Courtesy of Donna Hale
For as long as I can remember, I have been a swim mom. Summer League, high school, USA Swimming: they have filled my family’s lives with such profound joy, cherished friendships, and life lessons about laughter and loss.
This chapter is coming to a close in a few fleeting days. There will be no more pasta dinners, pep rallies, weekend meet marathons, and weekend sharing with my extended swim family. I am lucky that my baby is swimming in college and has a new experience to look forward too and many memories to make.
But it will be different. Unless you have been a part of extended swimming for more than a decade – 14 plus years – it is hard to explain. These words will forever ring in my head and my heart “Take Your Mark.”
As a swimmer and a swim parent you literally hear these words thousands of times. If you are like my daughter, perhaps you false started a few times in your swimming career in anticipation of what was ahead – once for her at a rather large year-round meeting costing her the coveted first place. These words are so profound when you consider they are appropriate for all the experiences and moments in your life. Every day, every race and every moment is all about “taking your mark.” Through the years many of my closest friends and family have said that we were insane to devote so much to a sport: an extracurricular activity. There have been moments in this final year when I wondered if they were right. Is it worth the investment? The time? The sacrifice? For the parents of those starting out, I would like to offer my opinion and the reasons why it is worth the moments spent to “take your mark.”
- Swimming creates family that extends beyond blood, teams, and races. In a world where we rarely devote entire weekends much less days to a single activity, swimming gives us a chance to truly get to know our teammates, families, and even competition in a deep and meaningful way. This bond shines through loud and clear both in tragedy and triumph. In our own swim family, we have lost treasured competitors, teammates, coaches and parents. And no one ever had to worry about who would step forward in these times: It was our swim family. The beauty of this sport is that this applies to both the swimmers and their parents. Many of these amazing people have helped me raise my children and watched them grow up. And as this chapter closes, they will fade into the background: gone but never forgotten in the social media age. They are etched in my heart through treasured memories.
- Swimming teaches unforgettable, painful and profoundly uplifting lessons about life, loss, laughter and letting go! The only way to get the most out of this sport and anything really is to embrace the journey. There is always someone who can beat you. But they cannot lessen your spirit. Swimming teaches you that arriving at the wall first means nothing if you cannot celebrate the journey and know it is a privilege. You are compelled to hug your greatest opponent who just might also be one of your dearest friend.
- Swimming prepares you for life in countless ways. You will get out of this sport what you put in. It is an awful lot like life. My daughter used to think, as did I, that what mattered most was getting to the next level, achieving the next cut, and always getting better. Because there are many things that are out of your control, you will end up sad and disillusioned if this is what matters the most. She taught me, and I hope a few others, that no matter how many races you win, you cannot be a champion unless you live a life of character and courage. This does not mean that you cannot make mistakes. I have heard people talk about holding the greats like Phelps and Lochte to a different standard. No one is perfect. It is how we learn from our mistakes, both private and public, that defines us.
- Finally and perhaps most of all, swimming is about character – not about not making mistakes – but about owning them and moving forward each and every day. My daughter has been lucky to swim for coaches who believe deeply that it is important for athletes to give back and to pass it on. As I watched my baby’s last summer relay and prepare for her final summer races, I see signs everywhere that this sport is good for our communities. Soon to be college freshmen cheering for six-year-olds to make it across the pool. The hugs, high fives and numerous “it will be okay” passed down from one generation of swimmers to another.
The torch passes. The memories glisten like shining stars. Take Your Mark!
Donna Hale is swim mom of 14 years. Her daughter is a high school senior and will swim next year at Davis & Elkins College. She swam for The Potomac Marlins, Lake Braddock Swim & Dive and the Burke Station Destroyers.