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Back On The Blocks (If I Don’t Fall First)

I am empty nesting. Redefining who I am. Parts of me had been put on hold during those years when the focus shifted from me to raising my children. My children have successfully made their way to college and beyond. The immediacy of my day-to-day involvement has waned. And I have found those parts of me that were buried scratching at the surface, clawing their way from the depths they were tucked away, and itching to be re-exposed. The athlete I'd been all my life wanted out.

My kids were almost 5, 7, and 9 the last time I competed. They were well on the road to experimenting and experiencing the multitude of sports we exposed them to, and then their sports would become front and center. For 15 years, my world of athletics was that of my kids: baseball fields, tennis courts, and swimming pools. I turned my back to my own need to compete and enjoyed the ride that was theirs. I know some people managed to stay competitive while parenting; I would have found it distracting. Kids are yours only so long before they fly the coop. I would give up my career as well for them. I was lucky like that. There's no way we could have done what we did logistically with both of us working. That I had the choice is not lost on me. But I will admit that I found myself occasionally lost as the nest was emptying. Now that it is empty, things have come full circle, back to my passions. And focusing on the one thing I did not all those years: me😊.

I was a swimmer growing up. Then I transitioned to triathlon. And back to Master's swimming when I no longer had the time to put into training for three sports. My younger adult competitive years happened in spurts between college and my career. Then kids came, and it morphed into 16 years since I last competed. The occasional 5K Turkey Trot was not something I raced anymore; it was something I did so I could eat! Exercise has always been my outlet, but workout intensity gave way to workout necessity during those years.

In July 2021, I decided to get back into the water and start swimming again. I had no more excuses. I found myself missing it. I went back to Master's swimming. Not surprisingly, many of the same familiar faces welcomed me back to the pool. It was a grind to find my strokes again, figure out a cadence that worked, and commit to swimming several days a week. My schedule was flexible, no longer dictated by others, so my list of excuses was irrelevant. I love going to those workouts, being with the people I swim with, and pushing myself again.

While I was contemplating the return to Master's swim meets, I realized my greatest hope at success personally was to temper my expectations. I am not the swimmer I used to be in my youth or even my thirties when I last competed. If only swimming were like golf: for every year we age, we get a time handicap so some of us can reconcile our new normal with the old one that serves as a reminder of faster days in a by-gone era. To clarify, though, some wickedly fast swimmers in every age category of Master's swimming seem to defy getting slower with age. I genuinely marvel at them.

I am older, smarter, wiser, and I know my limitations better these days. My body constantly reminds me of this. I have established new rules to ease my return to competition. Rule number one is mentioned above: modify (or lose) all expectations. Rule number two is to forget you were once any good. Rule number three is to find events few others do so that you can get a false sense of accomplishment when you place well. And rule number four is just to have fun figuring it out.

It's been a long time since I stood atop a starting block, waiting for the ref's whistle to blow, indicating it was time to step up on the blocks. Thinking of diving off the blocks again was a scary thought. I wondered if I could even grab the edge of the block with my permanently knotted hamstrings. I hoped I wouldn't cramp in the middle of butterfly or backstroke. It seems there's never a Master's swim workout where one of us isn't clinging to the lane line or wall massaging a calf muscle that cramped. If I swim that 200 fly, will I feel compelled to get out midway through, wondering what I was really thinking with rule number three?!

Thanks to the strange times we live in, I recently did two meets on back-to-back weekends. And I truly loved every minute of it. I met amazing people. I made national qualifying times. I did not cramp before, during, or after any swims. I successfully jumped off the blocks every time. (I could be seen doing hamstring stretches on deck beforehand; I was not going to be outdone by an 80-year-old with a cane who could!) I finished the 200 fly both times I did it. I have been inspired by all the different people out there competing. Some have stories like mine. Some are new to the sport. Some have survived cancer. Others have had major surgery. A few have special needs. Some were top collegiate swimmers and Olympic trialists—every one of them inspirations with unique stories to tell.

I head to Texas next month to compete in Master's Nationals. My goal was to make the qualifying cuts without judging how slow they sounded when I saw them. It was part of my readjustment process: accepting that doing is so much more than saying these days. The bottom line is I am undertaking something I have always loved to do and am so lucky to be back at it. I am excited to see some incredible swims across a spectrum of ages. I will marvel at former Olympians just as much as the octogenarians (and older) who still possess the physical means to swim competitively. I will accept that I am not what I once was, but I know I will have fun trying and enjoy every moment of this journey back to competition.


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