Courtesy: Donna Hale
When my daughter started to swim 18 years ago, we had no clue what we were unleashing: a lifelong journey that would lead to amazing friendships, heartbreaking losses, and exhilarating moments of longing, love and laughter. She was just a four-year-old who loved the water from the moment she could walk and found the pool a happy place. Now she is 22, and I can honestly say that all these years later, swimming remains her solace in an ever-changing world.
Hannah can never repay this sport for all it’s given her. All she can do is the pass on the lessons and love to those who follow behind her.
As a senior in college, she got to experience what is the ultimate for every girl next door swimmer – a conference title for a D3 program reborn just last season. Hannah learned how to get the most out of the circumstances that surrounded her. This year it was COVID. But looking back over this journey, there are myriad lessons she learned as a swimmer and how they molded who she is and what she will always be. She will forever be a swimmer – as it’s a part of her. But as she learned as she got older, it’s only a part who she is.
This extraordinary journey was filled with shining moments like swimming lifetime bests in her beloved butterfly in her senior conference meet, making Junior Olympics five times, making ODAC All-Conference, and feeling the pure rush of finals in both age group and NCAA swimming, she was made better by meeting more amazing people than anyone deserves in a lifetime. The journey was also filled with heartbreaking losses, injury and illness, and even the harsh lessons of bullying by some teammates and coaches, and the quest for fairness over the course of almost two decades. Hannah learned that the tough times can either make you bitter or better. And that choice is completely up to you – the athlete.
Swimming is not about a single race or even a single season. It is about practices, team trips, locker room antics, swimsuit addiction, and the never-ending search for dry towels. It is about the never-ending quest for food – yes the love of food was something she learned to embrace with passion. It is about a mission to score some rubber ducks by winning heats at a travel meet. It’s about meeting a long ago goal so your much loved guy friends had to wear girl suits at practice.
Most of all It is about sportsmanship – win or lose. It was one of the first lessons summer coaches taught her as a little girl. And she tried to model these through all her years in this sport. I believe it is one of the most important lessons every swimmer should learn whether they are competing in their summer league or on the college stage. You never know who you will inspire by always being a person of character. She’s hoping she inspired others. I can say beyond any doubt: she did. She inspired me.
Most of us will not be at the top of this sport. Someone is always coming along who can swim faster. She had records and watched them fall. She lost to her toughest competitors who were also friends and role models. She practiced for countless hours and still has not been satisfied with times. She tells herself she can go faster. Swimmers embrace a quest for excellence. It runs through their veins like chlorine.
But one thing I can honestly say is she has always done her best in the moment and celebrated the success of teammates. In college this is especially important because you won’t win titles because of the success of one or two swimmers or even three. It takes a village. And everyone has a role to play. If you can help foster a culture of support and camaraderie, you will discover what is special about this sport. It is truly the souls you touch and those that touch you along the way.
Hannah owes so much to the coaches who believed in her, to the friends who supported her and the extended swim family that grows ever deeper along the way. As parents at times we have made her crazy and embarrassed her (especially mom) with cheering loud enough that all the stands could hear. Hannah never doubted for a moment that she was supported and loved. There are so many quiet moments I can recall on deck when she was lost in conversations with coaches, teammates, and even competitors. These are the moments that will remain in her heart. They will remain in mine too.
We don’t know what is coming next. She is figuring this out along the way. But, she is excited about the possibilities. She will always be a swimmer. She will always rejoice in the joys and solitude of life between the lane lines. She will cherish the extraordinary Journey of being a lifelong swimmer to inspire others and to make her mark in the world. There are still dreams to chase on this journey that began so long ago. And, as she has heard thousands of times now: take your mark!
Donna Hale is an 18-year swim mom whose daughter has been a summer, high school, club and NCAA swimmer.