The Heroic Swimmer

Editorial by Imelda Wistey

Being an athlete consists of small feats in the pursuit of greatness. Many of these feats go unnoticed by the outside world yet remain fully ingrained in the sight of the individual athlete. Within this line of sight lies the support system: family, coaches, teammates, friends, and any one else knowledgeable of the athlete’s attempt to reach higher and turn dreams into reality. As swimmers, it takes a certain type of individual to soundlessly slide their aching bodies into freshly chlorinated cold water and push through set after set only to race for a short amount of time. That time is the defining yardstick in which we measure ourselves against the rest of the swimming world so we can escape the water feeling heroic in our quest for athletic success.

But, in the end, when everything is all said and done, there is that feeling of loss, even if the dreams were reached and the goals were accomplished. There is that emptiness, that hollowness, that envelops the athlete who dedicated a life of seeking glory in sport. Why is it that even with our greatest accomplishments, there is that sinking feeling that it won’t last forever?

The hardest and easiest part of this grueling routine as a swimmer is that the wins and the losses do not last forever. What lasts is what was put into the grind: the dedication, the perseverance, and the love, all rolled into hours tallied by lengths up and down the pool. For some reason, these skills transfer to the grind of everyday life that sometimes seems so mundane it’s easy to miss. It’s simple to look over because what has become ordinary does not look like the recognizable quest of greatness each person yearns to achieve. Life can become boring and tiresome, collapsing into a chore.

We’ve all heard the cliché statement, “it’s all about the journey, not the destination.” For some, it makes complete sense. For others, it is hard to hear because even though the destination looks very enticing, the journey is rough and arduous and the fear of putting in the work for nothing feels like a waste of time. As swimmers, we all feel heroic when we out touch another competitor, finally go a best time, or make the Olympic Trial cut after eight attempts. But when we come up short, it’s easy to feel like we’re the lowest minnow on the totem pole, swimming our little hearts out but going nowhere with the big fish. We don’t feel so heroic anymore, even though we pushed through all those little feats of everyday sets, chasing the idea that this will all be worth it when we get up on that starting block.

Yet, there is truth to that cliché statement. There is truth to all the cliché quotes that inspire us to “reach for the moon” and whatnot. This is where stories come in because stories help articulate truth in narrative. Sometimes, you just need a good hero tale. There are many hero stories out there, from the epic tale of Odysseus to the fairytale renditions of Cinderella, that may not specifically talk about the sport of swimming, yet still reflect the trials and tribulations of what it means to live a great life, a heroic life. These stories may seem archaic but the archetypes of the struggling hero or heroine can speak to the struggles of the tired swimmer determined to succeed. We can learn from these stories because what we do everyday in and out of the pool is a heroic feat. We admire great Olympians because they are heroes in our eyes yet forget to acknowledge the hero within ourselves when we wake up at 5:30 AM in order to make it on time to morning practice. We can gaze at the top of the podium and wish long and hard to stand there but the true heroic stance falls on the decision to overcome that hurdle of disappointment and say, “I’m still great, not because of swimming, but because of who I am as a person.” And when we transition to the so called “real world” we can take the perceived successes and failures of our daily life as moments of small feats towards greatness even though the venue does not smell like chlorine.

Ultimately, we are the heroes of our own life’s story. The journey of the hero is essentially the journey of what it means to be human. And whether you are an athlete or not, this journey applies to everyone. But the best part about being an athlete? You encounter life experiences in a compact, concise form. Within the course of a swim season, you go through painful heartbreaks, endure rejections of missed opportunity, tend to the silence of cascading tears, and pluck out multiple thorns of disappointments. And before you know it, the exhilaration of expressed passion, artistic movements with each stroke, and energetic enthusiasm from the people that love you, all culminate to a finale of a shaking body and deep breaths of solid air combined with smiles of pure and genuine joy.

My dear swimming friends…this is life. This is the heroic life. With each rise and fall are life’s lessons that allow you to continue to go on, let go, and live. With this perspective, there is no loss or failure, just experience: the heroic experience. Thus, I challenge you to pick up one of your favorite childhood hero tales and digest its contents for the heroic meaning. This can be a myth, a fairytale, or even an inspiring book. Within that simple story is a key to living. So go forth and forge your own story and love all its twists and turns. See your tale as the inspiration to the hero within you who yearns to venture even farther, whether it’s in the confines of the pool or the normal life outside where more beautiful challenges await. Throughout it all, continue to smile and applaud the greatness that is you, always.

Courtesy: Imelda Wistey

Imelda Wistey is a former competitive swimmer and Philippine National Team member, holding national records in the 50 and 100 breaststroke. She also raced collegiately for Iowa State University, participating in the 2014 NCAA Championships and 2012 Olympic Trials. She graduated in 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Minor in Classical Studies and now holds a Master’s degree in English Literature. She currently coaches for her home club team, Des Moines Swimming Federation, teaches college English composition courses, and writes or reads great stories any time she can.

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