By Elizabeth Levy
Every college athlete imagines that final moment of their athletic career: the last practice, the last game, the race; and every college student imagines their graduation day, the day when they can walk across a stage in front of a cheering crowd, and receive that thick, cream-colored piece of paper lined with gold, the piece of paper that serves as physical confirmation that the last four years of your life have officially ended. As a college freshman, I imagined all of these things. I imagined my last season, my last meet, my last race. Once I learned of my college traditions, I also imagined the fun of senior week, the culminating banquet I would enjoy with my teammates, and my graduation day. I imagined that all the hard work I was enthusiastically going to put into these four years would culminate in one final triumphant race, one final triumphant walk across that stage. But, now as I sit in my living room back home writing this, in a situation I never believed I would find myself in, I am wrestling with disappointment and loss. Have four years of my life led only to this?
On the third day of my last college meet, I qualified for finals in the 200 butterfly, arguably my best event, in the consolation final. I was disappointed with my prelims swim: I had been hoping to qualify for the championship final, especially since I had come into the meet as the ninth seed. I therefore needed to reevaluate what I wanted to accomplish in finals. Every day of the meet so far, I had been faster in finals, so I felt confident. I dove in and felt strong the first 50 yards. Even if I wasn’t on track to get a best time, I knew I would at least be faster than I had been in the morning. But then something went wrong. My heartbeat suddenly sped up at an alarming rate. This phenomenon occurs periodically, but only in practice, never in a race. Keep swimming, I told myself: maybe it will pass. But at 100 yards my entire body seized up. My arms and legs felt like lead. Every breath I took was a desperate fight for air. For a few seconds I considered stopping, getting out of the pool. But no. I was going to finish the race. I struggled through the final 50 yards, finishing seventh out of eight, with a time almost 10 seconds slower than what I had posted in prelims.
I was in total shock. My legs felt like jelly as I walked over to my coach to tell her what had happened. I could hardly stand so was forced to sit on a bench while I caught my breath. It’s hard to describe the emotions I was feeling in that moment: numb and confused, but more than anything, angry. Angry at the race, angry that my final race of college was such a disappointment. But most of all, I was angry at myself for forgetting to turn my brain off and let my body do what I knew it was capable of. It wasn’t fair. This was not the happy ending to my college career that I had prepared for. My sophomore year I qualified for the championship final in the 200 butterfly, but I left that meet upset when I didn’t go a best time in finals. Suddenly that disappointment seemed petty. I wanted so much to have finished my college career with a personal success.
Nearly two months later, it still hurts to think about that race, and it has hurt to write this. But now, as I look back on that race, I am experiencing a whole different set of emotions.
About three weeks ago, I learned that my college would be closing and continuing with remote learning for the remainder of the semester due to COVID-19. Upon reading this news, my body went through a similar reaction following my final race. I felt numb, confused, upset, and angry. I don’t think I’ve ever cried more about something. 2020 was supposed to be an incredible year; it would include the dream ending I was hoping for in my swim career, the year I would graduate college proudly and the year I would begin the next phase of my life. A year of many lasts, but also of many firsts. But instead, my entire swim career culminated in the most disappointing race of my life, and my final semester of college, the semester that was supposed to be the most fun, was disrupted by a global health crisis. It really has been incredible. I would furthermore say it is unfair, and it is. But the inescapable reality is that it has also opened my eyes to an indisputable fact that nothing is ever guaranteed.
You can push yourself in the pool for hours on end, preparing for that final perfect race, that ending that all soon-to-be swammers hope for: the moment when you look up at the scoreboard and see that you have shattered your best time, maybe in so doing breaking a college record. That moment when you raise your fist in the air, when you get out of the water, smiling and crying all at the same time because you have realized what you have accomplished while also not quite yet realizing that you actually did accomplish it. You can, outside your swim life, make all sorts of plans with your friends, promising to have that one last meal at the dining hall together, promising you will go together to check out those couple of restaurants you’ve put off visiting, promising you will go to one last improv show together. I had thought that all of these goals and projects would make my senior year memorable. Even though I was deeply ambivalent about ending this chapter in my life and leaving college, I was comforted knowing that I would be spending my final semester at the school that I loved, finishing the athletic career that defined who I was, with my teammates and with my closest friends. But nature had other plans.
I will always remember that feeling of my muscles seizing up during my final 200 butterfly. But, given what has since happened, that memory will stand out not because of my disappointment with that race but because, no matter how disappointed I was, I still could recognize what I have always loved about swimming: the tough moments. Every inch of your body is on fire, you feel like giving up, but you don’t give in to the voice of defeat because you know that you have more to give. That’s why I have always loved and always will love butterfly. It’s hard to adequately describe how exhausting it is. Suffice it to say that if you know you can conquer a 200 butterfly, you know you can conquer anything. And no matter how painful and shockingly upsetting my last 200 fly was, I am proud that I pushed through it, even when I wanted, from sheer pain and disappointment, to just give up.
I also wanted to give up when I heard that I would have to spend my final semester of college at home, away from my friends, my teammates, my coaches, and my professors. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that this should all happen my final semester of college– first, that what had only happened to me in practice should happen to me in a meet for the first time in my final race of college; and second, that I wouldn’t even get the chance to finish the climax of the college “race,” that is, my senior spring. But maybe this is the fitting ending to my college career, this unexpected first rather than a heavy last. There is no such thing as a perfect race or a perfect ending. A race always hurts; there will always be currents fighting against you in the pool of life. I don’t think I had anything more to give in that race than what I did give. And while I am not getting the happy ending to college that I was hoping for, I know that when I look on my college experience a few years down the road, I will acknowledge that the combination of this race and the extreme disruption caused by COVID-19 have made me a stronger, wiser person. In another unexpected first, I realize that I have never really learned a great deal from my good swims, but I have always learned a lot from my bad ones. COVID-19 has been the ultimate bad swim, that uncontrollable factor that has prevented me from having a true ending to my college experience, just as my heart speeding up was the uncontrollable factor that just happened to be part of my final college race. The race, however, has not ended my swim career, for swimming has defined my life and will continue to do so. Swimming has taught me how to be resilient, to know that I always have more to give, even in the toughest of times.
ABOUT ELIZABETH LEVY
Elizabeth is a current senior at Skidmore College, where she was a four-year member of the varsity Swim and Dive team. She has been swimming competitively since she was eight and hopes to further pursue her passion for the sport after graduating by becoming a sports journalist or collegiate swim coach.