SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send [email protected]
This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Natalia ‘Talie’ Anchustegui, who swam at Boise State.
It has been just over five years since my life changed forever and I have spent so much time trying make sense of what I was supposed to learn from my back injury that ended my collegiate athletic career. After countless hours of contemplating, I finally figured it out. The lesson was about time.
My athletic career began when I was 9 years old. I grew up in Park City, Utah and while all of my friends were pursuing their dreams racing down the mountains of our hometown, I was staring at the black line at the bottom of a pool.
Like most young hopefuls, I had to move away from Utah to a place where I could grow as a swimmer and be a part of a large team. I competed for one of the best high school and club teams in the country and was lucky enough to be recruited to multiple D1 schools before choosing Boise State University. But my story is not one of grand or notable athletic achievements. My name isn’t one that you would recognize and it never appeared on any Olympic or US National team roster for that matter. My story is of pain and sadness that left the deepest of physical and mental scars. But it’s more than that, it’s a story of growth and love.
I remember the exact moment in which I fell in love with swimming. Its etched in my memory like a beautiful glass sculpture. It was simple, pure, and beautiful. But somewhere along the way I started battling the quality versus quantity philosophy.
I spent nearly 13 years of my life staring at a bottom of a pool going back and forth in complete silence with nothing but the sound of my own thoughts and the water rippling around me. But there comes a point where the silence becomes deafening and eventually I started resenting the sport itself and a never ending war between mind, body, and water started.
I was a sophomore in high school when my unhappiness started spiraling out of control. That unhappiness stemmed from the feeling of being trapped and feeling obligated to swim. I felt like I was being suffocated by the expectations of my parents, coaches, and teammates.
I used to cry on the way to swim practice because the thought of having to be there for three hours made me sick enough to throw up. Everyone was aware of how much I was struggling and every coach I had tried to help me find the love that I once had as a kid but that was the thing, I didn’t want to find that happiness.
I wanted to quit, but I couldn’t. I knew I would never be able to live with the guilt of failing my parents and living with the title of “the girl who threw it all away”. All I wanted was an easy way out, an explanation to why I wasn’t swimming anymore other than I just didn’t want to do it anymore. So when I would be crying on my way to practice, I used to beg and pray for a career ending injury.
To forecast the rest of this story, I am going to quote the words of some wise person that once said, “be careful what you wish for, you might get it.”
The issues in my back started when I was a senior in high school. It got to the point where I could hardly walk but was told to push through it and that I was fine. No one believed that I was actually hurt, they just thought I was trying to get out of practice. It was like my entire athletic career was a flame, and over the years the flame had begun to fade with every trial and devastation I faced and no matter how I cried out, no one was listening.
I went through six rounds of epidurals in hopes to reduce whatever inflammation was in my spine and for a period of time it worked. I entered my freshman year at Boise State in the fall of 2012 and was able to compete for a year without problem.
I had come to terms with swimming and that I only had three years left so I was going to try and make the best of them. But that didn’t last long. If life was a game of Candyland, I pulled Plumpy and got sent back to the beginning.
In the fall of 2013, I began experiencing severe pain again and knew I had to do something. When I walked into the doctor’s office I was confident that they would just say it was from overuse and that I would need to take it easy for a while. Turns out, I had four bilateral pars fractures that split my spine into two pieces. When they first found the fractures in my back, to say it was devastating is putting it lightly. A more accurate description would be that began the landslide of what I thought was my life. This was the first time that I had a doctor tell me that I might not ever swim again and for the first time, I was afraid to lose swimming. What I wished for and what I thought I wanted, turned out to be my own personal living nightmare.
We began with the conservative treatment of putting me in a back brace (think big plastic fitted brace, looked kind of like a corset.. what every 20 year old wants to be wearing) for a few months in hopes that my factures would heal without surgery, it didn’t work. It was March 24th, 2014 that I had my L3-L5 spinal fusion and the moment I woke up everything had changed.
I felt my entire world shatter around me. Half of a lifetime of hard work, countless hours and thousands of dollars was suddenly just a waste. My identity was stripped from me and I was left with a less than able body after I came out of that operating room. Everything that I had overcome, every trial I had faced, all the progress I had made, my dreams, my ambitions were sliding and tumbling down faster and faster gaining speed every step of the way before stopping at my feet. It had taken me so long to accept my station in swimming and to overcome mental barriers that had been holding me back for years. To say I was bitter doesn’t even begin to explain the anger and resentment I felt towards myself.
That flame inside of me went completely out with the news that my time as a swimmer was up. But the strangest thing happened after my surgery in the spring. As weeks went by I began to heal very quickly. My doctor was amazed and he told me that there might be a chance that I could compete again. That light that I thought was out suddenly came back to life. It was faint and was more of a faint glow, but it was a faint glow of hope. I spent the next eight almost nine months with the idea in my head that I was going to make this epic comeback. I thought I was gifted more time. Unfortunately those were nothing but dreams.
On December 4th , 2014 I walked in to my doctor’s office for my nine month evaluation expecting encouraging news. But as every time before, I walked out with my heart in the pit of my stomach. Like countless times before, I sat with my parents in the small examination room. When the doctor did come in, just by looking at his face I knew something off. I sat up and he took the seat directly across the room from me asking all the mandatory questions like, “how are you feeling,” “are you in any pain?” Frankly I had been asked those same questions so many times that the response became standard and automatic. Even if I was in pain it was easier just to lie about. I had been saying I hurt for far too long and didn’t want anyone else to waste their time on me.
We got through the small talk and looked at my CT results. They looked great but then my doctor got really quiet and looked down at his hands. He started off by saying that I need to start looking at the future in a different way, that although structurally I am sound that doesn’t mean that my body is capable of performing at the level its accustom to. As soon as those words hit my ears, it became a game of holding back the tears that began to pool in my eyes. Out of the corner of my water logged vision, I saw my Dad lower his head and my mom close her eyes in defeat. This had been just as much their battle as mine. He continued by making it very clear that swimming at the collegiate level was just not in the cards.
While he talked I try to listen to what he was saying, but it became a buzzing noise in my ears. The only thing that I could hear clearly was my own thoughts telling me that I had tried my best but my best wasn’t good enough. I had failed like every time before and had let down so many people in the process. For a brief moment I came out of my trance to see my neurosurgeon getting choked up. He made the off side comment that he understood how this felt and I could tell by the hurt in his eyes that at some point he was sitting exactly where I was. I now know what we both had in common was that we ran out of time.
As I walked out of that doctor’s appointment I felt my flame go out. That light I had been holding on for so long was finally extinguished and the darkness engulfed everything almost immediately. At first it almost didn’t seem real, that this sport that has consumed over half my life was no longer going to be a part of my future. Only once I realized this did the pain start to creep in. It started off being dull in the pit of my stomach but with every passing moment that pain became more pressing as it made its way up to my chest. It traveled deep into my lungs sucking the breath right out of me, it traveled through my veins making me numb all over, and finally it constricted my heart leaving it in pieces as it continued through my body. The feeling was extremely bittersweet. Sometimes life has a cruel sense of humor, giving you the thing you always wanted at the worst possible time.
So that leads me into what this experience has taught me about time. Time is an illusion. Time only exists when we think about the past and the future. I used obsess over how much time was left in practice, how much time until the weekend, how many days, months, years until I would be done with swimming. And at the same time, I was worrying what I was going to do next and who I was going to be once I was no longer a swimmer. I was living in the future.
The first few years after my surgery I lived in the past and was consumed with guilt and thinking about what could have been. It wasn’t until I was told the first time that I could probably no longer swim that I truly was afraid of losing the sport. It wasn’t until it was taken away from my completely did I understand how much precious time I gave up because I was addicted to my own unhappiness. I used to think that if I could go back and change one thing it would be to find happiness in the sport earlier because no one knows when their time is going to run out.
What I didn’t realize at that point in my life is that healing happens in the present. I was so focused on what was behind me and what was in front of me that I completely missed the miracle that was happening right in front of me. Scars eventually begin to fade and life moves on whether you want it to or not because life doesn’t exist in the past or future. It marches forward in the present.
Our bodies don’t heal injuries according to timelines. They heal in the now and so do our hearts. When we are constantly trying to fix or control things that are either done or upcoming, we live in this constant state of anxiety and fear. But what we do have control over is what is happening now.
What being present is in my eyes is to do what you love and find joy in every aspect to the point that it’s contagious. To be thankful for those who support you and never take for granted a single second that you get to spend doing what you love because it is truly an invaluable gift.
What I think being present looks like is by showing authenticity, love, and connection to the process rather than the result. And I believe that at the core of present is being vulnerable, to be able to move consciously through life accepting what is and striving to make a change.
The illusion of time gives us three choices; to live in the depression of the past, the anxiety of the future, or to accept the gift of living in the present.
I’ve made my choice. What about you?