A Love Letter to Swimming (and all the ex-collegiate female athletes out there)

Campbell swam at Denison from 2013-2017 and currently lives in Chicago.

The first time I learned (what at the time felt like) a really big lesson was when I wasn’t named captain my senior year in high school. Still, I remember that afternoon vividly — I had my arm practically halfway in a McDonalds bag, laughing with my mom. The shock, and surprise, I felt when I heard which teammates had earned the title of “captain,” hurt to my core — because at that time and place in my life that seemed to be the pinnacle of achievement. A few things spiraled out of that announcement: probably self-induced mono, and unnecessary frustration toward the sport I loved most.

What REALLY came of that, though, was a huge life-long lesson: even though I had worked my a** off for this “thing,” and poured my all into trying to ensure I get this “thing,” and was told time and time again about why I deserved that title, I didn’t get it. I could have easily said “f*** this,” and done something far more detrimental to my future than making myself sick via stress. I could have let it shake who I am at my core.

Now, a little over a year out of my collegiate swimming career, I’ve been catching myself scrolling through pictures — pictures prior to swims at DIII NCAAs where I look like I could take on the world, pictures after races at the Miami Invitational meet where I look collected, strong, and proud. I’ve only recently turned towards writing as a way to understand things — like a breakup — and have found it incredibly therapeutic. Not only is it therapeutic, I seem to get ANSWERS. I’m a person that likes answers — I like to know why I’m feeling a certain way, or why I invest so much emotional energy in any one thing. So, I’m writing to uncover and understand just how much value swimming brought to my life, because it’s about time I express some real gratitude for this thing.

Very recently, I’ve had some trouble at work as well as in my personal life. At work, I’ve reached a crossroads where I KNOW I’ve earned a promotion. For almost a full year and a half, I’ve put more than a job description above me level of work into my daily tasks and interactions with clients. More importantly, though, is that I’ve truly taken ownership over projects and gotten personally invested in them. I’m now pushing for a promotion, but it’s an incredibly long and exhausting process that has so far seemingly just left me open and vulnerable to criticism, and I’ve also weathered a whole lot of s*** to even get to the point where I can raise my hand for a promotion (what I would call NOT high functioning anxiety that drove a massive wedge in between me and my mom, caused tense professional relationships, sleepless nights and exhausting weekends). Personally, I’m reconciling, and still holding on to, an incredible yet short lived romantic relationship that came out of the blue. The relationship was sparked at a time when I needed it most; a time when I seemingly couldn’t pull myself away from an existing damaging relationship, and at a time when I felt like I needed my confidence built.

It’s funny though because as much as I feel like I need, and enjoy, someone else building me up (especially a guy) the strength comes from within — and from a few very special people around me. I hope you’ll be able to identify that same strength, and maybe this will help.

Waking up last week to a quote from my mom inspired this piece, and a brief conversation with her thereafter helped identify exactly where that internal strength comes from. The quote read:

you are what you are not because of what you did, but because of what you keep doing.”

The quote immediately resonated with me, and I realized that though I’ve been feeling knocked down lately, I’m still the same badass girl that got through every other issue that has come my way — and I’m going to give myself some credit by saying that I didn’t just “get through,” I surged through and came out the other side with more experience, more understanding, a greater ability to be introspective, and proof that I can make it through the 100th since I’d already made 99.

Later that week, my mom and I chatted about that quote, and the meaning of it, and she said I think your greatest disappointments — starting with not being named captain — have made you who you are, and you’re always going to be that person because you continually react positively to disappointment in your life. It’s a hallmark of who I am, and the same strength that got me through senior year is getting me through professional and personal struggle post-grad.

I do think it’s crucial to make a distinction here — the things I’ve been truly hurt over, truly disappointed by, are the things I’ve put my all into. They’re the things I should have achieved, should have gotten, worked tirelessly for, and ultimately really truly believed that there was a real shot I could have had them or could have succeeded in the pursuit of having them. Now maybe that’s not unique — but for those that know me, if I’m going to try for something that matters a whole lot to me, I’m not going to leave anything to chance. I’m going to put all my cards on the table, heart on my sleeve… whatever it may be, I’m throwing EVERYTHING I have at this thing. My coach used to say “hope” is a weak word, and I couldn’t agree more. “Hope” has never been an emotion that I’ve expressed towards the things that are crucially important to me. All that to say, when you put everything on the line and have nothing left to give, and are still left disappointed, it really sucks (as I’m sure you’ve felt).

***

Some four hours before my 500-freestyle final at NCAAs senior year, I was scooping some not so warm pasta onto my lunch plate with like five breadsticks, and was totally tearing up. I remember my assistant coach was literally right next to me, and it was hard to explain why I was about to burst into tears — I mean it seemed ridiculous. Emotionally, I felt FAR removed from the high of the morning session where I qualified first, and was already thinking about the possibilities that the night session held. Honestly if I had let myself go I probably could have cried for at least an hour, but I let a few small tears fall and explained in just a couple words that I was “so close” to grasping what I had really thought was possible, for about a year and a half prior. He totally understood, because that was certainly not the most a mess I had been around the team or my coaches — but the feeling of being “so close” to this seemingly massive goal was overwhelming to say the least.

After swimming with my heart on my sleeve, and allowing my most coveted goal to be shattered within a matter of 4 min 50 some seconds, I was touched out. I hadn’t seen that coming at all, but I had also done a pretty good job at keeping my mind quiet during the race so that I wouldn’t psych myself out or set myself up for massive disappointment — so throughout the 4 minutes and 50 seconds I carried with myself the possibility of not winning, but also a steady, strong confidence that I was “so close.”

***

There are a lot of things incredibly special about swimming — but there’s one that I’m most grateful for: the fact that you can spend countless practices, hours, days, YEARS, continually putting coins into a piggy bank to the point where it’s so heavy that you damn well know there’s proof — certainly not hope — that you’ll break open the bank and there will be enough change at the end of the day. Well, there wasn’t enough change THAT day, in those 4 mins 50 seconds, but I have a lifelong bank to pull coins out of. The very reason I love swimming is the very reason the sport drives so many away — the sport is only worthwhile if you’re going to put change in the bank every day, and be OK with the fact that it might not add up at the end.

Well, I’m OK with the fact that it didn’t add up, or wasn’t heavy enough, because I know what it’s like to put that much effort into something and have it not go your way. I also know I was, and am, OK moving on after that or anything like that — anything like that where you throw your whole being at the desired outcome.
Yeah, I, along with all of you, eventually want to be, and need to be, recognized or “rewarded” for that kind of work, but I can fall asleep and wake up knowing that I am what I am because of what I keep doing.

Thank you, swimming.