While speaking to the swim team at my high school alma mater recently, I was asked what my goals in high school swimming were. My primary goal was to win the 500 free at states. I fell short both years that I competed for my high school team and recalled being extremely disappointed by my performances, but I didn’t actually remember what place I got either year. I had to find my medals when I got home in order to relearn what place I finished.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized how little the actual outcomes mattered. For example, I know that I scored (finished in the top 16) in one event each year in college swimming. But, I don’t remember which event I scored in and what place I finished during my junior season. My memories of playing bounce-the-bottle at club swim meets and befriending teammates that I still keep in touch with in the boiler room at 14&U states way back in 2005 stick in my mind much clearer than any swim meet I ever competed in during my 12 year career as a competitive swimmer. The lessons I learned about perseverance as well as the friendships I forged are what matter most to me looking back on those 12 years.
This reflection also impacted my personal outlook on this past year. 2016 was a breakout year for me, but the successes that I had were very different. I won two world cups, the first of which was in Chengdu. My approach to the race was very methodical. I started the race believing that I could win as long as I set myself up throughout the race. I had raced the major players in the field multiple times and had a good idea of what to expect from them. I had already finished second at a world cup and I saw the race as an opportunity to move into the only place left at that level. I believed that my preparation was adequate to accomplish my outcome goal and all that was left to do was to actually do it. I believed that I belonged at the front of the race, so I put myself there and didn’t let up.
My first WTS win in Edmonton was very different. Edmonton was only my fourth WTS start. My previous best finish at that level was 14th. I didn’t (and still don’t) have very much experience racing the top women at this level. The conditions were the exact opposite of every other race I had performed well in until that day. I found my confidence during the race.
Until that day, I thought that I had to see myself as a contender and believe in my ability to finish in X place in order to accomplish that goal. What I have to do is put in the work on a daily basis, and on race day, focus on one thing after another, in that moment, in order to have a chance of putting myself in the game.
I accomplished something huge in Edmonton, a major career goal for me. Something that I believed I was capable of long term, but not during the 2016 season. Athletes who I follow and greatly respect were coming up to me after the race with congratulatory wishes. I was extremely thrilled with my result, but I also felt like an imposter. Nothing about me was different, except that I accomplished a major goal. Two days later, I was back at the Poway Chipotle dropping my tortilla chips all over the floor like the clumsy disgrace that I always have been. Edmonton, in conjunction with my other reflections on this season and really, my entire athletic career, made me realize the following:
These things are impacted by my successes (or lack thereof):
- Pre- and post-race commitments
- My professional confidence
- The races I select and the goals I set for those races
These things are not impacted by my successes (or lack thereof):
- My relationships
- Who I am as a person
- My love of competition
- Virtually anything that matters outside of sport
What is impacted by my successes is important in the context of my career. At some point, if you aren’t making money and finding opportunities you are going to have to hang things up and stop calling yourself a professional. However, the things that will endure past this chapter of my life are not impacted by success or failure. Rather, they are impacted by my reaction to my successes and failures. The lessons I learn trying to accomplish my goals will stick with me. I suspect many of these lessons will come in handy because sport is hard, just like life.
This year challenged and changed my beliefs on what it takes to succeed. I don’t have to be some sort of super human who has everything together and is capable of perfectly executing a calculated and methodical race. My best races are going to have ugly moments and failures inside of them and leading up to them. Success and failure are mutually inclusive.