Every Swimmer’s Most Feared Decision: Knowing When to Quit

By Jane

When I was a swimmer, the idea of quitting was rather horrible. It has been eighteen months since I last stashed my Fastskin suit in the back of a wardrobe and made my decision not to race again and it was a far easier choice than I’d imagined it would be.

I quit swimming at midday on March 18, 2006. I hadn’t planned on it, but that was the way it panned out. In the morning, I swam in the preliminaries of the 200 yard breaststroke at the NCAA Championships in Athens, Georgia. I didn’t do all that well: I think my time was 2:16.1, but I don’t remember exactly. My best time was, and still is, 2:14.92. My first 100 yards was a 1:04 and things went downhill from there. I’d done all right on the first day of the championships, competing in the 200 IM and recording a time only slightly slower than my best. I wasn’t much of an IMer and had snuck into the 200 IM with a B-cut.

I’m being totally honest here, which is strange for me because I’ve never liked being painfully honest about swimming. For most of my life, swimming validated my existence. An insult to my swimming was a strike right at the heart of who I was. It was as though I had nothing else. Quite honestly, I didn’t really care about swimming anymore when I finally quit. I think I stopped caring about swimming on November 20, 2005, when I qualified for NCAAs. My 2:14.92, swum at the University of Minnesota, wasn’t fast enough to guarantee my place in the NCAA Championships, but it was good enough that I was 99% sure I’d be going down to Georgia in March. In hindsight, that was enough for me. I was getting close to graduation and hadn’t swum a personal best time in the 200 breaststroke since February 2003. Recording a best time in Minnesota was like a gift from heaven.

That swim, in my opinion, made up for a lot of the work and stress and agony I’d gone through. At that point, I started to wind down. Should I have maintained the motivation to swim a 2:13 or a 2:12 at NCAAs? Sure I should have. But now, I finally have the balls to admit that I lost a certain amount of interest once I knew I’d made it to NCAAs. A week before I went to college, I’d expressed the excitement I felt about competing at the NCAA Champs to a fellow swimmer in New Zealand. “Well,” she’d said. “That’s if you make it.”

Finally, I had made it, damnit. However, mentally exhausted and reaching the pinnacle of my physical ability, I’d had about as much as I could handle.

I swam that NCAA preliminary race and got dressed. I doubt I even swam in the warm down pool. A personal best time would have made it back for a night time swim. My time did not. I went out to lunch with my mother and got a bit drunk. We were drinking red wine. I just stated talking and I couldn’t stop. My mother was a runner – a very accomplished runner who represented Great Britain and New Zealand at numerous international competitions. She still holds the New Zealand record over 1000 metres. She understood what I was doing and where I was coming from: I had to talk to someone, but most importantly, I had to talk to myself about how I was done with a sport I’d taken part in since I was six years old. I had to convince myself that it was okay to quit and that I wasn’t a complete loser for calling “Time” on something that (I thought) made me who I was.

Now, I can’t type “goggles” properly. My fingers always type Google, which is indicative of how my life and my career have changed. I now work in search engine optimisation and Internet marketing. There was life after swimming and I needn’t have feared “retirement”, a term I dislike as it’s used far too liberally by people who shy away from the word “quit.” I am not ashamed to use the Q word and I don’t want anyone else to be, either. Knowing when to quit is just as important as toughing it out.

That the end of my swimming career coincided with the end of my college scholarship and undergraduate education was fortunate. However, not given the financial incentive, I probably would have stopped a little earlier. The “high note” to have gone out on would have been after Minnesota. I always told myself that I’d quit after I believed I’d become as good as I was ever going to get. A combination of factors meant that I was not going to get any better. The first factor was that, despite being born with an injury-free spoon in my mouth, I was beginning to suffer from more and more frequent strains in my legs. Not being able to complete a proper breaststroke kick is a big hindrance to swimming good breaststroke and the 200 breast was the only event in which I was ever really competitive.

I’m not trying to encourage anyone to quit, but I wanted to write this for people who want an out but are scared. I know why you’re scared. You’re scared of ridicule from those you leave behind. There is a stigma around leaving the sport. Swimming is all-encompassing activity and when you’re immersed in it, you really believe that it is the only thing that makes your life worthwhile. You hear people talk badly about people who have quit. You are scared about what they’ll say about you. Don’t be.

It doesn’t matter. Once you leave a sport, you must realise that what you left behind ceases to be of any importance. I am getting ahead of myself, but it’s an important point to remember when you’re wondering how people will react to your retirement. You may have lived with these people, breathing swimming like it was precious air during a breathing control set, for years. But once you’re done, their opinions on your swimming don’t mean anything to you.

Another thing you may be worried about is finding something to take swimming’s place. What do you do with that time? More importantly, what do you do with that energy? For me, the energy question was taken care of with running. I found my dream job in order to take care of the extra time. However, the overriding problem is finding something to define yourself. This won’t be a problem for everyone, but it was for me. I had very little self-confidence when I was younger (despite my best efforts to pretend otherwise), but getting better at swimming helped me feel good about myself.

That afternoon in Georgia, I was worried that giving up swimming would result in me giving up a big chunk of my confidence and identity. In actuality, I found that my choice relieved me of a huge burden. Instead of being lost and unsure like I thought I’d be, I could look back on everything I’d done and view it as a whole. It was over, and I could be confident and proud of what I’d done, without worrying about what I still had to do.

All swimmers have at least a small fear of quitting. While there is no guarantee that everyone’s exit from the sport will go as well as mine, there is little to be afraid of. Your life isn’t rendered unimportant once you’re done swimming. You don’t cease to exist. What of those whom you left behind who may have you believe otherwise? Honestly, you’ll forget those snarky poolside discussions about teammates-past in the same way you’ll forget the pain of timed swims, test sets and bad meets. The greatest thing about quitting swimming is that the good memories stay as good and the bad memories fade. I still remember the elation and ecstasy of my swim in Minnesota, just like I remember all the good swims and hard-fought achievements. The horrible practices and dismal performances are distant recollections.

No one can tell an athlete when to stop and many go on too long. Save for the most dense participants, most of us know when our time is up. Do not quit just because you’re about to graduate, turn 18, turn 21, change jobs or do any number of things that constitute a change in your life. Quit because it’s time. Swimming isn’t the safety net you think it is, and you’ll find that you’re more than capable of making something of yourself without a pool, a workout and championship to work towards. The “real world” is pretty awesome. Never be afraid to go out and take a look.

  • josh

    This is the perfect article for me right now. Swimming is, as you said, an all-encompassing lifestyle. I was so afraid of what would happen to me if I gave it up. Two days ago I knew, in an instant, that I was done. I had the best meet of my life, getting a best time every time I hit the water. Once that elation wore off, I realized that I had nothing more to give to the sport or to achieve in it- I was weary from all the years of 3+ hour practices for that less-than-a-second drop in my 50 or 100 freesytle time. I feel so much better about my decision to quit after reading this article, so thank you.

  • Courtney

    I’ve been swimming year round since I was 6 years old and I’m 16 now. I want to quit because i’m just through with it and I dont look forwarded to it anymore. But since i’ve been doing it my whole life I dont just want to quit, but then I really do

  • sarah

    . i have been swimming competively since i was 5 and im 14 now too. i have gone back and forth with my decision to quit. i used to love swimming and it used to be my life, but now i dread every practice. i have even emailed my coach that i was quitting, but then i email him right back saying i was just kidding. i dont know why, but i guess when it comes down to it, im just afraid to quit. i feel like if i do i will get fat. honestly. i eat. alot. ive never really tried another sport, because all ive done is swimming. but tonight i made my decision that i am going to quit, and maybe join track and soccer, even though i hate running. so yeah i guess it’s nice to know that other people out there are having the same issue as me.

  • Emma

    Wow. I loved that because its so true. I started swimming when I was three and ended at 12 after being an international youth champion because of a serious injury. I still live in the shadow of who I was before I quit and I still try and be the girl who I was before. I tell a scarce amount of people about who I was before they knew me. Its so great to know that someone else cares and is going through the pain that I as and still am.

  • Jamie

    Sarah you won’t get fat. the reason you eat alot is because your a swimmer and you need alot of energy to keep going you’ll feel hungry at first but after a while you most likely won’t.
    i’m also having the same problem as you guys i’m 13 and i feel like i want to quit however i’m national standard and everyone around me says i’m really talented, They’re probably correct but i just don’t enjoy swimming any more, especially in the morning. Now i’ve read the article i’ve decided that the best time for me to quit is to wait till the end of the season and then quit.
    thanks for writing the articleit has really helped.

  • Paige

    I’m 13. I have major shoulder problems because of swimming. There were so many times I was 99% sure I wanted to quit, but that 1% always got in the way- and I ended up sticking it out, and kept swimming. I got my nationals cut this past summer, and I thought it was the best feeling in the world. I thought, the next time I want to quit, I’ll think about nationals and I’ll be okay. It worked, one time. Now I want to quit so badly it’s all I can think about. I want to quit. I don’t like swimming. It’s tedious. I’m scared that if I quit, I’ll have nothing else to do, and I’ll lose myself. I’m not scared anymore. I can find something. This article has helped me realize that my decision is my decision and I should be confident in that decision. I’m ready to quit swimming. I’m done. Thank you for helping.

  • Dejan

    Honestly, this is one of the most reassuring thing I have ever read. thank you so much for sharing your story. What people don’t realize is how irrelevant swimming is to success in life. People such as myself, have a fear of feeling like a failure or a quitter for deciding to leave this time consuming sport. Swimming is just one of those things where you are either in, or you’re out. There is no middle, either you are completely devoted and dedicated to it or you’re not. For me, I have been on that barrier line for about a year now. I’m 15 and 1/2, male swimming in Ontario, Canada. I’ve been faced with great difficulty in swimming due to my shoulder injury. I literally have a bone sticking out of my shoulder. However, this is not the reason I wanted to/ still want to leave this sport. I was just unhappy with it and i hated it. I dreaded/ still dread my life because of it, I see each practice as a glimpse of hell. I’m almost at a final decision of quitting because recently this burden has just made me unbelievably depressed. It is all i can think about it. My parents are very against me quitting because they think I’ll make bad choices afterwards. they think I want to quit because of a social life which is completely inaccurate. Kids my age need to realize that quitting swimming must be for a good reason and not simply because you want to go out and have fun. That could be advantage but not a main reason. do not be afraid of criticize because you need to do what makes YOU happy and not worry about your coaches or parents opinions. Be careful what you choose but never do anything you don’t enjoy because you will regret it later on.

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  • Josh

    So conflicted about quitting swimming right now. I’ve come to completely hate the sport but I’ve invested so much of my life into it I don’t know if I can just throw it all away. Swimming is also a huge part of my identity, that’s how I identify myself to the world and it just feels like giving up swimming would be like giving up who I am. I only have 2 more years until I can quit for good but I don’t know if I can stick it out when I’ve lost all passion for the sport I once loved.

    • catherine

      I know how you feel. I want to keep swimming to be able to stay with my friends and have at least that be my social life yet I’m so done with it. I’m confused with everything. It’s bringing my grades down because the group I am in is so demanding and I don’t need the pushing of my coach anymore. It’s too much.