This is written by Kelsey Stimes. Kelsey is a high school senior who lives in Northern Illinois. She has been competitively swimming since the age of 7, making the pool deck feel like a second home to her. Currently, she swims for the Stateline Aquatic Team, as well as teach swim lessons to children of all ages. She is in the midst of finding the right college to live out the next 4 years of her life, with plans to major in Psychology or Public Health, followed by grad school to become a Physician Assistant. She is forever thankful to swimming for what it has taught her the past decade of her life, and want to continue sharing that message.
Junior year is crunch time for many swimmers: deciding on whether to continue their swimming career, how committed they want to be to swimming, where to recruit and apply to. I was in the midst of this quest, weighing the numerous traits of different schools for the crucial 4 years after high school. I had chosen to pursue swimming at a Division 1 school, deciding I could pony up to the intense but rewarding experience. I welcomed challenges throughout the years, both in the classroom and the pool, and wanted to continue this trait in college.
In November, I got the typical cold everyone seems to get around that time, so I shook it off and kept pushing myself. After being persistently sick for 2 weeks, I developed a body-shaking cough that gave me some strange looks at the pool. Cold medication wasn’t working, so I visited the doctor who prescribed an inhaler to clear up my bronchitis. I continued on with my schedule; I couldn’t stop my life in the middle of the season when I had so much riding on this year of training.
The bronchitis had a different plan: a week before Thanksgiving I pushed myself extra hard during a lactate set at practice, and I found myself wheezing like never before, turning my hands and feet numb from the lack of air. After a memorable first visit to the ER, my “just do it” mentality changed. I was already enrolled in 4 AP classes on top of a full swim schedule; maybe a short break would help me jump start my Christmas training.
I returned to the pool optimistic for a relatively quick rebound from the bronchitis. Nevertheless, after swimming a 100 I felt that familiar ragged breathing and heaviness setting in my muscles. I blamed it on taking 2 weeks off for recovery: I was bound to be hurting the first few practices. I continued for another 50, and again I felt short of breath, except this time it was followed by a coughing fit. I tried one more 50, then had to leave the pool deck just to get some air. This pattern continued for about 45 minutes, until I couldn’t take it anymore. It was going to be a long recovery.
A month later, the painful cough still stuck, except now I expected to always feel awful, and it took a toll on my mental approach to the workouts. I was one of those swimmers who was deemed “a pool junkie”: always there early for dryland, always one of the last ones to leave the pool, and a religious meet attendee; it would’ve practically taken a blizzard for me to miss a workout. Now I was reduced to coming for an hour 3 times a week, and I mostly kicked for practice. By this time I felt frustrated: I had such high hopes for this season; I wasn’t prepared to waste this much precious training time on a stubborn cough that should’ve been long gone. Now I was just battling to get through the day: at school people always knew I was in class because of my coughing, I would struggle through a part of practice, and be woken up 3 times a night with coughing attacks.
After testing for asthma (negative) and cycling through a plethora of inhalers and pills, I started to question how my championship meets would play out. My base was nonexistent, so what could I taper from? But I was determined to keep some pride in my swimming, and forced myself to push through the constant pain of practice. Every day I felt frustration at why the drugs hadn’t worked. Why did it have to be me who had to get sick? I was one of the most dedicated athletes on the team. I had some of the highest aspirations. I had pushed myself and pushed my teammates to make the most of practice. Why was my season the one seeming to be spit on by the swimming gods? For the remainder of the season I looked at practice as an obligation instead of an opportunity, telling myself to just get through this rep then I can stop and breathe. I felt like a hamster stuck in a wheel, spinning as fast as I could, only to be stopped by plastic walls that I could see through but couldn’t manage to push past.
The magical month of March rolled around, prompting taper time to gear up for my nationals meet. By this point of the season my coach and I looked at nationals as a hail mary: my goal of making a Futures cut in either backstroke event was far off on the horizon, any personal bests would be a welcome surprise, but we couldn’t pin any hopes on this meet. The past month I had done surprisingly well, pushing through about 75% of practice, with my only thoughts being about this nationals meet and not totally failing my expectations. I just had to push through the set, and it would all pay off. As a result, I thought maybe, with a tech suit and the crazy vibes only a nationals meet creates, I could pull out a magical race: crazier things had happened in this sport (ahem, Lezak, Phelps, and Ledecky).
The NASA Junior National Cup in Florida had always been my favorite meet, if for nothing else than the gorgeous pool. The first day I geared up for the 200 IM and 100 back. After pulling out a surprising IM, I went into the 100 back with a bit of my old swagger. I knew to just clear my head and race despite what I had to overcome the past 5 months, and swim through the pain. I pushed through that pain as much as I could in the 100, but I wasn’t ready for the feeling after the 100.
I hit the touchpad with a shaky hand, gasping and clawing for the wall so I could breathe again, and hesitantly looked at the board: I had gained over a second from my seed time, just barely breaking a minute. I felt that time punch me in the stomach, and my throat closed up. My suit suddenly felt too tight, like it was choking me. If I could punch the water and make it hurt like I was, I would’ve. The past 5 months had been a scrappy struggle to nail this race, making people think I was insane for training through this much sickness. Everyone had admired my determination to save the season. But after the first 2 months of being sick, I had given up on having a breakout season. I wanted to finish my season with some pride and self worth, to show that I was in control of my swimming, not that some invisible virus was. I trained out of spite, feeling anger at the universe for putting a brick wall in front of my biggest goals. I bargained that if I could push past my own physical boundaries and have a race that I could be proud to hang my goggles on, that would be a victory for me. No such thing was happening any time soon, and I wasn’t ready for that realization.
I groped at the edge of the pool until I could crawl onto the deck and fall into the warm down pool. I felt hopeless, numb to everything around me. I felt like I didn’t belong at this meet anymore, like I didn’t belong in this sport anymore. Of course my coach tried to put the race in perspective: You did your best given the cards you were dealt so keep your chin up. Except, I still had my expectations screaming in my head, telling me that I had failed them. I had visualized of this race for months, going over every breakout and stroke to the finish, looking up at my goal time on the board and seeing my coach jumping up and down for joy at what we had accomplished. Goals don’t just disappear: you either shatter them or fail until you achieve them.
After wallowing in my self-pity in a bathroom stall for 20 minutes (something we all admit to doing at least once in our lives), I faced two different mentalities: either let that race define my entire trip, or learn to accept that race and simply move on. After all, I had put up a fight the past 5 months that not many people could match. Everyone faces adversity in life, and we all take away different things from the same struggle. I could hold on to this hatred, or I could use it to grow mentally as an athlete and a person. I was tired of being defined as the “poor sick swimmer who just won’t quit”. I wanted to face this lion of a meet head on and dare it to tear me down, so I bucked up and walked out of that locker room proudly sporting watery eyes, because I had given that race everything I could, and I accepted what it showed. I made it my new goal to face every other race I swam with the same attitude I walked out of the locker room with: refusal to the doubts of why I was even here, and to take every race a stroke at a time.
A few months later, I faced the long course season with goals of simply building my confidence and base back up to my usual self, setting myself up for a successful senior year, whatever that may hold. I had hopes of finally kicking this illness, but again I struggled to practice with no relief of my cough. By this time May had come around, indicating month 7 of impossible practices. By now I began to fear practice, knowing what was coming but not being able to do anything to stop it: the wheezing, the puking, the concerned gazes of others. After finally being squeezed into a pulmonologist, it was diagnosed that I had a virus infect and inflame my airways, a difficult diagnosis missed by my asthma test results from January, which meant my steroid medication had been delayed for 4 long months. At this point, the steroids could either treat my breathing or they could do little to reverse the damage. There was no way of knowing except to try.
I felt like I had been cheated out of so much after hearing this. Instead of getting a fair shot at reaching my goals last season, I was stuck trapped in the hole my own body had dug itself, unable to do anything. The entire season of pushing myself past countless walls could’ve been shortened if I had gotten the drugs, but that wasn’t what happened. Dreaming of what-ifs really can drive a person mad, I discovered. Instead, I had to accept that what I had achieved over the past season wasn’t physical, but a mental maturity and toughness that only adversity creates.
Two weeks of practice passed, and by the end of the steroid I didn’t feel any difference. Wheezing, coughing, puking: all had become very familiar feelings during practice and it didn’t look like they were leaving any time soon. With very few expectations left in my swimming, I attended my first meet since nationals, also the first 50 meter-style meet of the season. I approached the meet with the same attitude I had left nationals with: accept what I am given because I honestly couldn’t feel healthy no matter how much I dreamed it. Warmups were even difficult to complete, thanks to the unfamiliar distance and ever-present “smokers’ lungs”.
Shaking off this feeling, I kept my race ritual the same, praying that taking my inhalers beforehand would give some relief when I raced. I raced a 200 meter free with refusal to simply roll over and give up at a meet of this level, leading me to posting a surprisingly successful time, except it left my chest screaming at me and my arms and legs feeling like they bathed in lactic acid. All too quickly approached the 200 meter back, a race that kills my body more than any other race in a 50 meter pool.
As soon as I reached the 50 meter mark of the race, I knew I was done for. My chest wheezed and screamed at me to stop this torture, that it wasn’t worth all the pain. My arms and legs went numb from the ragged breathing and lactic acid. I knew that I just needed to finish this race regardless of time or legality. After using all my willpower to reach the last wall without crying, I only glanced at the board through blurry vision, not registering whatever time I scraped together. That race felt like my white flag, my surrender to whatever plan the universe had for me. All my training felt futile, that the constant uphill battle had beaten me into an unforgiving pit. After that race, I couldn’t even feel angry anymore; I was too tired to feel angry. I had been tired since March, begging to end the unforgiving cycle I was trapped in. The challenges I had once welcomed I now begged to stop: this challenge seemed too big for me to handle.
Later that day, I had time to reflect on what I had swam. I realized it took some crazy courage to push for this long, even if I felt like I had fallen 50 stories from the level where I once was. Sometimes all we can do is accept what we’re given, even when we would give a leg to change it because it’s just seems like too much to handle. It takes maturity and strength to face such a demanding sport every day with an almost disabling problem. I’ve learned to enjoy swimming for the sport itself, accepting whatever future I may face, whether it’s treatment and recovery or learning to move on. I choose to refuse to let the past 8 months shape how I view the sport I grew up loving as a 7-year old girl. Swimming will always be where I have built the best relationships, gained countless opportunities, learned and grown so much that I can’t fathom life without it. When I ask myself why I keep continuing if all seems hopeless, I remember all the sport has given me. That’s where the silver lining lies.
This is written by Kelsey Stimes.