More than a swimmer: how nearly losing my sport (and life) showed me who I really was.
When I was invited to speak at a local county swim and dive banquet one year ago, I was over the moon.
I love to get on stage and speak about the things that I'm passionate about, whether it's about health, business, or even surviving cancer.
But when you give me a platform to talk to teens and their parents about the one thing that has woven through the fabric of my life since I was 6 years old--swimming--that brings the excitement and joy to the next level.
So needless to say, it was an honor and privilege to speak at the Gwinnett County High School All Stars Swim & Dive Banquet.
The room was packed with 500 star swimmers and their parents, and not only did I get to meet so many of them and hear their stories, but it was in the place where it all started for me, too.
And this time, I didn't just share a typical motivational speech.
I kept it real. Very real.
This was one of the first times I talked openly (to a room of 500 people, no less) about the emotional and physical struggles that came along with losing my ability to swim due to burnout, illnesses, injuries, and cancer, how that has seemed to be a repetitive theme in my life.
I also shared about the unlikely source of inspiration that inspired me to finally hang up my suit and goggles -- for good -- from a place of peace.
To put it in perspective for you -- each time I practiced this speech, I was overcome by feelings of vulnerability. The first time, I found myself sobbing on the couch. The second time, the tears were a bit more silent. The third time, I fought back tears and a choked up throat--as I shared with two of my dearest friends.
The fourth time--I just had fun. And it's safe to say the photos depict that. Many people requested that I post the speech transcript...and little did they know that I also recorded most of the speech, except the first 2 minutes, as well.
I'm thrilled to share both the audio recording of the speech and the transcript with you, and would love to hear how it resonates with you as well. Click the photo below to listen to the recording (and look at some of the photos) and/or read the transcript below.
Transcript of Keynote Speech given to Gwinnett County High School Swim & Dive All-Star Banquet
March 26, 2019
So...I don’t know about you guys, but I have always felt like we swimmers are all family and we all understand each other. Who else totally geeks out as soon as you see a swimmer and thinks, “OMG! It’s my best friend! She totally gets me?”
This totally happened to me 2 days ago when I was in the Atlanta airport. I saw 2 little girls with their speedo bags in the Atlanta airport. They couldn’t have been older than age 9. I had to hold myself back from running up to them and asking “OMG! What’s your favorite stroke? What’s your swim team’s name?"
....Because I didn’t want to reveal that I was being a creepy 35 year old stranger stalking them.
About 20 minutes later, I had to hide my gawking and staring as the Florida State Women’s NCAA championship team paraded onto the plane as they headed back from the NCAA championship in Austin, TX. I felt like I was watching Olympians or celebrities and I felt SO excited as I had been watching and following the NCAA meet all last week.
To me, as a swimmer, the NCAA meet has always seemed like the greatest glory for me--yes--even more glorious than the Olympics! I never aspired to be an Olympian. I’ll tell you in a bit about why this was such an important meet for me.
As it turns out, I found myself in line behind 3 of them after I got off the plane.
I couldn’t contain myself as I tapped them on the shoulder and said “Hi! I’m a swimmer! Are you guys coming back from Austin? How was your meet?” (Little did they know I’d already checked MeetMobile and I knew the answer because yes, I am that much of a swim geek)
They all slumped as they answered, “Meh…”
Even though I’d felt that way so many times about my own meets and could commiserate, I realized that at this point in my life, being nearly 13 years removed from my collegiate career, that there was no such thing as a bad meet.
I just wanted to say “Seriously!?!?! YOU SWAM AT NCAA’s! JUST GETTING THERE WAS AN HONOR!”
But I didn’t. I realized in that moment an important lesson that I’ve learned time and time again:
Someone else’s glory is often someone else’s failure.
So I’m here to tell you today how being an amazing swimmer and having all the glory can be an amazing thing...and sometimes all that glory can seemingly ruin your life.
When I began high school swimming in Gwinnett, I was at the top of my game.
As a freshman I helped to put Duluth High School on the map. I was the first swimmer from Duluth to ever reach a state final, let alone finish in the top 3 in 2 events. We even had scoring relays, which as many of you know was kind of a big deal!
I quickly realized that even though I was the youngest member of the team, I was a leader.
I was looked up to and revered by teammates, other coaches, and teachers. Even my non-swimming friends started asking about swimming...which was phenomenal.
This felt both humbling and empowering all at once. I learned that unlike USA Swimming, where the focus was always on shaving hundredths off of a second off of a time to qualify for the next level, high school swimming was the place of family.
In high school swimming, I met my best friends, learned to let go of the competitive drive and swim for something bigger than myself....and I also ate my weight in pre-meet spaghetti dinners.
But it wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies.
Frustration arose for the latter half of my high school career as injuries and breathing issues threatened to derail my success--and my willingness to keep at it.
But with my high school swim family, it didn’t matter how fast I swam--to them, my worst race would have been someone else’s dream race.
Even though I would attack and beat myself up in my head and feel defeated because the pain and breathing issues were really standing in the way of my personal goals, my teammates would be at the end of my lane cheering me on AND screaming their heads off because with our 400 Free Relay win, we’d just defeated our rival team (Norcross!) for the first time.
It was on that team that I learned the value of unconditional love. I learned that I was loved and part of a family, no matter what.
And it was because of that team that I kept at it... no matter how disappointed I felt in myself on the year-round swimming front, and no matter how many times I truly weighed the value of quitting (because let’s be honest, being a ‘Normal, non-swimmer teen often sounded very appealing, too).
Had I not had such an amazing high school experience, I might not have kept at it long enough to swim in college.
And swim in college I did--at my dream school (Duke) at that. And I’m not just saying that because they’re totally killing it in March Madness right now (though that was a little dicey during the last 2 games).
College swimming was like a breath of fresh air for me. I’d hit my stride again and it started to show again in the pool. As a sophomore, I was ranked in the top 10 in the NCAA in the 200 IM and was on track to be an ACC conference finalist and qualify for the NCAA meet early in the fall season.
Until I wasn't.
I remember clearly what happened one early morning practice in December of 2003. I dove in during practice when I felt a searing pain in my left shoulder as I did a breakout for a sprint 50 fly.
As any seasoned swimmer who took really good care of her body would do--I completely ignored it and just kept going, telling myself “It’s fine...it’s fine...It’s nothing....”
But I knew deep down it wasn’t nothing.
Each night I would lay in bed with throbbing and searing pain that brought me to tears.
Even though I was still swimming fast, I became a total headcase. I had psyched myself out of the ACC championship meet before I even got there.
At the meet, I did my best to block it out. I swam respectable races, but it was not the performance I’d hoped for.
But as devastated as I was, what kept me going was being part of a team and watching lifelong friends reach their goals. We scored the highest we had ever done in the ACC as a team, and I was thrilled for my teammates.
College swimming, like high school, was a place of family.
Fast forward to several months later--I had surgery to repair my shoulder. The surgeon was optimistic that I’d be back in the pool in 4-5 months, just in time for the fall season.
But as things seemed to be going for me at the time, I continued to hit roadblock after roadblock in recovery.
Try as I might, I hung on, clinging to any hope of redemption for the season and career that I’d lost.
I wanted nothing more than to travel with my team to the next ACC championship meet that next spring. It was going to be at home at Georgia Tech, in front of my friends and family. It was going to be my redemption meet--to finally qualify for NCAAs and represent my team in an ACC final.
Instead, I traveled to the meet, stayed dry, and sat on the sidelines with icebags on my shoulders while cheering on my teammates.
As happy as I was for their success, for the first time, I felt envy and jealousy too. I could slowly feel my dream slipping through my fingers.
That spring, I learned I’d need another surgery, with no hope of recovery in time to finish my career before I graduated.
Like any emotionally secure 21 year old would do...I sat down on the ground amidst the beautiful spring blooms at Duke and bawled my eyes out as soon as I left the training room--the place where I’d had the fateful conversation with my physical therapist.
Tears ran by my cheeks and I couldn’t catch my breath as students passed by amidst class changes. I wasn’t normally one to cry my eyes out in public, but I didn’t know what else to do or where else to turn.
I’d never felt so low or alone.
I realized in that moment that it just wasn’t worth it anymore.
Soon thereafter, I sat with my coach said the words that every swimmer dreads saying “I’m not going to swim anymore.”
Even though I knew it was the very best thing for me in the long run, I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest. I’d come close to quitting several times before, but this time, it was finally real.
And it was in that heartbreaking moment that I knew that I didn’t want any swimmer to ever experience what I’d experienced.
So I poured my heart and soul into getting into the very best physical therapy school and becoming a physical therapist who would help swimmers not only heal from their injuries, but prevent them from ever happening in the first place.
I succeeded at that--I graduated first in my class from Emory and built an amazing career where I got to work with Atlanta swimmers every single day.
I was living the dream.
I’d never gotten that redemption in the pool, but I felt like I was finally getting it by making a great impact on the lives of other swimmers.
But wait...the story is not over there.
Just as I reached what appeared to be the pinnacle of my professional career, it, too, came to a screeching halt.
You know, they say history repeats itself. And it certainly did for me.
Remember all those breathing and lung problems I’d had in high school? We learned they were because of an extremely rare tumor--a sarcoma--that had been growing ever-so-slowly in my lung since I was 5 years old. We even figured out that the tumor itself was likely behind a lot of the shoulder problems I’d in college, too.
I know--so frustrating, right?
As we mapped out my treatment plan, my surgeon mentioned that he would likely need to do an extensive removal of not only the tumor, but also several body parts in my chest wall that affected how my shoulder would work.
And for those of you keeping score -- the shoulder is kind of important for swimming.
He said it would affect how my shoulder would work. But I read between the lines. What I heard when he said that was “You won’t ever be able to swim again.”
Even though I was not swimming much at a time, I’d been slowly chipping away at rehabbing and getting strong enough to do open water swimming--ironically--to benefit cancer research.
In that moment, I realized that yet again, my health was threatening to end my swimming career. This time for good.
All of “the feels” came crashing in. I remember completely freezing in his office. The list of questions I’d written out in advance (something I’d learned to do for all of my cancer visits) fell to the floor.
The only question I could muster--through a choked up throat and heart that fought back tears--was “You mean, I may not be able to swim again at ALL?”
This time, I wasn’t willing to accept that.
Within a week, I was in the pool, training daily for a race that wouldn’t happen in the pool.
Gone were the days that I worried about shoulder pain. I just wanted to be in the water, soaking in every stroke, every whiff of chlorine.
Even though I’d lost my competitive swimming career, I didn’t want to lose swimming altogether.
To put it in perspective for you--I was facing a surgery that I might not survive at all...yet in that moment I was more worried about losing swimming than losing my life.
It was in those days that I realized that I was not a swimmer. It did not define me. Swimming was something I did, not something I was.
And I realized for the first time since I was 6 or 7, I remembered just what it was about swimming I loved: being free in water. Being in a quiet world where I felt alive and where I felt strong, no matter how much I felt like I was crumbling on the inside or outside. And feeling bouyant and supported by a force greater than me.
Needless to say, using THAT as a goal was what kept me going.
And despite the endless complications and stumbling blocks I hit in surgery and after (because at this point, let’s be honest, what’s a health problem for me without a lot of drama?) -- I made it to the other side.
I lost multiple body parts--like 3 ribs, part of my collarbone, part of my breastbone, and several muscles that help be breathe-- and I had to relearn how to use my arm and body.
Despite that, I was stronger inside and out than I’d ever been.
Within 31 days of my surgery, I was back in the water kicking.
Within 4 months, I swam the 1 mile open water swim in my first Swim Across America race.
Swimming for something bigger than myself -- to raise money for childhood cancer-- felt like just the redemption I needed to end my career on a good note and give back to others going through cancer treatment.
I was on top of the world, thrilled with how my “swimming career” had ended.
But wait, the story doesn’t end there, either.
Because soon thereafter...I met Grace Bunke.
A mutual friend introduced us, having seen my positive attitude and thinking that “Grace and I might get along well.”
Grace was a young swimmer who was also undergoing treatment for cancer.
Well, "get along well" was an understatement, and soon thereafter we teamed up for the next year’s Swim Across America swim. Grace’s health prognosis wasn’t as optimistic as mine, and it felt like the biggest honor in the world when she asked me to swim next to her to, “you know, make sure she finished the swim and stayed safe.”
Well, she definitely finished despite the greatest odds. Grace had been recently told her cancer was terminal. She’d just completed weeks of radiation and chemo and had made the brave decision to discontinue treatment altogether.
My body wasn’t quite up to speed for another swim, and I had my own physical challenges as I was still recovering.
But even with fins on and being in arguably better shape than Grace, it was utterly clear to me how radiant and present her spirit was as I fought to keep up with her in that mile swim in Lake Lanier.
Half the time I was gasping for air and questioning where she got all this energy from--but I knew where it was from--it came from something greater and stronger than even her.
It was the most beautiful and surrendered swim I have ever done personally and witnessed in someone else. I didn’t care what my time was, and neither did Grace. I didn’t care what it looked like or if I was in fins when nobody else was.
The point was just doing it, and enjoying every moment of it as I went and swam along one of the most inspiring teammates I’ve ever had...one who was, at the time, 19 years younger than me.
After that event, I hung up my suits and goggles. My career was done. I felt complete.
I literally haven’t swum one stroke since that day. I really feel like Grace was put in my life to help me see that it’s ok to let go of all the competition and drive. It’s ok to just swim: one arm in front of the other...and just enjoy the process of being there.
And side note--worth celebrating--a year ago yesterday, Grace finished what she started as she left her earthly life and joined that of the eternal. And today we celebrate her birthday--her sweet 16th birthday. Even though she was a part of my life for such a short time, the lessons she taught me were profound. I couldn’t be more grateful that she was born 16 years ago today.
With that, I want you to know that it’s ok to know that you are loved, accomplished, and perfect whether you have a perfect race or whether you’re doing it for the sake of just finishing what you started.
Now, this experience has helped me evolve even my own professional career. I realized how even my physical therapy career did not get me the redemption I so craved from losing my swimming career in college--because when cancer and surgery threatened to take swimming away from me for good--there were still several wounds to heal.
I wasn’t ready to give it up yet.
Now, I help women and teens who are struggling and feeling powerless about their health to tap into their own intuition and develop a personalized health and healing path that inspires them and reflects what they truly value.
My career has evolved from physical therapy into health and life coaching for women and teens--helping them find THAT force greater than themselves that makes life, sport, and a career worth living and doing.
I love helping my clients see that they have the answers all along and that true love and care for oneself comes from within. And I love to help them see that when it comes to health problems, there is so much that can be done to find true health and it doesn’t have to be a battle, a struggle, or something to be afraid about.
In closing, I leave you with several pieces of wisdom as you continue with your high school and swimming career:
1. Get clear on who you are independent of your identity as a swimmer. What would you do if swimming suddenly weren’t in your life? What would you do with all that energy, and with your beautiful and courageous personality?
2. Get clear on why you’re swimming -- why did that 6 or 8 year old fall in love with swimming in the first place? Go back and visit with him or her in your mind and heart, and make sure he or she gets a say in the matter when you start to get too focused on times, winning or losing, or the outcomes you achieve both in and out of the pool.
3. Know that it’s ok when nothing goes as planned. There is no such thing as a failure in life---only lessons. What lesson can you learn about yourself when things don’t go your way?
4. Surrender and trust the process: I can look back on my story now and see that a power greater than me had a hand in this all along. I can see that every single injury, stumbling block and upset was a beautiful opportunity to just surrender and trust that it was going to help shape me into a stronger person on the outset.
5. Know that surrender is not quitting. I couldn’t be happier to have surrendered my collegiate career when I did, because doing so allowed me to channel my energy into building a beautiful professional career where I was able to touch and impact the lives of so many.
Surrender doesn’t mean quitting, it just means releasing the grip and grasp on trying to force things that aren’t meant to be for us.
Surrender means that we don’t stop taking action. In fact, the actions we take may ultimately look the same on the surface, but the energy and experience we have in getting there is oh-so-different. It moves from an energy of stress, defeat, anger, grief and loss to one of love, courage, power, and peace.
6. I said this already, but it’s worth repeating, because it’s my favorite point. Know that you are so inherently loved and worthy--each and every one of you--regardless of what happens to you, what you choose to do in life, what grades you achieve, what your times are, what meets you qualify for, and whether you get injured and end up on the sidelines with ice bags on your shoulders while your teammates have the meets of their lives.
7. Your best is your best, and that is all you can ask of yourself. Each day--not one of you wakes up and says, “Oh I think I’m just going to do life halfway today.” No, because you’re sitting here in this banquet--something tells me that you are ALL go-getters. You always put forth your best. But some days, your best may not look like it did yesterday. And that is ok. It may not even look like that of your teammates or friends, to which I say, stay in your lane.
All you can ask of yourself is that you do YOUR best in EACH moment with the time, energy, skills, and resources that you have. And that is all that matters.
And on that note: Remember that your very worst day or your very worst race may be someone else’s dream. Be proud of yourself for still doing your best. And know that you can learn from it and do better tomorrow.
Thank you again for having me. It’s an honor to be here and I wish you all the very best in your careers and lives.
Thanks for taking the time to read this!
Or maybe you just want to chat! I'd LOVE to talk to you! Something tells me I'm not the only one who has been through an experience like this one. And I don't believe you need to go through cancer treatment or shoulder surgery to figure out what life is really about for you (though if you are, I've got your back too!).
Please feel free to reach out so we can set up a complimentary health and life strategy session. I just love to hear from you and help people strategize about how to design a healthy life they love that doesn't wear them out or feel laborious and neverending.
I can't wait to hear from you!
With love and blessings,