11 life lessons that swimming taught me

time in the pool taught me far more than time in the classroom

Photo by Northeastern University Swim Club

Hair up in a swimmer bun (now popularized as the “octopus bun”), dry skin, permanently reeking of chlorine, Speedo backpack hanging off of broad shoulders… you can spot a swimmer from a mile away.

I started swimming “late” for most people—when I was almost 12—and it was a difficult transition from gymnastics. I hated it at first. I hated feeling like I couldn’t breathe, I hated being last in the lane, I hated the foreign feeling of being submerged in the water. I got so anxious before every single practice that I had to sit in the car and practice deep breathing so I wouldn’t hyperventilate in the pool.

And it was the first time I started a sport without my little sister. It was just me and the water.

I was so scared.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I had progressed from the “Green” group to the “Purple” group in our club swim team. I no longer needed to do deep breathing; I found comfort in the steady pulse of the pool, found companionship in my teammates, found a love for pushing myself to go faster, to keep my technique correct, to make it through the last set.

They say that swimmers are a special breed, and I may be biased, but I believe that swimming teaches you life lessons that you carry with you for the rest of your life, long after you’ve hung up your cap and your goggles.

1. How to Love and Properly Fuel My Body

I was always interested in health and nutrition, but my swim coach was the first to tell me that it was OK to each as much as my dad (or more). That we should listen to our bodies and fuel ourselves with wholesome foods. That we were beautiful and strong and capable.

There’s not a huge pressure to be “skinny” in swimming. Sure, you want to be lean, because then you’re more hydrodynamic. But my concerns lay with making sure I had enough fuel to sustain myself through 2+ hour practices, not if eating that second sandwich would make me fat.

We admired each others’ abs. We appreciated each others’ broad shoulders. It’s not to say that none of us had fat, but we understood that how we looked wasn’t an indicator of how fast we were—how we swam and how hard we worked was an indicator of how fast we were.

One poignant example: my coach pulled our two fastest swimmers up in front of us one day. One was probably around 115 lbs and the other around 130. They swam almost the same speed on their 100 freestyles. Her point? Our appearances and our weight have less of an impact on our speed than you think.

2. You’re Always Part of Something Bigger Than Yourself

Photo by Northeastern University Swim Club

Swimming may be an individual sport, but there are no teammates closer than swimmers. When you spend 15+ hours in the pool together, pushing each other to go faster for longer, when you nap on each others’ shoulders and sing along to Taylor Swift on long bus rides to swim meets, when you endure the same brutal sets, you build a bond that never breaks.

At meets, you may be competing against your teammates in some events, but you’re scored as a team. Even beyond that, your teammate’s success is your success. You’re happy for them. You know they’ve worked hard for that PR, for that first place, for that relay spot. Not that you haven’t worked hard, but you are happy for them nonetheless.

You go and look at your teammates, at the awesome things that they’re accomplishing, and you don’t begrudge them. You don’t hate the faster swimmers, you love them. You look up to them. And you support them.

Relays especially—I’ve seen people pull amazing feats on the relays. One obvious example is Jason Lezak’s leg at the 2008 Olympics, when he helped Michael Phelps win another Olympic gold medal. It’s because you’re not swimming for yourself. You’re swimming for your team, for your teammates; you’re part of something bigger than yourself.

3. How to Lead Effectively (And Not Effectively)

One of my favorite leadership experiences was as the co-captain for the women’s varsity team in high school; I later became the treasurer and then president of the women’s club team in college. Both were vastly different experiences, and taught me important lessons.

As a high school co-captain, I learned the necessity of appreciating every single team member, not just the fast ones. It’s so important to have everyone feel like they belong. I learned to communicate, to work with my fellow captains, and to lead by example. Even if I didn’t want to be at practice, I was always smiling, laughing, and above all, working hard.

As the college club president, it was a complete 180 from where I’d been in high school. I was capable of running the club and handling the administrative tasks, but the stress of co-running the team, working 40+ hours a week at a full-time internship, managing a team of 20+ writers, and more, were taking a toll on me. I was also significantly slower than I had been in high school and even my freshman year of college.

I wasn’t leading by example. I was burnt out: leaving practice early, swimming in the slow lane, working only as hard as I had to in order to burn the amount of calories I thought I had consumed that day—not something that any swimmer should focus on.

And so I left. I was doing more harm than good. It’s OK to say no, to give up, to hand it off to someone who will do better than you would.

4. Learn from People Better Than You—Regardless of Their Age

Swimming is humbling because oftentimes, people who are younger than you are faster. Whether that’s because they started when they were five, are naturally talented, or just have youth on their side, who knows.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from them. Age is irrelevant; whether it’s pre-race routines, technique, after-practice refueling, etc., there’s always tips to be shared.

5. How to Be Mentally Disciplined

Photo by Northeastern University Swim Club

Mind over body.

My coach once told me that if you’re uncomfortable and you back off because of that discomfort, you’ll never reach your fullest potential.

It’s when you reach that breaking point and push past it that you increase your pain threshold, that you grow, that you improve.

If you want proof, it’s a tangible thing. I’ve felt it—when you reach that point, you have a choice. You can either back down, or you can push past it.

That choice sets you up for the rest of practice, and potentially, the rest of season.

The magic that happens once you decide to break past your threshold? You don’t feel anymore physical pain. You feel like you’re floating, as if you could go forever.

And what happens if you decide to back down? You spend the rest of the practice dying a little bit but not quite enough to improve.

It takes more mental strength than physical strength to finish a set sometimes. It takes so much mental strength to jump in the pool and give it your all when it’s your second practice of the day and you have 2 brutal hours in front of you and you’re so tired you just want to sink to the bottom of the pool. But that strength to keep going is what differentiates between an average swimmer and a fast swimmer.

6. How You Work Under Pressure

Photo by Janine Davis

Meets are even more of a mental game. I’ve had meets (Nationals, dual meets, championship meets), where I’ve cried in the warm up/cool down pool because I was so upset over my times. I had such high expectations for myself, and I felt like I let myself down.

I’ve hit plateaus, when I know I’ve worked as hard as I can, put in as many hours as I can, and my times don’t budge. When you’re a swimmer, every millisecond counts.

And I’ve had meets where everything works perfectly. There are many physical factors of meets (rain, nutrition, sleep, etc.), but more importantly, the mental stress is something you have to learn to handle — you learn how you work under pressure, what triggers you and what doesn’t, and how to optimize your stress and adrenaline.

7. How to Prioritize and Schedule My Time Wisely

Photo by Jen Hayashi

When your day starts at 5AM with practice, then a full day of school, and then another practice and you don’t get home until 7 or 8PM, you learn to schedule your time efficiently so that you can finish your homework and make it to practice and sleep.

There’s no time for BS or procrastinating here—if you waste your time, you find yourself drowning in schoolwork, which your parents and teachers will yell at you for; not making it to practice, which your coaches will yell at you for; not sleeping, which you’ll yell at yourself for.

My favorite way of scheduling is via iCal and a physical planner (I swear by the Passion Planner), but you’ll quickly find what works for you.

8. Embrace My Weird and Own It

Photo by Hazel Santos

Besides our awesome muscles and dead hair, we’re also known for being quirky (to put it nicely). Maybe the chlorine makes us weird—who knows? But all sorts of weirdness is always accepted in the team, and we showed each other it’s perfectly acceptable to be weird.

Case in point? Our fab swimmer buns—this pic was taken right after we did down dog (AKA the yoga pose with your butt up in the air) in the grass at a rival high school. Yolo.

9. Fear Nothing

Photo by Hana Fox

I didn’t realize how many people were afraid of swimming in the deep water where you can’t see the bottom or see the end of the horizon.

But swimming taught me to lose my fear of the unknown. To dive into the deep and know that it’ll be ok. Both metaphorically and literally.

Growing up by Malibu, we’d drive to the beach and swim out as far as we could until we couldn’t stand and the shore was far in the distance. We’d stay in until it was too cold. We didn’t fear losing sight of the shore, didn’t fear being crushed by the waves, didn’t fear anything.

Fun fact: We did get yelled at by the lifeguard. Though once they saw we had Jolyns on, they realized we were swimmers and let us do us.

10. How to Find Peace in the Chaos

Photo by Kathy Kang

There’s nothing as peaceful as diving into a completely still pool, with the sunlight filtering through the clear water. Even when the pool is crowded and basically a madhouse, with 10+ people per lane, you can find peace if you try. You lose yourself in the water, in your own thoughts, in the inhale exhale inhale exhale.

You become in tune with your breath. You learn to find peace in the busiest of moments, to breathe in and out as you need, to find a home in the solitude of the water, and know that if you ever want to return to the hustle and bustle of life, you can.

11. How to Appreciate Fitness and Strength, and Carrying That Through Life

Photo by Nick Cosky

After swimming my last race, I didn’t stop working out altogether. After 10+ years as a competitive athlete, I didn’t know how to not move my body.

I took up boxing, but that was just the beginning.

From there, I ran my first half marathon, my first full marathon, a Tough Mudder, a Spartan Race, started yoga again, and am generally always up for any workout or workout class.

One caveat that’s dangerous for retired swimmers: it’s so easy to overdo it. We’re used to doubles, but remember that HIIT 2x a day every day is not the same as carefully curated workouts by coaches who know what they’re doing.

And rest days are so appreciated during swim season—Sundays were my treasured do-nothing-and-lay-about days, but when you’re in charge of making your own workout schedule, you can easily forget that. Remember to rest and do what your body needs, and no more.

Bonus: Swimming Memes and Things Only Swimmers Understand

Swimmers love #swimerprobs and swim memes. So many things only swimmers understand.

Engagement Question

My fellow swimmers—any life lessons you’ve learned that I missed?