Courtesy of Katie Stark
It is 6:30 a.m. I am standing at the edge of the pool, looking down at my toes as they are lapped by the clear, cool water. Thirty minutes ago, I rolled out of bed to the sound of my alarm clock shrilling above my head. Twenty minutes ago, wrapped in a warm coat, I ambled down my apartment stairs to my truck, soaking in the last few minutes of body heat and silence before the chaos began.
Now I face the most difficult part of my day.
My coach yells, “What are you waiting for?”
I take a deep breath, swallow my dread, and jump as far as I can out into the water. The shock of the cold pushes the air out of my lungs. I feel paralyzed yet I find a way to move my arms. Soon, the rhythm of my stroke and the sound of the water rushing against my ears becomes music.
A common understanding about sports is that they tend to teach valuable life lessons. Leaders in the swimming world, such as executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association John Leonard, talk about how competitive sports instill leadership, discipline, work ethic and many other admirable qualities in those who take part in them. Swimmers who are asked about how their sport has helped them in life will often tell of similar things. Martha Hood, my fellow teammate who is also in her final year of college, feels that she would not be as far along in her degree without swimming. “It taught me dedication, and it gave my life a schedule. I know that I have to work hard for things that I want. They don’t just come,” she says.
These lessons and traits are invaluable, but the benefits such as those that athletes and coaches discuss are the appealing surface of what the sport can offer. Perhaps something deeper lies below. Swimming can give not only a structure to life, but a compelling reason to even live it fully as well. Now that I am watching myself near the end of my career as a collegiate athlete at University of Alaska Fairbanks, I have been thinking about how swimming has impacted my life. I have found that from the day of my first mom and tots lessons up until my senior year of college, swimming has carried me through life in the form of a caretaker, teaching me lessons along the way, but most importantly, it has taken me to where I need to be at each stage of my childhood. A year ago, I expected I would never be ready for swimming to not be a part of my daily routine, but now that it’s almost here I have a sense of calm because I feel that the sport has taken me as far as it can—and somehow, that’s ok.
It has been 19 years since I took my first swim lessons at the age of three. Four years after I learned to swim I joined the local club team, the Palmer Polar Bears, though despite being surrounded by other fast athletes it would be another four before I began to swim at a competitive level. Many of my peers chose to leave swimming behind after graduating high school, but for me, the fear of separating from what had become such a huge part of my identity propelled me into college.
Someone props open the door leading to the outside, and as the sub-zero air hits the warmth of the pool deck, white clouds roll over the water. The milky fog looks like a creepy Halloween effect designed to scare athletes into swimming faster to get away from the lurking ghouls. It soon becomes difficult to see the pace clock from 25 yards away. Within a few minutes, the usually frigid water temperature feels a little warmer.
Swimming can be a cruel master. It never gives you back more than exactly what you choose to sacrifice. I have spent the better part of my life saying, “I’m sorry. I can’t go. I have practice in the morning.” I sometimes wonder if the missed opportunities and potential fond memories never to be experienced were all worth it. But this sport is also a wise teacher, and it has guided me well through every part of my life, despite earlier curfews and shortened Christmas breaks due to long training trips.
Growing up, I was always a cautious kid. I was quiet, introverted, an only child with a special hatred for change, and a strong propensity towards home sickness if I was ever forced to leave the comfort of my family. I often spent sleepovers staying up long after the lights went out, wondering what my parents were up to at home, and wishing I was there instead of on someone else’s floor. But my love of swimming outweighed any fear or uncertainty. There was no disappointment in life that couldn’t be solved by a particularly challenging practice, and there was no greater high than that of a personal best time.
Once I began high school, that love only increased and never faltered. Ninth grade onward was different than what I was used to. My normality up until that point had consisted of quiet days spent at home, sometimes enjoying the company of one or two friends, with practice in the afternoon. In high school swimming, there were six-hour long bus trips to swim meets where I spent cozy nights sleeping with the ringworm on gym room floors, pre-championship meet shaving parties, and long walks down the Homer spit with quick dips into the salty ocean – as if swimmers couldn’t get enough of the water. There was the introduction to snarky, inappropriate humor and witty comebacks, and the flirting with the boys on the opposing teams, and of course the food – spaghetti feeds and pizza parties. This experience forced me out of my comfortable cave and away from my parents into a world where my swimming horizons expanded as quickly as my circle of friends. During my sophomore year of high school, I became more serious about my training, and my focus paid off when by my junior year I had broken three school records and medaled at state championships in the 100 freestyle.
By the end of high school, swimming had become the psychological therapy I didn’t know that I needed, but it had also become all of who I was. With graduation looming in the near future, I had to make the Big Decision. Would I go to college? Due to my fear of the outside world, my first instinct was a strong and decisive no, but my identity was so tied to the one thing I loved in the world that I really had little choice. Either I stay at home, safe from all the things that scared me, or I find a way to keep swimming. The thought of not swimming was far more disconcerting. So, I enrolled at UAF, worried about the smallest details such as when I would get time to eat or how I would find my classes. All I knew was that I would be fine as long as I could swim.
“You’re like something a goddess sent me,” Most days several levels of thought are going through my head at any given time while I swim. This particular practice, I’m singing Ed Sheeran’s “Barcelona” over and over in my head to pass the time. The second level of thought is contemplating the peanut butter banana toast I’ll be eating for breakfast, as well as feeling mild annoyance at one of my teammates who seems to be swimming a little faster than me. Lastly, and almost subconsciously, I’m counting. Counting has become a game for my mind. A way to get through the two hours while feeling at least partially in control. I am by no means good at math, but show me a swim workout and in a few minutes, I know a good estimate of the yardage and how long it will take me. The rest of the time I’m counting each set, carefully making sure I don’t miss any yards. Staring at a black line for four hours a day is either mind-numbing or a mind game and if you don’t find something to do you will be in danger of turning into the interview version of Ryan Lochte. And most likely without the gold medals.
When swimming pushed me into college I was just as fearful as when it had dropped me off at the doors of high school, but this time I was even more on my own than before. Many things that are normal to me now, were a challenge during that first semester. Besides not knowing what to major in, I had no idea how to email a professor or even study for an exam. For most of my freshman year it didn’t occur to me to ever seek or ask for help in any way. I assumed no one cared if I failed, and that it was completely up to me to keep my head above water. It was attending college that taught me these things, but swimming was the initial catalyst for getting me there in the first place.
Over the last four years, the role of swimming has changed for me; it has become more of something that I do, rather than all of who I am. For the first time in my life I have become interested in what I was studying, and more involved with people who are not my teammates. My identity has developed into something different than just “athlete” or “swimmer.” I am now a “journalism student,” “exchange student,” “lover of adventure,” and more recently, “photographer.” When I went on a semester of exchange during my sophomore year, no one I met in England ever found out, or really even cared that I was a college athlete. Across the world I was “American” and “Alaskan,” and my identity was not bound to early morning swim practice or National Championship cuts.
The turbulent water relaxes into calm swirls as my team finishes our set. I push off the wall into a smooth backstroke, and as I warm down, I glance at the UAF record board as it looms above my head. That 100 freestyle time is still up there next to someone else’s name, but I realize now that breaking records was not what I came here for. I came to this school, not to leave a legacy, but to be a student of life. I came here to learn to exist without swimming.
Along this road I’ve felt as if the sport of swimming has formed some sort of subconscious in the back of my head, pushing me towards what I’ve needed at that particular time. Now, it’s as if swimming is sending me out towards the rest of my life into the unknown. For most college athletes, graduation marks the end of their competitive career; I will be no different. This is just as unnerving as it was three and seven years ago when I started high school and college, but this time I feel prepared. Something tells me that my sport has taken me as far as it can. College was the transition into the conclusion of life as I know it, and from the end of the school year onward I will be on my own. But I know I’ll be fine, because on the dark mornings before practice, or during the quiet warm-down swim after a grueling set, I can almost hear the water whispering in my ear, “You won’t need me for much longer. But man, did we have a good long run.”
About Katie Stark
Katie Stark has been swimming in Alaska for the past 19 years. She is currently in her senior year as a collegiate athlete at University of Alaska Fairbanks, and will graduate in the spring with a degree in journalism and a minor in psychology. Her passions include photography, writing, traveling, swimming and baking the perfect pan of brownies.