By Karley Owens
My story of competitive swimming begins at the age of 7 in the stands of West Mifflin high school pool. My sister, who was 9 at the time, was swimming her first race at her first swim meet. She swam the 50 backstroke and got dead last. Still, I was amazed when she touched the wall. My eyes were stuck to the glass of the balcony. The stroke and the turn looked fun to do, the cap and goggles looked cool, the atmosphere looked inviting and thrilling. I looked my dad dead in the eye and said, “I think I can do that.” He replied with “okay, but you gotta give up dance then.” I replied, “Fine, this sport better anyway.” So, I traded in my tap shoes for goggles and a cap. Seven year old me made a great choice, I couldn’t imagine my life as a tap dancer.
Now, as a collegiate swimmer mid way through her final season, I’ve lost the spark that started the fireworks. I am currently suffering through the crippling and self destructive feeling of burn out in the sport. These past 16 years have been full of many experiences that have shaped me into who I am today. I’ve experienced first hand what it takes to achieve something great, I’ve learned how to manage time, be a hard worker, have passion, have resilience, be a team player, and have drive and grit like no other and I’ve been through ups and downs before no doubt. It is important to know that not all lessons and experiences are created equal. This sport also taught me to be a perfectionist, and this trait has caused me to lose part of my senior season.
Swimming is a sport that is all in the details. The little things you change in your technique and in your stroke may be the change that is needed for you to reach a goal or a cut time. For me, swimming has turned into a race with me and the clock. The time I go in my best events determines my mindset, attitude, and self-worth. After training the 200 IM for the past 10 years, I have hit a wall. A mental and a physical wall. There are no more major changes that can be made and the training hasn’t drastically changed, yet the time isn’t there when I touch the wall. The person behind the block has changed.
How does a swimmer get past this wall? When the racing anxiety is so high panic attacks are happening. When the air is so thick you can’t take a deep breath in. When your arms and legs are weak with fatigue and fear. It may seem impossible, but the wall will come down one brick at a time no matter how long the wall has been standing or how tall it may be. The bricks will slowly come down after asking yourself one simple question. “What made you want to start swimming?” Channeling your inner seven year old self is a starting point. Here are some ways in which to do so:
Lose the “I need to reach this time” talk- Thinking to yourself that you have to hit a certain time in an event will actually inhibit you from reaching it. Instead, ask yourself “What do I need to do in order to go as fast as I can for the time being.”
Lose your expectations- Each practice, meet, and day comes with new challenges and nobody can predict the future and what will happen. This being said, why do some swimmers hold themselves to such high standards for every practice or meet? Go into each meet or practice saying “I will do the best that I can and we will see what happens.”
It is okay to not be okay- Being the perfectionist that I am, I don’t like admitting defeat or showing that I am struggling. Opening up to your coaches, teammates, friends, or family will do a world of good. Having this open communication will also help you create a strategy to help you find the love of the sport again or a way to get over the wall.
Try a new event- Training the IM for so many years has given me the ability to be a diverse swimmer. So, why not try the 100 fly? Doing something new and fresh will give you a confidence boost and there are no expectations for your race. Who knows, you may find a new event that you love.
Life changes- Being a senior in college, I am beginning to look to my future career as a teacher and student teaching in the spring. It is getting harder and harder to focus on swimming because of the stress outside of the pool. It is important to remember that when you are in the pool, that is your time to focus on swimming. Everything else can wait until practice is over.
So, my mind set will be different for my next race in a few weeks. It is a hard battle to fight and I am continuing to fight it every practice and meet. You are not alone is your battle with burnout. Remember your seven year old self and find the fun of it again. Hey, I gave up my sub-par dance career for swimming, I might as well make the most of it. Slowly but surely, the wall will have less and less bricks and it will be smaller and smaller.
Karley Owens and is a senior at California University of Pennsylvania. She is majoring in pre-K-4 and special education K-8. She is from Latrobe, Pennsylvania and is a swim coach with the Greater Latrobe Aqua Club.