I Was a College Athlete, I’m Relieved My Teens Chose Different Sports

I joined my first swim team when I was seven. It began as a summer activity, but a decade after my first race, I was a nationally ranked high school senior fielding calls from college recruiters and deciding which scholarship to accept.

Swimming was my life. Until suddenly it wasn’t. And when I became a parent and my two children were old enough to choose their own sports, I didn’t encourage them to follow my path, I didn’t hope nature and nurture would collaborate to create in them the passion for swimming that once lived inside me.

My daughter found her passion in softball. (Photo Credit: Heather Sweeney)

I was afraid that my kids would want to be swimmers

In fact, I hoped for the opposite. I feared my kids would love swimming. I feared my old passion dwelled in their genetics. Because I feared I would try to redeem my failures, disappointments and pain through them.

I was always a good swimmer, but it wasn’t until I joined a new team in high school that I became addicted to the buzzing energy of competition, the rush of first place. I did everything this new coach told me to do.

He told me to train for the grueling 400 Individual Medley. I did. He told me to break up with my boyfriend. I did. He told me to lose weight. I did.

Throughout junior year, I woke up at 4:30am for morning practice, then returned for afternoon practice. Swimming. Weight lifting. Running. Sit-ups. Push-ups. I was a machine, lean and strong, motivated and intensely competitive. 

My son became a runner. (Photo Credit: Heather Sweeney)

I barely ate and stopped getting my period

I was also barely eating, sleeping through classes and so thin I stopped getting my period.

Today, elite athletes like Simone BilesMichael Phelps and Naomi Osaka are helping to open up the public conversation about the intersection of mental health and competitive sports by sharing their own struggles. But back in the early 90’s, nobody discussed mental health. Nobody talked about burnout or the pressure young athletes carry. Nobody talked about being human, not machines.

At 19 my swimming career ended after a reality check from an orthopedic surgeon, shoulder injuries robbing me of the choice to retire on my own terms and forcing me to abandon the goals that would forever remain unfulfilled. I reluctantly entered the next phase of my life as a non-athlete, where I floundered trying to figure out who I was without a sport I both cherished and despised.

I should have been proud of my accomplishments but my failures overshadowed everything

I should have been proud of my accomplishments. I won countless medals and awards. I competed at the same meets as my idols. I was featured repeatedly in my newspaper’s local sports section with photos and write-ups. I was named fancy titles like All-County Swimmer of the Year and countless MVPs. I accepted a scholarship to a Division I swim team.

But, in my mind, the failures overshadowed the achievements. I missed qualifying for Olympic Trials by fractions of a second. I internalized and kept silent about the harsh words of an abusive coach. I had a tortured relationship with scales and mirrors. I lost that scholarship.

My ambivalence toward swimming continued when I became a parent. While I knew I didn’t want my children to be competitive swimmers, I also knew it was important for them to learn water safety and basic swimming skills. 

I couldn’t teach my children to swim

I should have been the one to teach my kids how to swim. After all, I could dissect stroke technique and explain the mechanics of swimming better than any YMCA lifeguard. But I couldn’t do it, choosing instead to pass those duties to the lifeguards. I couldn’t teach my son, and later my daughter, how to swim without an overwhelming fear I would become one of those parents.

We’ve all seen those parents. The ones screaming at their kids at sporting events. The ones criticizing their young athletes for not trying hard enough. The ones caught on video yelling at referees and getting into brawls with parents on opposing teams. The ones ruining their children’s athletic experiences because of their bad behavior.

With my experience I didn’t think I could be a casual swim mom

I was terrified I would join that club if my kids were swimmers. While I was pretty sure I would never be a yeller, I wasn’t sure I would mute my criticisms. I was an expert on the sport and could have been a coach myself. With my knowledge and experience, I didn’t think it was possible for me to be a casual swim mom.

I also didn’t think I could handle watching my children endure the same struggles I did. The long solitary hours underwater. The constant awareness of body fat. The debilitating injuries. All sports come with their own specific challenges, but I couldn’t bear for my kids to relive mine. Maybe if they played different sports – if they chose athletics at all – I could offer my support from a more objective point of view.

As my kids got older I signed them up for sports other than swimming

So as they got older, I signed them up for any after-school activity they found remotely interesting. T-ball, soccer, basketball. Tennis lessons, Lego club, pottery club. They both earned black belts in taekwondo. Whenever they moved on to something new, I included an unenthusiastic suggestion of swimming, but I was happy when they chose something else.

My son ultimately stuck with track and cross country. My daughter found her passion for softball. They’re both aware of my past as a swimmer, and whenever I asked them if they felt they missed out on opportunities to follow my footsteps, they assured me the desire was never there.

Years ago, at one of my son’s high school track meets, I watched a girl approach her father in the crowd of spectators after her race. In front of dozens of parents, the father yelled at her, pointing his finger at her, at the track, at everything she did wrong. I looked away, mortified for that poor child, but also relieved I wasn’t one of those parents.

I was worried that my past would turn me into a nightmare swim mom

I’ll never know if my fears would have come true, if my experiences would have turned me into a nightmare swim mom living vicariously through my children. I’ll never know if I would pressure my kids to reach the success I fell short of. I’ll never know if my expectations and criticisms would destroy our relationship. 

Maybe I would have been the same mother I ultimately became, the one asking questions about sports I don’t know much about and cheering from a healthy distance. I only know for sure I’m thankful my kids found their own paths. And those paths didn’t include a pool.

More Great Reading:

Who Am I If I’m Not a ‘Sports Mom’ Anymore?

About Heather Sweeney

Heather Sweeney writes personal essays and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, HuffPost, Newsweek, Insider, Healthline, Brevity, Five Minutes and elsewhere. She lives in Virginia where she’s working on a memoir about her path to self-discovery after divorce. Subscribe to her Substack Days Like This and learn more about her at https://www.heatherlsweeney.com/Twitter, Instagram, Facebook.

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