When I was sixteen years old, still broad shouldered and faintly carrying the perfume of chlorine, I sat down on the floor of my childhood bedroom and packed ten years of my life into a pale blue cardboard box. As it slowly grew heavier and heavier with the weight of the person I no longer was, the faded yellow post-it on the front continued to shine brightly, proclaiming for all the world to see: Swimming, 2006–2016.
For ten years I spent my days underwater. Instead of running around the neighborhood after school, I trained in the pool, starting at forty-five minute practices and working my way up to almost three hours a day, every day, by the time I was in high school. Instead of being long-legged and thin, I was short and muscled, with huge swimmer's shoulders and blonde hair bleached blonder from hours in the chlorine. I learned how to push my body past its limits, and how to set goals and surpass them. In the pool, I wasn't a kid– I was a true athlete, and I loved every minute of it. But a time came where my body, full of old injuries and new aches, just couldn't do it anymore. That love I felt for so long slowly began to fizzle out.
After ten long years, I quit.
When I looked at myself in the mirror in the days after I left, I thought, I'm not a swimmer anymore, and I didn't know if what I was feeling was relief or sadness or a bit of both. When I walked past the ribbons arranged by color order on my bedroom wall and framed pictures of me with my teammates, it felt like looking at someone else's life. So I bought a box for a dollar and away it all went, because I truly believed that holding onto that part of me would be considered lying.
When I quit swimming and walked out of the pool for the last time– when I packed up my goggles, my swimsuits, the dozens of awards, into that IKEA box and placed the lid on top, like closing the lid on a coffin– I thought I was leaving my life in sports behind forever.
I thought that I would never be called an athlete again.
The box stayed closed. But no matter what, whether I was at the gym trying to stay in shape or at school studying, all of it followed me like a second shadow. When I had hours of work piled in front of me, when the stress was too much and I wanted to give up, I reminded myself that I had done this before. I'd spent my life pushing my body to the edge and come back stronger. I knew after all those years that I could do anything I wanted to with enough hard work and perseverance. Hitting certain splits and rest intervals turned into study sessions divided into portions– an hour of calculus, then an hour of French. Repetitions of dry-land exercises were now five times looking through flash cards, five sets of a left hand part on a piano piece, five times running through a speech. Drills for strokes became drills for verb conjugations. (Je sois, tu sois, il/elle/on soit…)
The lessons I learned in the pool kept me driven in life– helped me write my first book, get into college, and stay in shape without the aid of structured training sessions and daily practice. It was through all of this I realized: it's not the weights and the reps that make you an athlete. It's not the times, not the sets, not the points, results, stats, or trophies. It's the grit that pushes you through the pain. It's the drive to be better and stronger, and the focus and responsibility that kept you on top. That's what makes you an athlete.
So no matter if you're an Olympian, an NCAA player, or a retired club swimmer like me, you are still an athlete. Whether you hit the gym every day or once a month, you are still an athlete. You can seal away mementos and memories, box up time, but you can never erase who you are or what your sport made you to be.
Because once you're an athlete, you're always an athlete.