A year after the 1996 Olympics, I ranked twenty-third in the world in the 100-meter breaststroke and twenty-sixth in the 200-meter.
My parents did their best to shelter me from the unanimous criticism of public opinion. I didn't need anyone to tell me how bad I stunk; I knew that already. The harsh numbers of my ranking told the whole story. At least that's what I thought until I got acquainted with a whole new kind of low.
I had come into the living room of our house to find the newspaper because I wanted the movie listings; I needed to find a flick I could lose myself in. After looking on the couches and coffee table, I sat on the recliner chair where my dad read the newspaper and all of his books. I saw a piece of newsprint sticking out from in between a stack of books. Thinking it might be the paper, I lifted up the four or five volumes on top. Instead I found a hidden stash of clippings and knew immediately they were about me.
Since the start of my career, my dad was my own personal archivist, clipping any and all articles about me so that I could have them later on in life. But after carefully cutting them out, he always put them into the big red scrapbook he kept in his room.
Reading the dozen or so articles in my lap, I saw clearly why these hadn't made it into the book. Sportswriters called me fat, washed-up, and finished. I'd never do anything good in swimming again, they wrote. There it was in black and white, a complete validation of the negative voice playing on a loop in my head. It was true, I was a fat loser. The words I attacked myself with stared out at me from the page, causing a kind of sweet dread. I had suspected that everyone was talking about me, and they were. The shame -- this wasn't just a couple of mean girls at school but the whole world -- hurt so much it almost veered 180 degrees into pleasure. I wrapped myself up in sadness like a martyr, then tucked the clips back in their hiding spot so my dad wouldn't know I had found them.
I didn't talk about what was happening to me with anybody -- not my dad, mom, friends, or coach. Everyone knew that I knew I sucked, but we all ignored it. Hop into the pool, do your sets, dinner, homework, bed. Business as usual. At the time I was grateful for the normalcy. The last thing I wanted to do was draw more attention to myself. Not addressing something, however, doesn't mean it goes away.
I was completely beaten down, even if I refused to discuss it. The moment that sent me over the edge, though, had nothing to do with swimming. It started with an incident at practice. Before the team got in the pool, we always had about half an hour of training on land -- running, doing push-ups or sit-ups. On this day, Dave had come up with an exercise where we had to shimmy up a football goalpost, across the top, and then down the other side. While the girl in front of me was on the top of the goal, she lost her hold and fell. It was really scary and she ended up hurting her shoulder pretty badly.
That night, her father called my house to find out what had happened. "I want to know your side of the story of what went down," he said. I wasn't sure what he meant by "my side," but I told him what I saw.
"We were going across the football goalpost and she fell."
"I know that, but what did you do?"
"I didn't do anything."
That was all it took for this man to start screaming and cursing, blaming me for causing the accident and hurting his daughter. Even though he was a psycho swim parent, always on the pool deck talking to the coach or giving his daughter a hard time for not doing better at meets, I took his accusations to heart. He was an adult, after all. Maybe I had been going too fast, and she fell because she was nervous? Though I stayed silent as he continued to yell over the phone, a whole conversation was happening in my head.
I did it because I'm a horrible human and can't do anything right. I'm poison and now other people are getting hurt because of me.
I didn't go to swim practice for a whole week after the altercation. Nothing could overcome my embarrassment at what I had done -- not even swimming, which until then had always been my coping mechanism. Whereas in the past I could put my face in the water, not talk to anyone, and get my aggression out through energy, now the pool had become another spot of despair. My safe zone was now a place where my brain constantly battled itself. While I was
trying to pretend that other things, such as the swim parent yelling at me or my horrible ranking, didn't exist or weren't such a big deal, I didn't have mental energy left over to quiet the voice berating my body. Every time I did a flip turn and felt my butt and thighs jiggle,
I yelled at myself to forget it and just swim. But the next flip turn came too quickly.
So, right after the New Year in early 1997, I decided to stop training permanently. Fed up and exhausted, I had become too discouraged to fight any longer. Swimming, which I had loved so much, was now solely a source of stress and anxiety. Heading to the pool felt like a drag. I decided to give it up and become a normal high school student and do whatever normal high school students were doing.
My parents were both incredibly supportive of my decision, which wasn't a surprise. As my mom had always said, "If it's not fun anymore, stop doing it." They treated the end of my career as no big deal. More shocking was that Dave had the same attitude.
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