Finding Happiness, Even In Failure

Written and courtesy of Caroline Vexler

I wanted my final year of swimming to be a breakthrough season. In my two best events, the 100 and 200 butterfly, I was sitting at the edge of barriers, and I was ready to shatter them. My junior spring I barely took a week off after the Ivy League Championship meet. Over the summer I took a job in DC but I trained with a local team every day before work. I came back to Brown on a mission, and I charged into the season.

I was in the best shape of my life. I was easily hitting times in practice that I would not have dreamed of in years past. In the weight room I was stronger than ever before. In dual meets I was confident and steadfast. I overcame my anxiety and I raced no matter how I was feeling. Shoulder injury reoccurring? Not a problem. A month-long battle with bronchitis? Shake it off. When Ivies arrived I felt confident and on top of the world.

The first two days went well. I went best times on a relay and an off event. The third day prelims session everything fell apart. During prelims of my best event I choked on water and missed the championship final of the 100 fly. I was devastated, but not shaken. I told my coach I would simply have to swim my goal time out of the consolation heat instead. It was unfortunate, but I was still completely confident I could do it. But in finals I fell short again. I followed it up with the worst 400 medley relay split I had ever swum at Ivies. I was shocked, and incredibly disappointed in myself. More than anything else I felt that I had let my teammates and coaches down and I cried myself to sleep that night.

The next morning when I woke up I knew something was wrong. I could feel it in my bones, in my head, and in my lungs. A few of my teammates had already come down with a fever and I instantly knew I was burning up. I didn’t choke, literally or metaphorically in my races. I was sick, and later I would test positive for influenza strain A. I’d like to say that I handled the realization with grace and strength. I did not.

In the span of a few hours I had to change my goals from swimming the fastest times I had ever dreamed to merely finishing my race. I showed up to prelims half-panicked and half-crying. I pulled away from my teammates because the very least I could manage was not to spread my negativity. I somehow pulled myself together to sufficiently finish my race and make the consolation final again.

In between prelims and finals I burned through two doses of extra strength Tylenol and it was clear that swimming finals would not be an intelligent choice. I could barely stay standing, let alone race. I immediately knew that I would swim anyway. Why? What was the point? Was it for myself? All of my goals were beyond achievable. Was it for my team? My point contribution would be negligible and I had already let everyone down so badly in my lack of presence on deck. Why bother?

I swam a 200 butterfly with a 104-degree fever because I love the sport and this was my last chance to do it with a Brown University cap on my head. I was so consumed in achieving my goals and trying to do right by my team that I forgot why I swim. I love swimming and I love racing. I didn’t remember this until moments before my race, when the timing system mercifully broke down gave me a few minutes’ pause. I was in tears standing behind the blocks as my fever climbed higher while my teammates tried to me to make me smile. I thought about my mother doing the same for the nervous five-year old swimmer at her first meet. In all those years in between I have stuck by this sport for one reason alone: I love it.

As swimmers we function by setting goals. We set a goal, we miss it, and we try again. We achieve a goal, and then we set a new one. Failure is part of the process and I had failed repeatedly. I made many mistakes over my sixteen years as a swimmer and I learned from all of them. Some years I didn’t put in the work and the outcome was disappointing but not surprising. Some races I overswam, or underswam, or let nerves get the best of me. But getting the flu is not an error you can learn from.

Sometimes you cannot learn from your failures. I swam the most ridiculous 200 butterfly with an eight second gap between my first and last 50s. There is nothing I can take away from that race to improve for next time, because there is no next time. I failed on every goal I set for myself and still I was overwhelmed with joy at the end of my race because I had fun and I was surrounded by my best friends.

To the rest of the seniors who are finishing their championship season: I hope that you achieve everything you deserve. I hope that you meet every goal, break every barrier, and set every record. I also hope that you remember how much you love swimming, and the people around you who make the pain worthwhile. If you can do that, even if you fail as spectacularly as I did, I promise, you will still be happy.


Bio: Caroline Vexler is a senior at Brown University where she holds school records in the 100 butterfly, 200 medley relay, and 400 medley relay. She is now a competitive swammer, but a lifelong swimmer. If she does not achieve her dream of becoming Rowdy Gaines’ co-anchor, next year she will be attending graduate school at the London School of Economics.

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Sports mom
5 years ago

I needed this. My hs Senior was on track as a sophomore in your same events. Got injured and it’s been a struggle. She swam her last 200 fly as a high school student and it was awful. But it was gorgeous and inspiring. For the love of the sport

5 years ago

Great perspective. Thank you for sharing this.

5 years ago

Getting sick right before or at the Big Meet is one of the worst things that can happen to a swimmer.

Maybe even worse is when it’s your Last Meet as well.

There’s no one to blame, but it’s still very disappointing. You gave it all you had, so be proud of that.

Marty DeBruhl
5 years ago

Great story, to often people focus only on the end results in life, while forgetting it’s the journey itself such as making friends and memories and being apart of something larger then yourself, which is the real joy!