Keep Swimming

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

At the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Japanese runner Shizo Kanakuri dropped out midway through the marathon after feeling like he could no longer keep running. He simply took a boat home without telling anyone, and the race officials assumed he had died. Decades later, it was discovered that he was alive and had raised a family in Japan, and the Swedish National Olympic Committee invited him back to finish the race. He accepted and completed the marathon in the recorded time of 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds.

“You can quit the race, and nothing that bad will happen,” I tell myself, and roll this thought in my mind as if it were a pearl in my hand as I put on my swim cap and prepare for another 6 am practice. It was soon after an early winter’s premier meet in New Jersey 2015 when I competed in the 100-yard freestyle. I had finished the race, touched the wall, and saw on the scoreboard that I had missed the cut-off for a YMCA National time by one-hundredth of a second. For all the benefits of my nine years in swimming, the rhetoric of persistence I had previously stopped at that moment. How could a hundredth of a second be the difference between me feeling like I had everything versus me feeling like I had nothing? From an early age, children in sports are told in words or feelings that if you’re bad at a sport or a game, it is your own fault – you either weren’t trying hard enough or you’re innately just not talented enough. Swimming, an extremely individual activity to begin with, had become so indistinguishable from my identity, and I began to wonder for the first time what it would give me in return.

The months that followed I stood at the precipice of two paths for my future: pursue swimming harder than ever to qualify for the following year or to simply stop and do something else. After several encouraging but somewhat unhelpful talks with my coach, I begrudgingly continued practicing despite not knowing the answers. But the turning point was taking my special needs older brother to his own swim practice at the Y.

Two years older than me, my autistic brother Nick swam non-competitively with Special Olympics. Because Nick does not speak, his mind was often impenetrable to me growing up despite us being so close in age. But watching him – his splashes framing his smiling face, swimming as if he was suspended in slow motion, – I realized I knew him better than I had thought: we both shared a love for being in the water, no matter what the outcome.

This gave me what I needed to carry on and continue doing what I had realized I did love. Once I re-located my happiness found in the shared experience with my brother, swimming took on a whole new light in my mind. Yes, I soon qualified after in not only the event that had previously defeated me but also five more. But I had realized my accomplishments on paper cannot be my everything, even in a society that constantly demands everything from us. To quit could be an act of resistance and self-awareness, but there’s always another way to finish the race.

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