Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Two Important Years

What would you say if I told you that the two most important years of my swimming career actually didn't involve any swimming?

By the end of my high school swimming career, I was burnt out. Two years of hard practice after hard practice with very little improvement left me completely discouraged. I went on to swim as a Freshman at Lehigh University, but my heart wasn't in it. I barely scraped through that first year... and at some point the following summer, I decided I was done.

Two great years went by. I suddenly found my schedule filled with free time that I would have otherwise spent swimming, preparing to swim or recovering from swimming. My grades improved. My social life improved. By all accounts, I was on the up-and-up. I even started cycling during this time. But every time I walked by the pool, the smell of chlorine triggered an intense, nostalgic reaction. As much as I didn't want to admit it to myself, I missed swimming. I missed it a lot.

Toward the end of my Junior year, I made a decision: I was going to join the team again. I had no idea what affect two years out of the water would have had. I didn't know if I'd ever be able to contribute to the team.  I didn't even know if I'd make the team. But I knew I'd never forgive myself if I didn't try.

On the first day of my senior year, I went to the gym and introduced myself to Rob Herb, the newly-christened head coach of the Lehigh swim team. He was a stocky guy - thickly built with glasses and a quick, clipped way of speaking. He was taking over a team of what I'm sure some of the big-wigs in the athletics department would have called "delinquents." Rob was coming on board not just to coach swimming, but to change the culture of the team. He was a man on a mission.

He also wasn't very impressed when I came into his office and told him I wanted to swim again. (Maybe it was the shoulder-length, curly mop of hair that I had grown over the past two summers. Maybe not.)

"I don't think you can really expect to come back and perform well after taking two years off," he said, skeptically, "I don't know. Captains practices start next week, if you want to try." It was a short conversation (as all conversations with Rob tended to be), but it was clear from the get go: he didn't like me, and he didn't think I could do it.

As an athlete who has typically been motivated by a positive relationship with his coach, this was something new for me. The way Rob spoke, it sounded like a challenge. Instead of I want to do well for you, it became I want to do well in spite of you. I wanted to prove him wrong - more for my sake than his.

So I came to the first team meeting and the first practices, and every practice there after. I was rusty, but I gritted my teeth and pushed through. My times weren't great, but there was no pressure for them to be - I had no expectations for myself. Just the simple act of swimming was a victory in and of itself. I made great friends, too. I don't know why I didn't see it the first time, but the swim team was teeming with awesome, awesome people.

Best of all, I was having fun: more fun, I think, than I'd ever had.

Relative to my "previous career" as a swimmer, my Senior year wasn't very impressive - but I made it. And I wasn't done. When I decided to stay at Lehigh for a fifth year (and graduate with a second degree), I also petitioned for a retroactive "red shirt". College athletes are typically allotted only fours years of NCAA eligibility - but they have five years to use them. Pending league approval, I was going to get to swim one more year.

When I told Coach Rob of this, he was just as skeptical then as he had been the first time. "I guess you made it through one year, so...." was the closest thing to a compliment I think he ever paid me.

That second season was awesome - my best by far. I posted lifetime best times in nearly every event, scored points for the team at championships and was even a mid-season member of the "A" medley relay squad. I did what they all said I shouldn't be able to do: I came back. The last meet of my career was the best meet of my career, and where most of my teammates graduated and vowed never to swim again, I still felt fresh.

That time off saved me. I quit, miserable and burnt out. I reset - both physically and mentally - over two years. I came back completely refreshed and finally hit the peak I'd been searching for since my Junior year of high school. And Rob's skepticism didn't hurt - in fact, it probably fueled part of the fire that drive me those final two seasons. As John Locke would say, "Don't tell me what I can't do!"