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.