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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.
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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.

 

 

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Fast approaching: My first swim meet in nearly two decades.

I’m swimming in a swim meet this Sunday. It’ll be my first in 17 years.

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See? It’s for real. I’m swimming the 100 IM in a swim meet for grown ups. I repeat the 100. Not the 200 IM, not the 400 IM. The 100. And a bunch of 50s. Cha cha cha.

Mysteriously, I ended up in a pool back in October. I suppose I wanted to take an interest in myself again, I wanted to give my body the gift of movement, to tell my arms and legs and everything in between, “Hey, I see you. You made a couple babies and you want to be strong again. I get it. And you deserve that. I appreciate all you do. Let’s spend some time together.” And swimming is what I knew, so I went for it.

I stumbled upon a soul sister of a masters coach and small crew of laid-back, smart-assed, superfun swimfriends. We don’t do crazy yardage; we just get exercise. We gab during sets. We take long rest intervals. We do social kick. We laugh. We goof around. We enjoy being in the water. It’s nothing like the intensity that permeated my olden days. Let it be known I was never a swimming phenom, but it was my entire life at one time. I may not have been bound for the Olympics, but I trained like I was. (Possibly because one of my teammates actually was training for the Olympics and ultimately won gold in 1996. I just kinda ate her wake.) I always adored my BFF teammates and did enjoy a good race back then but, compared to high school, my swimming do-over is a chilled-out dream.

And so here I am approaching Sunday, when I’ll swim four races, three of which I haven’t swum since I was approximately 10 years of age because only summer leaguers and Masters swimmers rock 50 flys and 100 IMs. That said, I did decide to try the 100 breaststroke, which I last swam the spring of 1997, at the Kansas high school state meet.

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State championships, circa 1997. What’s up, Manhattan, Kan.? I think this was snapped just before my last race. Also known as my forever farewell to 12.5 percent body fat.

Missing the mark

Long story short, this race was my thing. I was never the very bestest at it, not even regionally, but the 100-yd breast was my race. So when I missed my junior national time by two one hundredths of a second (the difference between a so-so college scholarship and a bigger scholarship at a slightly better swimming school) and ultimately never got back down to the time I needed, it devastated me.

Looking back, it’s clear I had more than college riding on that time (1:07.49, btw). Because, see, for a lot of years of my life, I thought swimming was all I could do, all I had to offer. I had school and I had swimming and I was fairly good at both. I wasn’t very pretty, I’d never have a fantastic body and I didn’t think I had a great many other gifts, but people told me that I was an elite athlete and that I was smart. Somewhere along the way, I decided my value in the world rested solely on two pillars: Emily Hughey is athletic and smart. Stop.

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I loved a pool from the beginning. Betcha I didn’t give a flip about what I was and wasn’t back then. What’s athletic? What’s smart? What’s pretty? I’d yet to identify with any of these things as constructs for self worth. Also, how cute is my mom?

Thanks to the encouragement of an outrageously cool boyfriend who saw me for way more than I saw myself (three cheers for Sam, y’all), I made the decision to see what else I could be, foregoing the chance to swim in college and quitting the sport after State, at which point I enrolled in the University of Kansas, joined a sorority and the newspaper and decided that Emily Hughey would be fun and smart. Stop.

Fast forward 17 years, a couple careers, an expat stint in Mexico, typhoid fever, eight years of meditation, an intricate soul mate relationship-turned-marriage, two children, one Enoughness Project and worlds of change later. I’m 34 years old and in the pool again—the same chlorine, the same black line and the same stroke count in from the flags to the wall—but this time around:

  1. I’m not all that smart, thank goodness. It’s such a relief not having to know everything.
  2. “Athletic,” “smart,” and “fun” aren’t even in the top five of things I have to offer these days. Oh, unless we’re out drinking, in which case “Fun Emily” reigns.
  3. While it’s just as unnerving to be in a swimsuit in front of boys as it once was, I’ve miraculously grown to (mostly) appreciate my body aesthetic for the first time ever.

Then what the deuce is up with the stuff that’s coming up right now?

If I’m supposedly so different from teenage Emily, so evolved beyond my adolescence, why are some of the familiar not-good-enough beliefs about myself cropping up as I get close to this meet? For example…

  • If I don’t swim less than 10 seconds over my best time from when I was 15 years old, am I not good enough?
  • If I don’t win all my races, am I not good enough?
  • If I lose, am I not good enough?
  • When there are other swimmer moms with way hotter bodies on that pool deck, am I not good enough?
  • If I take my race too seriously, am I not good enough?
  • If I’m not light-hearted enough about it all, am I not good enough?
  • If I don’t have an appropriate amount of fun…
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Is this fun enough!? Can I be laid back about swimming in a meet? Can I have fun racing again? We’ll see…

When I bore my friends, compassionate pals that they are (d’ya hear me, Sister, Brian, Jeff, cin and Kellie?) with this rant, they say, “Just have fun. Who cares? This is about fun. Your time doesn’t matter.” But, fact is, I’m not practiced at having fun swimming. Swimming was always a loaded thing for me. Swim fast; get props. Don’t; don’t. So if you want to feel good, you better do well.

It’s taken me a full four months just to get used to enjoying workouts—and I finally do. victory!—but this have-fun-and-be-chill-about-racing-don’t-link-performance-with-self-worth thing is new territory. How will it unfold?

I don’t know how it’s going to go, but the good news is I get to face it head-on at 8 a.m. Sunday, when the first gun goes off and my little guys, who’ve never even seen me in goggles, are cheering for me in the stands.

Wish me luck?

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I left this note, along with three lonely mozzarella sticks, for Brian and the boys before I left the house one recent Sunday afternoon. The swimmer Emily of old never would’ve had this on her training table–candy corns in abundance, yes, but never something loaded with so much fat. I invite that Emily to sit down. This time around is about fun.