Five Tips For Transitioning From Swimmer To Swammer Life

Courtesy: Jessie O’Dea Walker

On the third day of the 2024 A-10 Swimming & Diving Championship, I sat on the bleachers with a group of seniors from the University of Richmond (UR) women’s swim team. I’d spent the season coaching part-time at my alma mater, and it was bittersweet to see this group approach the finish line of their careers.

We casually chatted about the swimmers’ impending retirement, and I heard the tone of their voices fluctuate between giddiness and trepidation as we discussed life after competitive swimming.

“I’m going to look like a lost puppy when I go to the gym for the first time,” one of them laughed.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with all the extra time,” another swimmer said with a smile.

“I’m kind of nervous swimming is my only talent,” one more quietly confided. “What if I’m not good at anything else?”

This conversation stuck with me long after the women dove into the pool for warm-ups that day, and it’s still on my mind several weeks later.

I thought the transition to swammer life would be easy when I hung up my racing goggles 10 years ago, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve written a lot about this time in my life, trying to unravel what felt like a complicated breakup between myself and the sport. In fact, the book I wrote as part of my MFA thesis explored this very topic.

The reality is that I struggled, and I was embarrassed to admit I was having a tough time as a new swammer. I wish there had been a more open dialogue around the realities of retirement when I went through this change, which is why I want pass along some insights from my own experience.

These are tips I wish someone had shared with me when I was a new swammer.

1. Know that your final race, meet, or season doesn’t define your career.

If you’re one of the lucky ones, you swam all best times at your last meet and had an incredible final season. Maybe you even had some sort of heroic final race; one you’ll tell your grandkids about years from now.

If that’s the case, good for you. However, this was not my experience. I finished my career on a low note, and the sting that accompanied this disappointing end stuck with me for a long time. My thoughts were an endless loop of what-ifs. What if I hadn’t gotten injured before my final championship meet? What if I’d swum my last race instead of scratching it? What if things had ended differently?

It’s okay to acknowledge all these what-ifs, but if I could go back in time and give younger me a little advice, I’d encourage myself to zoom outward when thinking about my time as a swimmer. Today, with a little more perspective, I understand that a final race, meet, or season – good or bad – doesn’t define your career.

Instead of fixating on the lasts, try to think of your career as an extended highlights reel. What do you remember about your best swims? Is there a favorite memory you have with your teammates? What did a not-so-great race teach you? What lifelong friends did you make because of the sport?

If this doesn’t shift your mindset and you’re still caught up on how things ended, it might help to know that over the past 10 years, I’ve talked to more and more swammers who were disappointed with how their careers ended. Even some of my swimming role models have disclosed how much they struggled after an unsatisfactory finale. All this to say, you are not alone if you didn’t have the hero’s ending you wanted. In fact, it’s way more normal than you might think.

2. Develop a new workout routine you enjoy, but also accept that your body is going to change.

Most swammers are pretty dang happy to say goodbye to two-a-day workouts and the grueling student-athlete schedule, but it’s a little harder to bid adieu to the physique that accompanies this way of life. Your body is inevitably going to change, and this can be tough to accept. I’m not embarrassed to say I struggled in this area and wasn’t always nice to the body I saw in the mirror.

But please be kind to yourself, and don’t go to crazy lengths to over-exercise or limit your meals. I know far too many swammers who ended up with exercise addictions or eating disorders after retiring from the sport. Now is the time to find a new balance that works for you.

As you seek this balance, take the time to find new workouts you enjoy. Emphasis on the word “enjoy”! I, for example, went heavy on running for a while because I figured it was cardio-heavy like swimming. As it turns out, I kind of hate running. I should have stopped pounding the pavement long before I placed my running shoes in a Goodwill bag.

It took me a few years to figure out what type of workouts I like and what would mesh well with my new schedule out in the working world. For me, I found a happy balance doing a mix of activities. Now throughout the week, I lift, spin, do yoga, and swim (often for recovery). That’s just me, though. I know other swammers who love in-person bootcamp-style workouts, while others are diehard yogis. Everyone is different.

One hurdle I encountered early on in my swammer-hood was that gyms and workout classes can be expensive on a new grad’s budget. However, you can get creative here and earn free or discounted classes. For example, a friend taught me that you could sign up to wipe down the yoga studio after classes at Corepower Yoga to earn a discounted membership. And if you experience sticker shock when you go to join a gym, see if there’s a pool and offer to teach a few swim lessons in exchange for a free or discounted membership. You’ll probably get paid for the lessons too, and that extra pocket change is great for new grads.

3. Take care of your mental health.

I started visiting a therapist in college through UR’s counseling center and saw major benefits. However, I naively thought my anxiety and depression would ease up once I was no longer training and competing. So, once I graduated and moved back home, I didn’t continue with therapy and my anxiety and depression gradually worsened. I ignored all the warning signs and let my mental health go downhill for several years before seeking help again.

The transition from swimmer to swammer life is an odd journey and, if you’re like me, you might feel a little bit like Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” discovering her feet during this time. But you don’t have to muscle through this transition alone. There is no shame in speaking with a licensed professional during this process; in fact, I wish I could go back in time and take this advice myself.

There are so many great mental health treatment options available today that didn’t exist 10 years ago. Virtual therapy wasn’t really a ‘thing’ when I graduated, but now there are popular online therapy options like Talkspace and Betterhelp. Sure, these options aren’t free and will have to be part of your budget, but I promise your mental health is worth the investment.

During my quest to find affordable therapy options, I also discovered that some practices partner with local universities where graduate students are working towards their degrees in psychiatry/psychology. I found a local practice that partnered with PhD students to offer free counseling services in exchange for working hours toward the students’ degree. I was a little hesitant to work with a student at first, but I gave it a try and had a fantastic experience. This is a great option if you’re on a tight budget but still want to seek help.

4. Embrace the opportunity to expand your identity beyond “swimmer” or “athlete.”

I remember at the beginning of the semester in class, or even when meeting new people in social settings, I’d almost always share that I was a swimmer. Being a swimmer was such a large part of my identity so, when I retired, it was daunting to figure out who I was without it.

It would be foolish for me to try and offer up some sort of formula for reimagining your identity; there’s no right or wrong way. But if I can humbly share one nugget of advice as you go through this, it’s to avoid making a job your new identity.

As you enter the working world, it’s tempting to approach your job like a sport. I certainly did. I decided my entry-level job would become my new obsession, and that I’d climb the corporate ladder with the same intensity I used in the pool. Spoiler alert: it didn’t end well. I worked overtime with no compensation and responded to emails at all times of day and night, and this simply wasn’t sustainable. I had very little balance in my life, and I started to feel burnt out from a career I’d barely even started.

So, instead of doing what I did, I encourage you to set boundaries. End your workday at a reasonable hour and sign up for activities outside of work that might become part of your evolving identity. Make time for new hobbies that can turn into new passions. Strive for a well-rounded swammer life!

5. Talk to alumni and other swammers, but also challenge yourself to make new NARP friends.

In a perfect world, alums of your program and other swammer friends will reach out to see how your transition from swimmer to swammer is going. But this world is far from perfect, so you might have to reach out to these folks instead. When you do, be vulnerable and ask questions. Tell them how you are coping and ask what their experience was like. And if they tell you how easy it was for them, take their response with a grain of salt. Don’t forget that we live in the age of social media where maintaining a picture-perfect image is paramount to so many.

Now is also a great time to make some new NARP (non-athletic regular person) friends. You’ve likely had a built-in friend group consisting of your teammates the past several years, but now is the time to branch out beyond your swim clique. And, because teammates are a lot like family in that you don’t get to choose them, I challenge you to think about the values that are important to you in a friendship. Treat it like dating and don’t feel guilty if your values don’t align with someone else’s. Just keep looking! These more “adult” friendships can be so meaningful.

I’ll end with a disclaimer: everyone’s experience with athletic retirement is different, and these unsolicited tips are based on my personal experience alone. So, please take what you need and leave what you don’t.

You’ve got this, new swammers! Welcome to the club, and please know there’s a whole community of competitive swimming retirees who are eager to support you during this journey.

About Jessie O’Dea Walker

Jessie O’Dea Walker is a nonfiction writer and former competitive swimmer based in Richmond, Virginia. She grew up in Baltimore and swam for North Baltimore Aquatic Club (NBAC) before going on to study and compete at the University of Richmond (UR).

Walker earned her M.F.A. from the University of Baltimore, and her writing has appeared in the Under Review, Black Fork Review, Invisible Illness, and other publications. Learn more at jessieodeawalker.com.

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What the what
14 days ago

So you’re saying seeking adrenaline rushes with risky activities, joining the military, drinking way too much and sexually acting out isn’t the right way to go? Oops. I suppose I’m lucky I’ve lived to tell the tale.

Elizabeth PW
17 days ago

Love this!! Nice work Jessie!

DMSWIM
17 days ago

I’m 14 years out from my college swimming career, and it’s crazy to think that I have friends and colleagues that I have no idea I was a swimmer. It was my identity for so long, and now I’m known for so many other wonderful things. It takes a while, but it’s a wonderful place to be!
I second the advice to get help from a mental health professional. So many values I learned in swimming, such as being committed to something no matter what, don’t translate as well to the real world and negatively impacted how I interacted with others. I was very hard on myself in my job and personal life due to the high standards I… Read more »

Keith Smith
17 days ago

Enjoyed the article Jessie. If Swammer is past tense, what term do you use for a retired 32 year swim coach? 😀

Anicia
17 days ago

Such powerful advice and very well written!

Happy Slappy
18 days ago

Rule #1. Stop using the phrase “swimmer”

What the what
Reply to  Happy Slappy
14 days ago

Is one word a phrase?

Admin
Reply to  What the what
13 days ago

A phrase can be one word long, yes. Thank you for coming to grammar-grammared.

Brien Gerber
18 days ago

My one addition is to be open to dietary adjustments! The transition to swammer goes way faster than your mental appetite does 😛

What the what
Reply to  Brien Gerber
14 days ago

Facts!!!

Jillian Smaniotto
18 days ago

amazing piece from my awesome friend and former teammate! loved this, jessie!