Shouts From the Stands: The Gift of Water

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send [email protected]

This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Heather Wagner, a swim mom and member of a master’s swim team in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Is it possible for something to completely break you as an athlete, but than later provide physical healing, mental therapy, personal acceptance and extreme gratitude for the sport? It took almost 25 years, but yes, swimming has done just that.

I have spent the majority of my adult life pretending I am not really a swimmer and frankly not believing or acknowledging I am an athlete at all. I discussed this with my Master’s coach George Heidinger last year and these sometimes creep in. Even as adults, we are all bombarded by people asking, “What are you training for?” It seems everyone I encounter expects me to do an Ironman, a triathlon, a marathon, an ultra, or even a mud run. Seriously, I live in Olympic City. The athletes here are off the charts, inspiring and world class all the way. Your average weekend warrior is killing it on the trails, on the road and track, on the bike and or even in the pool. Most days I do not consider myself an athlete because I don’t have a big race every month, which I know is complete hogwash, but it is easy to believe. I train to feel good, have a good workout, and heal my body. My last few years in the pool are slowly bringing me a little clarity and wisdom. There are so many complex reasons why I run from this “swimmer” or “athlete” label. Sure, there’s some self-deprecation involved, but I think at the heart of the matter is, in my young adult athletic career, swimming completely shattered me and I have tried unsuccessfully to de-associate with it in the depths of my brain.

First, there were the physical injuries sustained from a combination of years of arduous 1980’s style distance training and a little bad luck in the genetics department. I have incredibly loose ligaments and tendon connective tissue issues. While these things actually helped me become a good athlete, they also have made me prone to injury. Eventually I hit the point where my shoulders not only had bouts of severe inflammation and tears, but they literally could not stay in socket each stroke. It’s kind of hard to swim fast when that is happening. I concluded my college swimming career, rehabbing the left shoulder post full-reconstruction to come back and have the same thing happen to the right shoulder. I was left spending ridiculous hours in the training room and sitting after practice everyday with ice bags in severe pain, certain most of my teammates didn’t believe me. Because, yes, they were physically beat down too. And I felt so guilty about all of it.

Second, the real breakdown was the psyche. Every athlete has heartbreak and that is completely part of sport. However, as I was maturing into a young woman and defining myself I was hit with incredible disappointment. I never seemed to measure up to expectations whether they were external or more often, self-imposed. My biggest heartbreak, was missing the NCAA cut line by 1 person my freshman year of college. I was a decent 200 freestyle swimmer (best on the team), but since I wasn’t top 4 in the 50 or 100, I didn’t even get to go to NCAA’s for relays. This tore me apart. As the college years progressed, I buried myself with training and school but right or wrong, I felt like I was always in trouble. Apparently, I spent too much time studying and didn’t care enough about the pool despite not missing a single workout through illness, injury, and class schedule. I gave 100% day in day out, but unfortunately, it was clear to me that my shoulders were injured because my weight fluctuated up and down 3 pounds or because I didn’t care enough to swim correctly. I finished my college career full of self-doubt, confusion, and an inability to believe in the strengths of my own decisions. What I have concluded as I swim now, is I was TIRED. Mentally TIRED with no idea how to make a change. I had done the same thing day in day out since I was 12, even all the same training and methods. I had all strokes other than freestyle taken away from me even in practice. Not only did this completely perpetuate an overuse injury, it mentally fatigued me and broke me down to a point of no return. I could not self-advocate or take personal responsibility for my success, which is exactly what I should have been doing.

Despite all this, a huge part of me still absolutely loved the sport of my youth and I didn’t want it to end. I thrived on the physical work, the camaraderie with my teammates, and the little successes in the pool. I knew so many others who left the sport, just as broken as I, but I wouldn’t let it go until there was, in my mind, a concrete finish line. Today that seems so arbitrary, but at the time it’s what I wanted. When college was over I quit swimming cold turkey, pretty convinced I may never get in the pool again. I was no longer a swimmer. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be that upset about any of this. In the entire scheme of things, I knew these were not real problems. It was time to move on and just forget about it. I had so much more going on my life and this was just one chapter.

During my last semester of engineering school (post swimming), the headaches started. At 22, I had severe debilitating, non-stop, feeling hung over all day, everyday type headaches. My years as an athlete made me tough and I learned how to power through and get work done. Even so, I spent my entire twenties trying to seek answers. General practice doctors, neurologists, chiropractors, jaw doctors. So many meds and so many treatments with no real value. Moderate exercise was always the key management strategy that helped the most. I tried a few times to get into the pool, but would literally get out after a 50 or 100. I picked up running instead. Everyone was running marathons. I ran my share of 10Ks and half marathons but was always injured when training for a marathon. My stupid tendons were not cooperating. At this point I started the internal monologue, “I am not much of an athlete. I just run for fitness. ” I knew ex-college teammates doing world-class triathlons, and I couldn’t even finish a full random local marathon in Dallas.

In 2000, my husband and I moved to Colorado. We had always vacationed to the mountains and absolutely loved them and felt at peace within them. I found work with a startup and got us a move package. I fell in love with the trail immediately, whether it was hiking, mountain biking, and trail running or skiing. As often happens, over the next few years, work became more intense and I started to experience back-pain along with my continued headaches. In 2003, my doctor found scoliosis (which I always had, but just didn’t know it) and encouraged me to swim again. A colleague from work got me back in the water two mornings a week with a group of women. We worked hard and swam together for 4-5 years through ups and downs and each of our pregnancies. I am so grateful for that time and for the gift of just getting back in the water. It was at this time, I finally remembered that the pool could be therapeutic both physically and mentally. This was especially true while being pregnant. It was so much better than running or even walking. The buoyancy effect alone was so great for my body. Eventually, our group fizzled, as we all settled into work and raising our families. Over the next 10 years, I still swam a couple of times a week either on my own or with various masters groups in town. It always made me feel better.

As almost every mother of toddlers I know does, I attempted to prove I wasn’t washed up, boring and un-cool which is how I felt almost on a daily basis. What do you do in Colorado Springs in this situation? You are extremely rational and decide to race up a mountain. Over the next few years, my husband I participated in multiple races up Pikes Peak and Imogene Pass out in Telluride, ran mountains in Crested Butte, and I even did XTerra triathlons. I was never really that good, a middle of the packer, but I had to do it for some reason. The trail really is my spiritual place and racing on the trail felt like the obvious next step. Unfortunately, I had a nagging hamstring injury and on my last mountain race I experienced an awful bout of sickness and vertigo that kicked me into another 9- month intractable migraine. This led me to seek answers, again.

The next four years were a whirlwind of every type of doctor, but mostly neurologists. I was tested for everything and tried almost every type of headache and seizure medication a person could try. If a severe side effect was listed, I most likely got it. Due to all these meds and the chaos in the world around me, I went down a dark spiral of mental side effects so many times. I honestly don’t quite know how I got out, but I did. My neurological system was pretty messed up. I couldn’t sleep and had terrifying dreams when I did. I was certain I was Bipolar. The mania scared me more than anything. I couldn’t even read a newspaper article or listen to the news. I screamed when I got too many text messages or emails from co-workers. It was all too overwhelming. The sounds of gunshots in an action film put me into a ball that simply couldn’t move. Sometimes I wanted to go to the ER and I didn’t know why. I feel fortunate that this happened to me when I was older and wiser because deep down I knew it wasn’t right and I had to do something. My family was incredibly patient. I worked with my primary doctor and stopped all meds. And, swimming was there. I still went to the pool two or three days a week. I remember so many early cold mornings being in an absolute brain fog and swimming in what felt like the Bell Jar. It was a dream. It wasn’t real. I was floating through this liquid like I was in some science fiction movie. Somehow, I got through it, and came out of the pool each time. Often, I had to flip over and backstroke, because yes, I was having a major panic attack. It sounds strange, but there was also something incredibly visual in the pool that helped me. For some reason, putting on those goggles isolated my field of vision in a way that reduced the over-stimulating noise of the ridiculous world around me.

As my nervous system slowly started to settle, life with our kids picked up and we found a new swim team for our son. That’s when I met George and Anna and Pikes Peak Athletics. They were different: calm, professional, yet inspiring and hard working. About six months in, I decided to start swimming with George’s Masters group a couple mornings a week instead of on my own. I panicked a bit because it was at the Olympic Training Center and is setup 50 meters. I had not swum long-course in over 20-25 years. This is a tough group but I found it incredibly fun and rewarding with amazing people each having their unique reasons for swimming. This was the first time in a while I had someone on deck truly caring not only about the group workout, but the individual too (My high school coach was like this and I am ever grateful how he kept me in the sport). They really wanted each swimmer to get something out of it, whatever that may be, and I did. I swam my first swim meet in over 20 years and was happy with the result.

I continued to nurse my almost weekly headaches and my chronic hamstring injuries. I was still frustrated not trail running as much as I wanted. Back in November, I reinjured the leg so bad that I would just randomly fall over when walking. Even so, I could go to the pool and swim. The hamstring would completely lock up and I couldn’t kick, but guess what, I didn’t fall down! I’ve learned swimming is always there to take the pressure off my joints, alleviate my chronic migraines, and help me recover and heal. How are my shoulders? They aren’t great. But do you know what is good for scar tissue? Movement. I can work ridiculously hard in the pool and not feel completely trashed the next day. Swimming is always there to help me clear my head. Whether it is a work problem, a parenting dilemma, a team parent drama, or the political and social pressures of life, the pool is “therapy.” George often reminds me this is the best “therapy.” As annoying at it is, more often than not, this reminder comes on some of the worst practices of my life. That’s when we need it the most.

Work and family take priority some years, but thanks to my husband’s hard work, I wasn’t working as much and swam a little more this past year. I couldn’t swim the Colorado State Meet in March so I chose to go to the 2019 Spring Masters Nationals in Phoenix instead. I didn’t know what to expect and was pleasantly surprised. The meet was HOT and incredibly LONG, but full of inspirational stories. I met a 75-79 year old 100 butterfly record holder right before my 50 free, witnessed 80 something’s completing the 1650, laughed with competitors about adults putting on tech suits, and visited with old friends. Somehow, the stars all aligned and I swam faster than I ever thought possible, and came home with National Titles. I was privileged to witness my teammates surprise themselves with epic swims and also earn National Titles while other teammates achieved best times! I had the opportunity to meet and swim relays with Colorado Swimmers who are inspiring, fast and fun. As thrilling and validating this was, I will continue to remind myself daily how fortunate I am just to have the gift of the water. Racing and winning is really just a bonus; it’s icing on the cake. It doesn’t sustain you. But every once in a while, we all need a little frosting!

About Heather Wagner

Heather Wagner is a semi-retired engineer in Colorado Springs who is a swim mom and can usually be found carpooling and volunteering at her kids swim meets or school. During her free-time she is often trying to “not be found” on a trail somewhere. Monday, Wednesday and Fridays she’s usually on-deck next to Lane 7 with her Master’s Swim Team procrastinating getting into the pool.

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Coach Mike 1952
3 years ago

Thanks for the great story Heather. Was in the Springs just a few months back, drove down from Denver. Love it there in “Colo Spgs”.

Reply to  Coach Mike 1952
3 years ago

Thanks Coach Mike 1952. I have absolutely loved living in Colorado Springs