You got over so many bumps in your swimming career together, and you can support each other now, too. There’s nothing like a taking a screenshot of a 10 degree day on your weather app, group texting it all your swimming friends with the caption, “I went to the pool despite this!” and getting a bunch of praise-hands emojis in response.
Every torch, no matter how brightly it burns, eventually has to be passed. So I’ll let Phelps and all of the other current swimmers out there have their glory days.
Recently, I had one of those days where I felt like I was swimming through Jello while wearing ankle weights. I called it quits, defeated, hopping into the hot tub.
A woman turned to me, “You have a beautiful stroke,” she said.
“Thanks so much,” I smiled. “I really needed that today.”