Ask any serious swimmer, and they will tell you that the pool is a place for working out both physically and mentally.
For Brighton High School freshman Sam Rivera, a swimmer who boasts more triple- and quad-“A” cuts than not, and recently won Niagara Sectionals, the mental aspect has been life-changing.
Rivera was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome three years ago, but has struggled with anxiety, depression, and ADHD for much longer.
“We didn’t really know that I had Tourette’s or anything up until last year actually, and before that everybody just kind of thought I was looking for attention,” Rivera told SwimSwam. “Sometimes I make noises, and a lot of people thought I was just doing that to be funny and be a clown, but in reality, it was just a tic.”
Rivera now embraces his unique strengths, which he once saw as isolating weaknesses, to improve his swimming.
“The combination of Tourette’s as well as the ADHD gives me higher energy levels, much better focus on going fast and moving my arms and legs at top speed for maximum speed,” he said. “Quick reactions, just overall higher energy levels.”
His sentiment is one shared by 3-time Olympic gold medalist Anthony Ervin, who in his teens and early career learned to embrace his own Tourette’s diagnosis to empower him behind the blocks.
“Tourette’s is very difficult and alienating as a youth. However facing this adversity, much like any struggle, can give you your own form of strength,” Ervin told SwimSwam. “My struggles with Tourette’s as a youth became living with Tourette’s as an adult, and without a doubt contributed to my Olympic success.”
Among the contributing factors for Ervin was the ability to manage his anxiety in high-pressure situations, and a unique knowledge of how to relax and control his body, he told USA Today in 2017.
Sam’s mother, Leslie Hunter, added that Sam’s ability to vocalize his experiences, as well as the changing stigma around mental health, have contributed to his development: “Another piece is, of course, there was some reluctance to be verbal about it, but being verbal and acknowledging it allows you to own it, which then decreases some of the anxiousness within, that sometimes gets translated to the outside world as, as a negative.”
Rivera, who like Ervin enjoys sprints (but also swims longer distances: 4:55.81 500 free, 1:45.89 200 free, 49.43 100 free, 23.88 50 free, 54.66 100 back), added that swimming has allowed him to stay off medication that once caused adverse side effects.
“We tried medication for about three weeks – this was two or three years ago – but it made me super drowsy and my practicing wasn’t very good,” Rivera said. “So I got off the medication and just focused on strategies to help cope without any medication.”
Additionally, Rivera credits his teammates with helping him excel in practice.
“My club teammates as well as my high school teammates, a lot of them don’t even think of me as having Tourette’s or ADHD – well, the ADHD is pretty obvious. I’m just another teammate, and they just push me to be my best without any discrimination,” he said.
His mother also credits Sam’s coaches for offering him a safe space to evolve both as a swimmer and as a person.
“Finding that person, that person that you trust – the coach, a school counselor, a mental health provider… I have to give a lot of credit to the very first coach who met him every step of the way,” she said. “The good, the bad, the ugly, the emotional, the frustrated, the angry – just put there, wasn’t leaving. Finding that one person, that one mentor, really, really, especially with any kind of disability, is key.”
But when it comes to a strategy for success, for Rivera, it all goes back to mental game.
“Just keep a winning mindset; Don’t let anyone keep you down,” he said. “Stay focused on giving all you’ve got in practice and not selling yourself short. And don’t let anyone get into your head at meets, just stay in your zone and use your gift to push past everyone else.”