In an article previously published on Odyssey.com, Mihika Agarwal, a communication and English major, shares the story of her many laps in the pool of competitive swimming.
My Life As A Former Swimmer.
Through my struggles, I still love the water.
Here's my story. I know it’s hard when you have to wake up at 5 a.m. every morning, attend school and then go to practice again in the evening. I know it’s hard to juggle both swimming and studies. It’s hard to constantly swim for hours on end with your coach pushing you even further. When you have no one to talk to about your pain and slowly start going into depression. The only thing anyone looks at is a number of medals and trophies you have won. Or the records you have broken. But it’s even harder when your parents and coach are stressing about your food, diet or even those split seconds that have to be reduced. I know all about it and that is the reason why I broke down during my main event during 2011 Nationals. Here is what happened.
I dive into the water. My body is alive. Every time I am in the swimming pool, something feels different. I swim for hours. Stroke after stroke, I reach the wall, take a turn, I feel a rush and it all starts again.
I started swimming at a very young age. Coming from an athletic family, my father tried putting me into different sports. After trying them all, I found an affinity towards the water. I don’t think I was ever extremely talented at it, but I always loved the water and still do. Soon I was put into training in a club. I started getting better and really understood the sport. I progressed to a higher level coach.
In India, the swimming facilities are terrible. I swam in ponds, dirty water with broken walls with scum and moss everywhere. With 10 really strong guys and some fishes swimming in the same lane as me. Thousands walking by staring at you while you are in the middle in your swim suit. The conditions were terrible.
I got kicked and hit- but all this made me stronger. I started winning all my races, got selected for the school swimming team, started swimming in districts and state level competitions. Slowly and steadily everything was in place. I had my regular schedule, my diet, my parents' support and recognition in the sport.
But suddenly, my swimming became stagnant. I won my races but my timings didn’t improve or I wouldn’t break records. Most importantly, I wouldn’t be able to beat my own timing.
Being an extremely technical swimmer, I always concentrated more on stroke, therefore that power was missing. To gain that power I would have to eat more and I hated eating. The politics of the clubs started creeping in. The pressure from home started building. The random fights of what strokes I wanted to swim with my coach started too. I started seeing my friends living, going out shopping and partying, holidaying. While I would spend each waking minute in the pool trying to improve my stamina.
I wanted more. All those trophies and medals would just be stacked like company account books. They were just there. It was always my love for swimming that drove me, but not anymore. I started to feel that I was giving so much and getting nothing in return. My injuries started to get more severe due to over exhaustion and fatigue. My father and coach would communicate to each other every time I would miss a practice. Even though they had my best interest at heart, they never understood what I was going through. I am an introvert and they didn’t know that.
For my coach, I became a role model, an ideal student. Everyone wanted to be me or beat me. It’s only when you are on top that you begin to understand the pressure. Everyone is trying to strip you down, steal your title, trump your victory and try to trip you. What hit me the most is the pressure from everyone around. Even if I missed one practice, I would be shouted at and forced to go to the others even when I would be extremely tired.
Finally, in 2011 I got selected again to go for the Swimming National Championship. This wasn’t the first time that I had a big event, but this is when everything came crashing down. We went a week earlier for practice with the national team. I was mentally and physically exhausted.
However, one day before the competition we took it easy. I felt ready, my stroke looked good, I was getting a really good breast stroke guild, my stamina felt good. Overall I felt ready. I got ready for my race.
The whistle blew. There is this love for the water, the calmness about being underwater, doing those dolphin kicks. There is peace and quiet but when you break the surface, the noise gets to you. You then realize that you are here for the competition. You swim hard and fast. There, somewhere along those streamlines, I had torn my ligament. I still managed to go on and finish the race.
When I came out of the race, I knew I had not done my best, coming eighth overall. I blamed myself for months on end thinking I could have practiced more and harder. I lost my will to practice and to some extent even the love for the sport. I felt that I wasn’t good or talented enough, that was the last time that I ever viewed swimming competitively. I would swim for school and some clubs, sometimes even win, but I didn’t have that same love for swimming, that happiness of diving in and feeling a smile forming.
The external pressures became a distraction. Soon, I left the sport. I quit.
After a few years I realized that it wasn’t me, it wasn’t completely my fault. I didn’t listen to my body and what it was desperately trying to tell me. I also knew that I was done hurting my body and my mind. The constant nagging and torture were unnecessary.
Now I am glad that I quit. But swimming will always have a huge place in my heart. When I now look at the swimmers, I wish that I could swim competitively. But I know I am not made for this sport and that’s okay. To quit is easy, but to stay with your decision is hard. To constantly doubt your decision is even harder. My parents and coach still have that dream of me going to the Olympics, but it’s not going to happen. And I am okay with it.
To be in touch with swimming, I have started coaching and I have found that it's not swimming that I am in love with, it's water. Water still plays a huge part in my life. I am currently a Master Scuba Diver and have done shark dives and even free diving. I simply just love the water.