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This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Emily Nielsen, a former varsity swimmer at Millikin University.
It was a breath of fresh air that burned my lungs with fire. The very last race of a twelve-year career was over. I was done. In some ways I was finally set free. There was no longer the easy option to continuously batter my already broken body to the ground. No one was telling me to look forward to next year, only congratulations on the end. The reality of that fact is something I had not thought of until Blake wrapped his arm around me and announced my split with pride and excitement, expecting the same reaction. How confusing must it have been to have me breakdown instead.
Just shy of four years later, those last minutes are branded into my memory. For the entirety of my career, my most hated race was the 400 yard freestyle relay. It’s always the last event of a swim meet. While most of my teammates sat warm and clothed on the bench, four of us still wore damp, circulation constricting wisps of suits, wrapped in slightly less than soaked towels trying not to shiver. My body already spent from the races previously completed, it was always hard to imagine one more all out sprint. But this was the last one. Hatred wasn’t what I was feeling at all. The dread of that last sprint wasn’t on my mind. From behind the starting block I stared at the water, watching it ripple gently against the lane lines, while failing to come to terms with the still inconceivable thought of the last race.
I could feel the inflamed muscles of my right shoulder protest slightly as I attempted to loosen the joint a little. The familiar heat and stiffness was almost welcomed. It was grounding and real. Until a spark of pain raced down into my rib cage, setting the dull pain on fire for just a moment. The sudden realization that this pain could and would end in a matter of minutes sparked an initial fleeting moment of excitement. While I was still struggling with the idea of my last race, my mind and shoulder were ready to be rid of this particular brand of pain.
The official blew his whistle and the chattering voices on the deck quieted. The undercurrent of tension became loud and prominent. I wrapped my hands around the sides of the starting block, the rough grooves biting into my palms, soothing uncontrollable nerves. A crack sounded around the arena as the speaker switched on. Without thought, I followed the ingrained instructions robotically. Step Up. Breathe in. Breathe out. Grind my foot against the slanted platform for security. Take your mark. Grip the block. This was it.
Just before the starting beep, the world stopped for a fraction of a second as it always did. The reality of it all sunk in. I could tear through the muscles of my permanently injured shoulder and not worry about the next race, or the next meet, or the next season. There was no next anything. Instead of listening to the ingrained mantra of being careful for the sake of being healthy, I could choose to break my body instead. That was the last coherent and liberating thought that flashed before I hit the water.
I gained and lost a lot that day. After the event was over, I hobbled back to the bench and my stuff. With my shoulder hot and throbbing and my body numb with the anticipation of eventual pain, Blake informed me of my split. It was the fastest I had ever gone, which would count as an individual time, since I was first on the block. He was bouncing, as one of the three who had ever seen me absolutely mentally and physically shattered, he knew what it meant to see that time on the board. That’s when the tears started. Whether they were from the pain or from the final realization that it was really over I still don’t know.
As I walked out of the locker room an hour later, it was as if I was breathing clean air for the first time, and still am. I bear the invisible consequences of that last race, and those years prior in the soreness of my shoulder on a rainy day or the stiffness in my joints on a winter morning. The pain reminds me that I said goodbye to an intrinsic part of my identity, something I still haven’t fully replaced. Though I can look back and find the happy through the pain. I can remember the strength in struggle and hopelessness. I can be happy that I haven’t gone back in these last four years. And I can be terrified of the prospect that in 2020 I am going to train again.
About Emily Nielsen
Emily Kathryn has grown up in water. It started with summers in her grandparent’s backyard swimming pool and progressed from there. She started her competitive swimming career in Chicago’s south suburbs at the age of eleven because her parents were adamant that she and her siblings be safe during the weekend trips to Lake Michigan.
In high school, Emily was a part of the record-breaking 400 freestyle relay but as a junior in she hit a bump in the road with a shoulder injury that would affect her for the last six years of her career. She committed to Millikin University’s Women’s Varsity Swim Team in 2012 and spent the next four years fighting her injury and chasing the 200 medley relay which her and her teammates broke during the last meet of her career in 2016.
Emily has coached for the Decatur Special Olympics Swim team and plans on coming out of retirement in 2020 to train for the Chicago Triathlon.