What is a Swimmer? An Ex-Varsity Athlete’s Musings On Identity & Sport

by SwimSwam Contributors 11

November 21st, 2023 Lifestyle

Courtesy: Jamie Lee Hellard

I was in my second year of university, and after over a decade in the pool, I thought the work was starting to pay off. I had won my first individual conference medal and set a school record in the process, been a part of our varsity team’s first relay medal at a national championship in almost 10 years, and just qualified for the Olympic Trials. I was on top of the world, and couldn’t wait to see what my swimming career had in store next.

Unfortunately, this was in March of 2020. We all know what happened after that.

Somewhere in the midst of the subsequent lockdowns, online classes, and the turmoil, confusion, and destruction of the pandemic, I lost the plot of my swimming career. It wasn’t that I fell out of love with the sport exactly, I just suddenly knew in the winter of 2021 that I was finished. So on a cold December night just before Christmas I walked into the pool I had walked into thousands of times before and told my coach that I was done. The feeling I had walking out of the pool that night was surreal. In my mind, I had woken up that morning as the person I had been for the last decade, a swimmer, and gone to bed as someone else entirely.

It wasn’t as though I was completely unprepared for this phenomenon. I had heard tales of athletes who struggled to cultivate a sense of identity after retirement and had listened to the words of my ex-varsity parents when they admonished me not to attach my worth as a person to my worth as a swimmer. So, I set out to forge a new sense of self and to do the things that the rigors of training had never afforded me. I took up new sports, haphazardly teaching myself to surf and longboard, running, and hiking over 110 peaks in a year. I started traveling abroad and dove into work and the completion of my undergrad. I took up new hobbies and dabbled in many forms of art. I was happy in my new era away from the world of chlorine-soaked hair and 4:30 AM wake-up calls. Truly.

And yet each time I would drive by my old pool, see a swimming update flash across my newsfeed, watch as my varsity teammates finished their careers, or stumble upon a relic of my swimming days something inside me would turn over. My subconscious was overwhelmed with a phantom limb sensation, all too aware that something once important, something once consistent and substantial now ceased to exist. I believed that the part of me that was a swimmer had vanished on that cold December night, and I succumbed to this reality. That was the end of it I believed.

And yet, I would paddle for a wave and notice how intuitive the water felt to me, like a home I had never left.

I would travel abroad and find that the places I was most at home were Island nations surrounded by the sea, where I found myself at any chance I could get.

I would take a trip with a friend and ex-teammate and we would find ourselves at a little community pool social kicking on a Sunday morning.

I would run my first half marathon or complete a grueling hike and realize that mantras from days gone by still danced in my head.

I would realize that anytime I left the city my training suit and goggles still found a place in my bag.

I would join a masters team and notice that although the numbers on the clock didn’t look the same, the feeling of chlorine-soaked air hitting my face hadn’t changed.

I would stand in a ceremony watching my beautiful friend get married and think that the last time I felt so happy for her she had just re-qualified for the national championship.

I would go to a pool and swim a few laps and a woman would lean over the lane line and say, you have a beautiful stroke, you must be a swimmer.

And to my surprise, I realized that she was both right and wrong. Somewhere in the little moments after I hung up my racing cap and goggles I discovered the truth. I simultaneously never solely was and yet always would be, a swimmer.


Jamie Lee Hellard is an ex-varsity swimmer and lifelong water enthusiast! She recently completed her undergrad and currently works as an Event Coordinator for Island Kids Cancer Association. Jamie loves writing, art, adventures and the outdoors. In her spare time, Jamie can be found hiking, swimming, surfing, and exploring with her family, friends, and two golden doodles! 

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Jo Ann McLellan
18 days ago

Beautiful way with words Jamie! The dedication a swimmer has to have to compete at those levels is enormous and an accomplishment. I am sure every swimmer can connect with this article. Keep writing, you have another talent!

18 days ago

Wonderful read! I was an age grouper WAY back in the day (AAU in the 70’s), swam one year in college, then just burned out. 40+ yrs later, tried my first sprint triathlon, w/haphazard training, & am now aiming for a 2024 return to triathlons. All of which is to say that since August of this year I’ve been in the pool 3x/wk, getting 1200–1500 yds each time. Fast? No. But I’ve rediscovered what I’ve loved about swimming. Yup, I’m still a swimmer, who happens to dabble in sprint triathlons–biking is fun but I’m a SLOW runner! Swimming started it all.

18 days ago

This was a lovely read, thank you for sharing.

19 days ago

What a lovely and insightful article! I think athletes in many sports could relate to this. Isn’t it beautiful that swimming is a sport you can participate in all your life.

19 days ago

Really enjoyed this article, thanks Jamie.

19 days ago

This was beautiful to read. Identity is always something that we struggle with. This my mom used to say “you are a person who swims, not a swimmer”

19 days ago

Beautiful post!

Comfy Pants
19 days ago

Such a beautiful post! Thank you for sharing your perspective.