As a collegiate swimmer, your conference meet—besides NCAAs—is the most important meet of the season. It is exciting, nerve-racking, stressful, and fun. Being a freshman, I didn’t exactly know what I was getting myself into. I knew that people always swam fast at their conference meet and every team paced the deck like mad men and women screaming their swimmers on. Little did I know the underlying anxiety that continued to build as the meet came closer and closer.
When we arrived to the meet, the atmosphere was nothing like I’ve ever experienced before. Everybody looked like they were on a mission. This wasn’t like any age group meet. These were collegiate athletes who were experienced enough to know what they had to do to prepare to race well. Swimmers were either in the pool or on deck warming up, getting a massage, or talking to their coach. I, on the other hand, was focused on everybody else and in awe, trying to take in such a different environment than what I was used to. I didn’t know it at the time, but my level of anxiety was high due to the fact that I still felt like a little age group swimmer compared to all of these older, faster swimmers.
I went through my regular warmup and knew my race plan like the back of my hand, but there was still something telling me that I wasn’t ready. As I dove in to race, a great wave of fear gave into me and my body shut down. I tried to fight it, but it took over me like a hungry shark. I felt weak and whatever my mind was thinking, my body followed suit. I ended up going into survival mode to just finish the race, but so many thoughts raced through my head. I thought about how I was disappointing my family, teammates, coaches, and especially myself.
In that moment, I felt like I failed everybody around me and that the monster inside me was too strong to fight.
After I finished my race, I immediately ran into the change room and broke down. Tears streamed down my face and there was a huge release of emotion that I was definitely not prepared for. It felt so good to let out all of my anxiety that was built up inside of me, even though I hadn’t known it was there.
When the meet was over, I took a significant amount of time to re-evaluate what had happened. I had done well at every meet beforehand and was on track to do just as well at my conference meet. However, I never took into consideration my anxiety as a determining factor as to whether or not I was going to do well.
Looking back at my first conference meet, I realized a couple of things.
First, I had already doubted myself going into the meet and if I ever said anything positive to myself, it was to cover up the fact that I was not confident in my abilities to do well. Going into the biggest meet of the season with that mentality greatly impacted the outcome of the meet.
Second, I was watching everybody else preparing for their races and never took the time to prepare and focus on my race. By focusing on others’ preparations, I lost focus and drive to prepare for my own race.
Third, I gave up. Once I knew that my biggest competitor was myself during the race, I let them win without fighting back.
What I failed to do was tell myself that there were many other swimmers thinking the same things that I was thinking. I belonged and earned my spot to swim at my conference meet. I was just as fast as any other swimmer there, but I failed to believe this.
After reflecting long and hard, I’ve come to terms with my poor performance and am ready to tackle the next season even harder than the last. Although I was extremely disappointed in myself, it was a huge learning curve in realizing how important mental training has on high pressure meets.
If you’ve had a bad meet or race because your anxiety was holding you back, know this. The pressure, stress, and anxiety that you are feeling is felt by almost all swimmers. There are those who can handle that feeling of anxiety and those who struggle with it, like me. You are not alone. Don’t give up and push on. Make your focus next season to be on your mental health because your mental training should be just as important as the work that you put into the pool. With patience and practice, I am confident that you will find your success in the pool and conquer the battle of anxiety that haunts so many.
My name is Alexandra Fabugais-Inaba and I live in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. I swim for the Oakville Aquatic Club, but am currently a freshman on Rutgers University’s Swimming and Diving team. I specialize in mid distance freestyle events and am planning to double major in Journalism and Media Studies and Biological Sciences.