Wins & Losses: A Reflection on What I’ve Lost + Gained in Life After Sport
By Madeline Barlow, Ph.D.
“For years after swimming ended, I blamed the sport for taking so much from me. I felt so much regret for the hold it had over me, as I felt it is what kept me at a school and with people who were not good for me. My healing journey has helped me understand that swimming and the pool did no wrong. I’ve taken my power and energy back. I’ve looked inward and found acceptance, love, and connection with the human behind the mask I had worn all those years.”
From the ages of eight to 22, my life revolved around the pool. The water was my second home. It supported me in ways that no one else could. The world we live in is often too much, especially for a highly sensitive person, a trait I only recently recognized within myself. Things get too loud, too bright, too intense. Then you add in the emotions of the people living in the world–frustration, anger, sadness, grief, fear, and anxiety. Outside of the pool, I didn’t know how to handle it all. Under the surface? I felt protected. The water was my safe space…
…until it wasn’t.
A story many athletes resonate with is the love/hate relationship between you and your sport. For more than 10 years, I loved swimming with all my heart. It gave me some of the highest highs of my life. I’ll never forget the feeling of diving off the block for a 200 Individual Medley at the Zippy Invitational my freshman year of college. I was seeded 4th going into finals, something that was a bit foreign to me at the time. Right before I went up to the blocks, a teammate of mine whispered, “You could win!” I had never thought much about winning until this moment. I was the swimmer who dove in and raced the clock, not other swimmers. If I happened to beat them, so be it. My energy and attention were more focused on the process than it was on the outcome.
But then something incredible happened. I dove in. I swam my heart out. I won! To top it off, I broke a school record from 1985 and made an NCAA ‘A’ cut time. It was an out-of-body experience, to say the least.
From that moment forward, even though I didn’t realize this at the time, my energy and attention drifted towards the outcome. Towards winning. Away from the process. This was when my relationship with the sport of swimming changed. This was when I began to lose myself.
A number of things happened over the course of my four years swimming in college, including extremely negative experiences with roommates/teammates, what felt like the most embarrassing swim of my life (at my freshman year championship meet), and a constant battle with swimmer’s shoulder.
It’s these experiences that led me to fall out of love with swimming. I began to resent the water. Yet, I couldn’t leave it behind and I chose to push through. This left me feeling empty; like a shell of the person and swimmer I once was. For the next three years, I wore a mask. I covered up my true, sensitive Self in an attempt to push away the (physical and emotional) pain. I tried to “be tough,” as is expected of athletes. This led me to fall entirely out of touch with my true Self, with my intuition.
I know now that our bodies have deep wisdom. Our body will tell us exactly what we need and how much we can handle (or can’t). As an athlete, though, we tend to shut down this wisdom in an attempt to reach our goals by pushing through stress, pain, and exhaustion.
By the end of my senior year, to say I was burnt out is the understatement of the century. My body and soul were calling for rest; for change. Yet my mind shouted, “KEEP PUSHING!”
So, I did. All the way to the end.
And when I hit the wall of what ended up being the final 100 butterfly and race of my swimming career, all the mental and emotional pain I had pushed away came rushing to the surface. It hit me like a MAC truck. At the same time, it felt like a piece of me had died and left my body. I had never felt so overwhelmed in my life.
On the surface, people may have thought I was upset because I didn’t reach my goal time (which is true, I was). But if anyone had taken a moment to understand what I was feeling, they would have realized it went so much deeper than that.
The moment I hit the wall, I had lost my first and greatest love. It was gone forever. Or at least that is what it felt like. It also brought this chapter of my life to a close. Something I hadn’t prepared for in any way.
When swimming ended I felt like I lost my second home; my safe space. In addition to that, I lost my sense of Self, as “swimmer” was how I identified for 14 years. And to make matters worse, throughout my college years, I had covered up my true Self SO MUCH that I felt lost entirely. It only took one second for me to go from floating around in a pool to a shell of a human floating around with no direction or purpose in the world.
After getting back to campus, I wanted nothing to do with swimming or the pool in general. I couldn’t even look at it. It truly felt like dealing with a bad breakup. I wanted NO CONTACT.
As luck may have it, I received my first graduate school acceptance letter that first week out of our championship meet. It felt like a saving grace. At the same time, it allowed me to push away my feelings of loss. To avoid the pain and grief, like I had been doing for the last few years. About two months later, I committed to a master’s program to study Psychology at UNC-Wilmington. I chose to leave all my problems behind.
At least, I tried to.
Despite my best efforts, my emotional baggage took the trip to North Carolina with me. I did everything in my power to keep it shoved in my emotional suitcase, so to speak. But every now and then, it would escape, typically if I had one too many drinks on the weekend.
For the first six months in North Carolina, I continued to avoid thoughts of swimming. But then, I started to miss it… Not getting up at 5:30 am to jump in a cold pool. No, I would never miss that! Rather, I missed being a part of something bigger than myself.
At this point, my journey took a turn. I reflected on my experience as an athlete and realized one thing: The low moments might not have felt so low if I had had the right support. It was at that moment I decided I wanted to become the person and support I never had, so I applied to Ph.D. programs in Sport Psychology. And then, I got accepted!
The following three years were tough but nothing compared to my fourth year. I had yet to deal with the grief from the loss of swimming. Then, suddenly, I was hit with the biggest loss of my life: The unexpected death of my cousin, Tommy. As an only child, Tommy and his twin sister, Emily, were the closest thing I had to siblings. The loss was unimaginable.
I was faced with two choices: Continue to push away all my feelings or face them head-on. I chose door number two and started therapy shortly after.
This was all happening as I entered the final year of my Ph.D. and started my new (and first) job at a Division 1 University. It was extremely overwhelming, and it took a major toll on my body. Come February 2019 and I found myself walking to the ER with chest pains. 14 years of swimming and I had never experienced anything like it.
I came to find out, through holistic practices like acupuncture and reiki energy healing, that I had been carrying the years and years of emotional weight from my swimming and life experiences. I had never processed these emotions, and so, they remained within me.
Our emotions live in the body, not the mind, so it makes sense that it was my body that eventually broke down under the weight of it all.
Upon this realization, I began my process of unbecoming all the ways of doing and being that no longer served me. I began to recognize and release the emotional weight of my past. And, in time, I found my way home to my true Self. She was there all along, yet I had neglected her. My healing journey has been and will continue to be about finding love and acceptance for my authentic Self; for my sensitive soul.
Now, I have processed (and continue to work through) the many things I lost during my swimming experience or the actual loss of the sport and my athlete identity. I’ve also come to realize all that I have gained.
I’ve unlocked my creative and feminine spirit, moving from ALWAYS doing and striving to finding balance and inspiration through rest.
I have gained infinite choice: The choice to move my body how I want, the choice to surround myself with the people I feel the most comfortable with, and the choice to live in alignment with my true Self.
Finally, and most importantly, I have gained a deep and loving connection with my intuitive voice, the voice that I silenced for too many years in an effort to reach my swimming goals. This voice is now a guide for me and the athletes I serve as a Mental Performance Coach and Life After Sport Specialist. The key is to slow down, tune in, and listen with an open mind and heart.
For years after swimming ended, I blamed the sport for taking so much from me. I felt so much regret for the hold it had over me, as I felt it is what kept me at a school and with people who were not good for me.
My healing journey has helped me understand that swimming and the pool did no wrong. I’ve taken my power and energy back. I’ve looked inward and found acceptance, love, and connection with the human behind the mask I had worn all those years. In my case, my goggles were my mask. Now, 9 years later, my goggles remain hung up and I opt for showing up in the world as the highly sensitive, smart and hard-working, music-loving, silly yet serious Self that I am. This is me at my core plus so much more!
For those of you who resonate with any aspect of this story: I see you. You aren’t alone.
This is also a reminder that there is no rush to “figure it all out” in life after sport. Because your life’s not a race. You’re in no rush. You are right where you need to be.
If you feel called, reach out for support, as I truly believe it is the strongest thing you will ever do in sport or in life after.
Sending you love, always.