Swimmer 2.0

All of the Wassner sisters grew up swimming on the UMCY Stingrays team. Laurel and I "aged-out," swimming with the team until we were 18, but both Sarah and Aliza stopped in 9th grade. Now, after years away from the pool, our younger and older sisters have started swimming again to prepare for upcoming triathlons. Today Sarah checks in with thoughts on her decision to stop swimming as a kid and starting back up again as an adult. --Bec

As I build my swimming strength for my upcoming triathlon season, I’ve been spending as many as 10 hours a week in the pool this winter. All of that solitary quiet has given my mind plenty of time to wander—and it often creeps back into those dark, dusty crevices of my mind that have sat dormant for far too long. It’s like hitting rewind on the DVR in my brain and transporting myself back to days long forgotten—turning up the volume on memories that have been muted for years, as they emerge and reveal themselves in a new light. 

The other day, during a particularly long set, I started thinking about my abrupt departure from swimming as a teenager. For as long as I can remember, swimming was my world: Not so much an extra-curricular activity as an all-encompassing lifestyle. My sisters swam, my friends swam, weekends were dedicated to day-long meets and practices ate up almost every hour we didn’t spend in school or asleep. I was always decent but never bound for stardom; no thanks to the fact that I was perennially the puniest girl in my age-group and weighed about 80 pounds soaking wet as a 15-year-old. I had glimmers of promise at some points, but I was never going to make it to the Olympics, or any national-level meet. I knew it, my coach knew it. And perhaps that unspoken understanding made me start losing ambition—the kiss of death in a sport so rooted in razor-sharp focus and drive. 

Not to mention that by ninth grade I’d started running cross-country—a sport designed for 5-foot-nothing pipsqueaks. As my accomplishments in swimming waned, running brought me instant success. It was shiny and new and fun. I tried to keep up both sports; swimming at 5 a.m. and working out with the cross-country team after school.  That lasted for about a month. One early morning, as I dragged myself onto the pool deck before sunrise, my swim coach asked me why I was moving so slow. When I told him I was sore and tired from a cross-country meet the evening before (which I’d won), he looked me square in the eyes and told me that it was time to choose: I was going to have to pick either swimming or running. It was a punch to the gut. I took it as him telling me in a not-so-subtle way that he didn’t want me on the team. Pondering his ultimatum, running—and all of the shiny newness—won out. After 10 years of competitive swimming, that would be my last-ever 5 a.m. practice. 

Thinking back to that moment now two decades later, I wish I had been more thoughtful with my choice. To let my coach’s words motivate me to swim faster and prove him wrong. To show him that I could work just as hard in the pool as I did on the cross-country course. That I could handle it. Perhaps that’s all he meant to do. Maybe he just got sick of me making excuses and wanted to fire me up.  But as a 16-year-old—and a stubborn one at that—I took it as the ultimate low-blow. So I walked…no, ran…away from the sport I’d grown up with, cramming my goggles and caps and piles of suits to a bag in the corner in my closet, eventually losing my identity as a swimmer as those memories (both the great ones and the bad ones) sunk to the murky depths of my brain. 

And now, here I am, 20 years later. I’ve come full-circle: I’m back in the pool, logging more than seven miles a week. I’m not nearly as fast or smooth in the water. I will likely never hit the times I did as a kid. But I get a re-do to prove to myself that I can, in fact, handle the pressure of being a swimmer and a runner—and now a mom of three, too! The challenge is as daunting today as it was then. But, I’m ready for it all. 

And this time, I don’t have to choose. 

Have you ever gone back to something you gave up long ago? What was our experience the second time around?

--Sarah