Victory is mine! I conquer swim meet angst and release an old nightmare from the depths.


Peace out, old demons. I got my victory on and loved every hundredth-of-a-second of it.

I’ve had a recurring bad dream for nearly two decades.

I walk into an important swim meet or a killer high-yardage workout for which I’m ill prepared, and everything (EVERYTHING!) is riding on how well I swim. I always try to explain that I quit swimming years ago, but my coaches won’t hear it. They make me swim anyway. And I’m gripped by fear, inadequacy and insane awareness of my mom belly.

I know people who have actual nightmares, so I recognize this doesn’t qualify, but I still wake up breathing hard and patting the bed around me.


This is me. In the black suit. On the blocks. Lane 3. Rocking my first track start in 17 years.

Past-life regression, swim-style

There’s much to be said about my former life as a competitive swimmer, but for this story, you only need to know five things:

  1. When I was 15, the most important thing in the world to me, besides boy craziness and an undying, unrequited fondness for Josh, was qualifying for Junior Nationals.
  2. I missed the Junior Nationals qualifying time by two one-hundredths of a second.
  3. I thought going to Junior Nationals would make me awesome. I thought not going made me un-awesome.
  4. I spent the next two years of high school training really hard in and out of the pool, sometimes six hours a day, to shave those last two one hundredths off my time.
  5. I never swam fast enough to qualify for Junior Nationals.

On realizing I was never going to Junior Nationals, which would’ve been my ticket to both awesomeness and a decent Division I scholarship, I was devastated. Openly so for several months, and covertly so for a lot of years.


This is me trying to beat the boy in lane 1. (Revelation! In this masters meet, we were seeded solely by time, so I ended up swimming against both sexes and all age groups, depending on my seed time. Yet another way–like the fact I swam the 100 IM–in which Masters reminds me of being 7 years old.)

But it was more than just a race to me, my coach said so.

Enter Hank Krusen, one of my all-time favorite coaches. He pulled me aside during practice one day about six months after my fateful so-close race in Oklahoma City to give me a piece of his mind:

The 100 breaststroke is just a metaphor for life. If you want to be successful, you’ve got to put your whole self into it. Then, when it comes time to race, trust you’re ready. And go for it.

I see you holding yourself back. Why? Think about it and find the answer. If you don’t fix this, you’ll come up against this theme for the rest of your life. It’s a JOs cut now, but someday it’ll be a job, or a relationship, or a calling or any number of things. You’ve got to go for what you want. Nip this in the bud now so it doesn’t become a pattern in your life.

So much for happy-go-lucky teenager. It was a tough little chat for 16-year-old me. But Hank’s words still ring true.

The Coach Hank effect

Now any time I feel simultaneously afraid and electrified by anything, I take notice. Why the reaction? Is fear holding me back? Once I’ve explored the feelings and determined fear is showing up as a saboteur, I get behind the part that feels electrified, go for it and see where it takes me. It can get bumpy, but Hank’s advice has proven to be spot on. I think his advice is how I ended up joining a masters swim team last fall and, furthermore, entering a masters swim meet a couple weeks ago.

To be sure, leading up to the meet, fear and electricity were in a stranglehold, generally fueled by a vague question with endless applications: What if I don’t meet expectations?


This is me again. Swim caps make me look so pretty. (Photo credit: my amazing friend, Kellie. She is the bomb diggy. So much so that she morphed into a proud mama as soon as I stepped onto the block and snapped 600 photos of me swimming.) It’s kinda hard to believe how awesome she is.

Surprise! The whole racing-again shebang exceeds my expectations. 

There’s much to be said about the High Ridge YMCA US Masters meet, but for this story, you only need to know five things:

  1. I qualified for nationals in the 100 breaststroke—masters “old-people” nationals, but still. It felt awesome. I also qualified in three other events.
  2. I felt joyful and alive from the moment I got in to warm up till the end of the meet. I had so. much. fun.
  3. I was mysteriously calm before each of my races, two of which I won. (Woot.)
  4. My nightmares are gone. In fact, Peter D. Malone and Hank Krusen have made nary a visit from the depths of my sleeping unconscious since I swam in the meet.
  5. I will not be going to Nationals. This is key. I may have healed an aspect of my teenagey swimmery self, but I’m not even trying to pretend I’m suddenly Dara Torres. This is still just about having fun and getting a workout.
swim smiles

See how much fun I had? Even without my face on (because you know how much I love playing with eye makeup), it seems I was really freaking happy.

So, WWTET*? (What Would Teen Emily Think?) 

Let’s time travel for a moment. I think my 17-year-old self would chuckle at the idea of 34-year-old me competing in a masters meet, and being psyched about qualifying for Masters Nationals. It wouldn’t smack of “cool” to her, after all.

But after she laughed behind my back, I think she’d also feel kinda relieved. Reassured to find there was indeed life after the only life she knew, and life after missing the mark that meant so much. Comforted to know the richness of her world 17 years in the future. And I think her heart would feel lighter knowing she’d eventually find joy in swimming once again.



11 thoughts on “Victory is mine! I conquer swim meet angst and release an old nightmare from the depths.

  1. SO COOL! I love this! That’s really inspiring you did this. Motivation alone would be to eradicate the dream.

    I have two recurring dreams: I’m my current age, but somehow I’m on a cheerleading squad again and *so* happy about it. I’m like, “wow, I never thought I’d get to do this again!” I like that dream, so I’m leaving it alone.

    The other dream (nightmare) is I’m in school – sometimes high school, sometimes college – but I’ve forgotten to go to a class all semester and it’s the end of the year. I’m about to fail. I have no idea where that comes from because I went to all my classes and I never failed one.

    Hm . . . maybe I should go roam the halls of my alma maters and be like, “THIS WAS THE SCIENCE CLASS YOU WENT TO”.

    Anyway, congrats! You look great!

    • Ah, Jenna! I have that SAME dream about college!! If you ever figure out how to clear yourself of it, definitely share the secret. I think you might be onto something with roaming old hallways. Or just gaze at your diploma every night before bed? Thanks so much for writing!

      • I think it’s a variation on the go-to-school-in-pajamas dream, which I don’t have. See? We’re just more concerned with grades than clothes! *pushes up nerd glasses*

  2. YOU ARE AWESOME MS. EMILY! Congrats on your great accomplishment. I must admit those words from Coach Hank are strong words to live by and giving much to reflect on. Where was he when I was figure skating and dreaming of conquering the sport of blades?

    • Figure skating?!? I had no idea you dreamed of such things! I’m here to attest that it’s not too late, girl. I can hook you up with Coach Hank in a jiff if you want.

      Thanks so much for your amazing support. Love you bunches.

  3. I read your story to my kids this morning. I really wanted my 8-year old to hear your message about fear holding you back. After reading the blog to him, I asked him what the message was. He said, “Don’t live in fear. BUT…if your fear is about going down that 10-story slide at Schlitterbahn at 100mph, which someone could possibly die on that…it’s okay to be afraid.”

    • Oh, Brandi, this is so funny. Sometimes putting yourself out there can feel even scarier than that batshit Schlitterbahn slide. I’m so touched you shared the story with your little guy. (and so energized from getting to talk with you this morning!)

  4. GO, Emily! Celebrating wtih you…the wins at the meet, the conquering of old fears, the joy you experienced while doing something you love. You’re an inspiriation, my friend.

    • Thank you so much, Kari! Makes me so happy to have you celebrating with me. Now if we could just get together to do that one of these days… And YOU are an inspiration to me, too, by the way. In so many ways.

  5. I can totally relate to this… I missed selection for the National Squad in two different sports by one place. I’m not sure that I was holding back though – I remember the moment of realisation that my legs simply could not move any faster. It wasn’t a lack of will, it was a lack of ability.

    Your post made me think about how those experiences shaped me in life. Because I think subconsciously I’ve never gotten over it – the knowledge that you can give everything and still not make it? It’s hard to define exactly how that affects a person, but it does. Fear and doubt is definitely part of it.

    Ironically, just yesterday, I said to my daughter who is struggling with the level 1 dismount (gymnastics) – “don’t be scared”. It was after reading your post, and I could see it in her eyes; the fear. And guess what? She gritted her teeth and swung her feet up to the bar and she nailed it. She absolutely nailed it.

    Really got me thinking. So thanks for that – a great, gritty, inspiring post.

    • Nadine, thank you so much for this. I want to hear more about everything you wrote above. Will have to check your blog in hopes you’ll delve further into this. I find it fascinating. What a gigantic thing to acknowledge–the idea that maybe you can give everything and still not “make it.” (it’s true for all of us, but would be an especially tough pill and have a big impact on a young person.) Becoming ok with that is a daunting adventure for most and it’s so awesome you’re really looking at it. And also awesome you were able to help your daughter to recognize her fear and move past it. That really made me smile big. Thanks lots for the way thoughtful comment. I so appreciate it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s