Courtesy: Rachel Boardman
A decade ago, I hung up my goggles and said goodbye to the sport that I had once loved. The sport that I had given so much of myself to and had given me so much in return. Yet something had changed in that final year and our relationship had turned sour.
I never thought that there would be a day that I would break up with swimming yet there I was saying my goodbyes.
Looking back, I can pinpoint the exact moment of the beginning of the end. It was May 2018 and I was having my best ever season.
Having battled through 3 years of no P.B.’s after contracting pneumonia I was now flying. I was hitting times in training that I never thought I would hit, and it had only been a matter of time before my times in competitions started tumbling. Yet, this particular meet held the highest stakes yet.
It was my last chance to qualify for the national championships later that summer, a feat I hadn’t done for 4 years.
Now the way the heat seeding had panned out meant that my two training partners were each in one of the two preceding heats to me. As I went through my pre-race rituals, I watched them both swim their way to their respective national qualifying times. No biggie, I knew I had it in me to make it three out three.
I still remember exactly how I felt when I touched the wall and looked up to the board. There, staring right back at me was my time.
0.06 seconds too slow.
Devastated is an understatement.
As the crushing waves of disappointment flowed over me, I headed straight to the swim down pool. No one would know I was crying if I did it in the water right? I dived right in, not wanting to stop for the usual “how did you swim?” chats with my teammates.
I was going to swim the frustration out of me. That was until my coach dragged me out of the water. He had walked the entire length of the competition pool just to make sure I was alright. Something that I had never known him to have done before or ever expected him to do for me. I’m still not sure he knows how much I needed and appreciated that. Even now.
With the summer break over and with a renewed sense of determination I started the following season on a high. It didn’t last for long though. As cold and flu season kicked in, I fell ill, having to ease off and recover for a couple of weeks.
What I didn’t know was that it was the start of an exasperating cycle of getting fit and then getting ill again. The disappointments and frustrations of this season and the previous years would eventually outstrip the promises and highs of the last year.
In a slow and painful process, I would come to realize that if my health was not going to allow for me to reach my goals of qualifying for nationals again it definitely wasn’t going to allow for my Olympic dreams.
By the end of the season I had gone from wanting to spend all my time swimming to skipping mornings and choosing to teach over training. I had fallen out of love and neither of us were willing to work on our relationship – at least for now – leaving me with only one choice. To break up.
Sure, I kept involved by teaching and coaching for several years after the initial split. However, it wasn’t until I had to give that up in favor of my postgraduate studies that I was really able to start the process of getting over my first love.
Years later in the act of trying to get fit again I bumped back into swimming. We realized that we missed each other and that we wanted to be in each other’s lives even just as friends. So, I hesitatingly gave it another chance.
As I dived back into the pool after years away it felt like home. The feel of the water between my fingers, the smell of the chlorine. Oh, how I love that smell!
It was like I had never left. Yet it somehow felt different. It was harder and I was so unfit I was lucky to make it to 1 Km, but I was excited again. We took it slow, careful not to stifle each other at first. Learning to trust and finding the joy in each other again.
As swimmers we all know that our careers will come to an end at some point yet other than making sure you have a “back up plan” in the form of a decent education it isn’t really talked about. When my career came to an end, I was in no way prepared to deal with the emotional rollercoaster and everything else that goes with saying goodbye to your sport.
While I do not blame anyone for this lack of awareness and support – after all I was not a part of the GB squad with access to all the extra support that those swimmers have – some kind of awareness definitely would have helped.
In the last few years, more and more of the top international swimmers have began speaking up about their struggles after leaving the sport they love. While their high profile will most certainly help support and processes be put into place for future swimmers it is also important to recognise that you do not need to be a world champion, an Olympian or on the national squad to go through your own struggles post swimming career.
Whether your swimming career comes to an end on good terms or in an unexpected hot, ugly mess, moving on, just like in any other relationship, can take some time.
It doesn’t have to be the end though.
When I hung up my goggles all those years ago, I was done with the sport that I had loved so much. Yet slowly it found a way to creep back into my life and I appreciate it all the more.
Now, whenever I get in the water it feels like home, even when I’m on the other side of the world. Some things are just so much a part of you that they will always show up in your life. Just like a best friend, you can go weeks or even months without talking to but when you next see each other it’s like no time has ever passed.
About Rachel Boardman
I am a former national level swimmer and member of the City of Salford Swimming Club. Over my 10-year career, I was County and regional champion and helped Lancashire swim to victory in the County Team Championships. I then went on to teach and coach while pursuing a degree in Biomedical science at the University of Salford before completing a Ph.D. in Pre-Clinical Oncology at the University of Nottingham. More recently I have been traveling Australia rekindling my love of the sport, blogging about it on Medium (https://medium.com/@rachelboardman1) and trying to open up the conversation about life after sport.