Life Lessons Learned from Swimming in the Eyes of a Physician

by SwimSwam Contributors 1

October 27th, 2020 Lifestyle

Courtesy: Lisa Hayes, MD

I’ve never considered myself a writer. I identify myself as a physician, mother, wife, and friend, not in any particular order. Never did I think I’d feel the urge to pick up my laptop and start writing. I guess it takes a pandemic to bring out a new side of you.

I remember joining my first swim team as an 8 and under. I jumped in the cold morning water and started to warm up. In typical 8 and under fashion, a few minutes in, and I was asking Coach to go and use the little girls’ room. Well, as you can imagine, Coach didn’t like that very much and being a sensitive 8-year-old, I decided I wasn’t going back.

A few years went by and I tried again as an older child and this time it was love at first (or second) sight. I grew to love my time in the water. It was my time to think; my time to process my day. I would review what I learned in school that day. Sometimes I would get lost in my thoughts, losing count of the laps, thankful that my very good friend swam first in the lane and I swam second.

I loved so many things about swimming. I loved the nervous, excited energy I felt before a race. That feeling of finishing a hard practice. The “good” soreness of your muscles. What I absolutely loved most about swimming was that feeling of accomplishment. Whether it was a hard set that I struggled through or an amazing race, it built confidence. Swimming became a part of me. I felt strong, not just physically but mentally. I felt comfortable in who I was becoming. In line with my values growing up, swimming ingrained in me that feeling of persistence, resilience even in your hardest moments. Long, hard practices sometimes lead to big improvements. But more often than not, they lead to gradual, small improvements and hopefully success.

When I decided to try to become a physician, I didn’t realize how my experiences in swimming would impact me. With some luck on my side, my medical school interviewer was a former-swimmer, physician. I remember her asking me, “how did you like those morning practices before organic chemistry?” I knew there was no answer needed as we understood each other. More importantly, swimming mentally prepared me to become a physician. The process of becoming a physician is not easy. There are moments you are so exhausted that you want to quit. Like anything in life, unless you live it, it’s hard to fully comprehend the sacrifices people make. Swimming and medical training have much in common. You make sacrifices to reach the outcomes and you push through with small improvements adding up to success.

This brings me to the pandemic. It has been challenging to say the least. Mentally and physically tiring. The hardest thing I have ever lived through. The worry is exhausting. As a mother and wife, I worry about my family and friends. As a physician, I worry about my community and patients and as a good citizen, I worry about humanity. This unimaginable time also leads to reflection. I reflect back on my swimming years and am thankful for the perseverance and determination swimming instilled in me. What I try to teach my children is that it’s okay to worry and have fears, but to be resilient and strong when trying to work through them, while being a good human at the same time.

Each day as a practicing physician during the pandemic, I use what I learned early on. Some say I’m an optimist. I think I’m a realist and see many sides to situations. No one knows the final outcome of this pandemic or when that finality will occur, but with persistence, hope, and resilience the end will be reached. Wherever life leads you, what you learn from swimming will remain with you and will benefit you along your journey.


Lisa Hayes, MD is a practicing Infectious Disease physician, mother of two children, and swim mom to one (and maybe two) in New York.  She holds a degree in psychology from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton, and is a graduate of SUNY Upstate Medical University where she was inducted into the Gold Humanism Honor Society. As an Assistant Professor of Medicine, she is a mentor to medical students and physicians in training.  She is a former intramural swimmer with a short stint in college swimming, and is eager to share the long term benefits of swimming outside of the pool and provide a positive outlook for young swimmers facing challenges of the pandemic.

Leave a Reply

Notify of
1 Comment
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Craig Sears
4 months ago

Great article! Completely agree on the importance of swimming for your physical and mental health. It is an exercise and therapy for life!