I Quit: An Updated Guide To Swimming Retirement

By Jane

I pride myself on quitting both when I’m ahead and at the right time, and I quit swimming on March 18, 2006. I’ve written one post already about how I stayed fit post-swimming (and I’m down to size 1 and 2 jeans now, thanks for asking), but two years after I began running and almost three years after I last set foot on a starting block, I have a new outlook on maintaining a functional life, post-elite athletics.

Hello, random reader. You think this is overly dramatic and out of touch. “Maintaining a functional life, post-elite athletics?” How hard is it? You quit and you move on. Show up at the YMCA every Sunday and knock out a few 100s and pretend you’re still being given new Fastskins. (LZRs. Sorry. I am showing my age.) Hello, former competitive swimmer. You guys know what I mean.

The last day of my swimming career in Athens, Georgia

Random readers: don’t judge us for this. This sport consumed many of us for over a decade. We’d work studiously at it for three hours every morning and two hours every night. Once we left it, we had things to overcome. Swimming gave me some of the best moments of my life (but my no means all of them). The elation of my two best swims ever (December 2, 2001 and November 20, 2005) are only diminished by the fact that only one of them was caught on film. I didn’t have to look up those dates, either. Very little compares to swimming as fast as you can and feeling like you can swim ever faster.

Getting used to a life without that is tricky, and I was lucky in that I found something else I loved to do. However, I still have to remind myself of some things relatively often. I suggest you do the same:

  1. My former competitors no longer matter. To me.

    People I used to compete against have swum faster than I ever did in the two and a half years I’ve not been swimming. The longer I spend away from the sport, the more I understand that this doesn’t matter to me. Not only that, but the faster they swim, the more I recognise that their success means nothing to what I achieved. I can now be pleased for them. They went through as much pain and misery and hope and shit as I did.

  2. I’ll never shake my swimmer’s roots.

    Most people who run like to mix up their circuits. They like to take alternative roads. Running the same routes every day bores them. Whilst I can’t speak for all swimmers, this isn’t true for me. I run the same route every day. I know exactly where I am and, better still, I know how good or bad I’m feeling by how I feel at any given part of my run. I enjoy the consistency I learned by staring at the bottom of a swimming pool.

    Swimming teaches you an appreciation for the routines that other people call boredom. I think of them as the time I get to spend with myself, where I know exactly what should happen and where there are no surprises. This, undoubtedly, contributes to my unparalleled road rage when a cyclist runs a red light at one of my intersections. If you’re a cyclist, RED LIGHTS APPLY TO YOU, TOO. I enjoy pointing this out to you when you forget it.

  3. There is no point in resenting That Coach who committed That Crime.

    This said, I’m going to tell a story about a coach’s crime that pissed me off. It still does. I’m aware that there is no point in resenting it, and I’m trying not to. I’m not doing well.

    I swam badly at training camp, and at subsequent competitions, in the winter of 2005. Of course, by “badly”, I mean that I swam 14 seconds slower than my best time in the 200 breaststroke, and ended up in tears at the end of the UC Irvine Invitational. We’d driven from training camp in San Diego that morning. It was Fuck I’m Cold degrees Fahrenheit and I’ll never listen to Jesus of Suburbia without being in that van, content in the fact that at least we would be leaving Southern California that afternoon. My whole body had seized up and I could barely walk, let alone swim. I’d never been thinner, angrier, colder or more tired. My overriding memory of the week before my twenty-first birthday was of being freezing cold. The only thing I could do reasonably well was long aerobic work, such as 6 x 800m sets. I ate those up. Anything shorter and faster was beyond me.

    This does not look like Hell. It was.

    Later that year, I took a (previously approved) week away from my college town in between finishing my final exams and beginning a session of summer school. Upon returning, my coach was not pleased with me. The main problem, apparently, was that during the eight days I’d not been in town, the coaching staff had “had no idea where I was, nor if I was training.” Seriously: where the hell did they think I was? There were three options: at my boyfriend’s house (an hour away), in the Virgin Islands with my parents or in New Zealand. No bloody prizes for guessing that one correctly.

    Not only that, but when we began discussing specifics of my week’s absense, my poor performance at training camp that January was put down to my “not training over the Christmas break.” When I had. A lot. A lot. This hurt me badly. During my time as a swimmer, I’d be similarly accused of faking injuries to avoid certain parts of workouts. It killed me. All you can do when faced with accusations like that is violently object, which only makes you sound guiltier. It simply wasn’t true.

    But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Some coach’s idea as to how hard of a worker I was doesn’t reflect on how honest or hard working I actually was. I am still figuring this out for myself, but it’s really important to let go of those perceived coaching injustices. When I finally do (I did work out! I did I did I did I did!) I’ll be proud of myself.

  4. No, really. We do have to work out.

    As previously mentioned, I took up running to keep fit. You must exercise after you stop swimming. Every swimmer I’ve ever known who has thought they’ll effortlessly keep their physique post-athletics has put on a lot of weight. Not only that, but they get thick. They don’t lose their muscle mass, but fat piles up on top of it. It’s probably a worse look that regular fat. The worst examples turn into human brick walls. Avoiding this is pretty easy, pending genetics: stop eating as much and start doing something that burns calories on a regular basis. That LZR-ready body won’t last long if you don’t.

  5. We should ignore the self-appointed experts.

    For the rest of my life, I’ll come across people who think they know more about sport than I do. This is primarily because I don’t exude sportiness. I find breakfast cereal to be a luxury worth giving up, but pricey vodka and Bumble and Bumble shampoo unavoidable necessities. Nope, that isn’t an affiliate link: I just like their stuff a lot. But if you’re interested, Bumble, I’m here.

    However, this makes people think that I don’t know anything about sport. Someone who hasn’t worn a flat-heeled shoe while they’re not running since 2005 doesn’t get much respect from the Lyrca-clad, triathlon brigade. They’ll tell me about their training. They’ll tell me about their doctors and their injuries. They’ll tell other people about their races and I’ll overhear them. They’re forever running to an appointment of some sort so that they can be better athletes. They know a lot about diets.

    Hi! When your gym and trainer are in a building that looks like this, you’re not an athlete, you’re just a douchebag!

    The night before I broke my New Zealand record, I ate my Mum’s pasta bake (asparagus and bacon… Jesus, it’s heaven. And I don’t even like bacon) and a gi-fucking-normous bowl of strawberry icecream and chocolate sauce. I may have also gotten drunk. It’s highly likely. However, I swam faster than any Kiwi female ever had for 200m breaststroke and that record stood for three years. Kelly Bentley, you broke my heart when you swam 2:29 but I’ve got a lot of respect for ya ;)

    You don’t need to be a qualified dietician or employ a personal trainer at a Seattle health club to be a good athlete, but you don’t have to listen to the people who do believe that this is necessary. Smile nicely. Go for a run while they visit their orthopedic surgeon. Buy them a chai tea.

  6. The things we liked while we competed will change.

    I always liked morning training while I swam, but I hated getting up in the morning. Make sense? No? I always swam well in the mornings, but the act of getting out of bed at 5am was torturous. Now, I like getting up that early and I imagine the primary reason is that I don’t have to. I like a lot of things now that I didn’t like when I was an athlete, and dislike a few things I used to enjoy as well. When I no longer had those immense stresses in my life, my perspective and demeanour changed. Retired swimmers should be aware that they’ll change mentally as well as physically.

I don’t write very often for Swimwatch, the main reason being that I don’t compete or train anymore. However, I believe that dealing with being “retired” (is it obvious that I hate that word? I find it pompous) is nearly as important as coping with being an active participant.

My ninety-percent-positive experience with sport was only heightened by my philosophy on quitting: don’t get fat, resent nothing (working on that) and get out while you’re still winning.