Thanks to Taylor Paskoff for contributing this piece.
I am about one year out from my official retirement from swimming after a long fifteen-year career, and I have always considered this sport to be one of the biggest contributors to who I am as a person. It has been said time and time again: the value of this sport far exceeds the countless hours in the pool and all the extra work in any form to keep moving towards accomplishing that next goal. All of those trials, successes, and setbacks are the things that helped me become confident in my abilities, find peace with who I am, and stay forever curious and motivated.
These are the things that helped me walk into my first year of graduate school with the feeling like the world was in the palm of my hand.
So I applied for fellowships to open some doors for research. I applied for funding. I applied to attend workshops. I heard “no” many, many more times than I heard “yes.” After all, there are so many highly qualified people out there, and there is only so much to go around. Besides, the “yeses” do count for a lot. I do not take them for granted, and I have celebrated them. But somewhere along the way, I allowed one single, poisonous thought to enter my mind during my attempt to figure out why I had been turned away by so many others: It was because I was an athlete.
In my panic, it made perfect sense. Swimming, and all other sports at that level, are full time jobs. We do our best and most university teams do volunteer work, but what little time we can rack up doing extra simply does not compare to the internships, research hours, jobs, and volunteering that others apparently can. For my field of study, research hours and publications are highly valued, so having those experiences opens a lot of doors.
All I felt was that I had to fight for others to take me seriously. I committed myself to something, but maybe it was the wrong thing. If I had spent more time in the lab, I could have published something by now. If I had been able to take time off, I could have gone abroad to get international experience. I started to regret, and I started to blame the thing I had loved the most throughout my life.
It took some tough conversations with people close to me to convince myself that I had it all wrong. I might feel like people do not take me seriously, but isn’t it more satisfying to let the work I produce speak for itself? I could have committed myself to something else, but what else could have compared when every single day I got to physically and mentally push my own limits? I could have published something by now, but how does one publication stack up next to fifteen years worth of learning the value of doing everything at the absolute highest level, a skill that will ultimately result in my work reflecting my highest abilities over my whole career as an academic?
I needed someone else to tell me these things, but if there is anyone questioning the value of committing yourself to swimming (or athletics in general) I encourage you to think a little more broadly. As long as you understand the value of your journey, you will be an important asset to this world after you retire. Those things never really leave you, they only get stronger as time goes on. People will tell you “no,” but no matter who you are things will never be handed to you, so don’t take anything personally. You know by now that “no” only means “try again.”
One day I am going to be a professor at a university. It’s too early to know when or where, but that is somewhere in my future. If any of you end up as as student of mine, I promise to fight for you. You are important, and if anyone limits you, they are mistaken.
Taylor Paskoff began swimming summer league at the age of 6, and she loved it so much that it wasn’t long before she decided to swim year-round. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, she joined the Rockwood Swim Club and was with them for the entirety of her career. There was never a question of whether or not she would swim in college; it was the ultimate goal all through middle and high school. She committed to swim for Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland where she swam freestyle and butterfly (but mostly butterfly), completed all four years, and graduated with degrees in chemistry, anthropology, as well as a minor in molecular biology, biochemistry, and bioinformatics in 2015.
After graduation she moved back to St. Louis to spend a summer coaching for the Rockwood Swim Club, then moved to Columbia, Missouri to pursue her master’s and Ph.D. in biological anthropology at the University of Missouri. She now lives in Columbia and coaches at Columbia Swim Club, although she still loves to spend time at home in St. Louis with her parents and her dog.