Team USA is in Budapest right now for the 2017 FINA World Championships.
Last week I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I came across an article about the different soloists from around the world that will compete this week. The soloists from Spain and Ukraine are favored to upset the new Russian soloist, given that their soloist for the last decade has finally retired. France, Great Britain, and Switzerland are putting their energy into their younger generation- sending 15 and 16 year olds to represent on the World Stage. The article is filled with names of women I have idolized for my entire life, some I met in the training rooms at World Championships back in 2015, and some I have competed against for some time. Though nothing was ever official or publicized, there were heavy rumors and expectations for me to start representing the U.S. in the solo category after my World debut in 2015. I distinctly remember the moment Myriam Glez leaned over and whispered to me, through my nervous tears in the Kazan Arena Stadium, “this will be anything but your last World Championships.” After that, I dreamed of Budapest at night. Little did I know that it would not only be my last World Championships, but my last competition.
It’s a weird feeling: reading about it.
There’s a reason I didn’t watch the Olympic Games in 2016, and there’s a reason I steer clear of articles like the one I just read. It hurts. There’s a hole in my heart that grew when I left the National Team, and I can’t physically stand to watch or read about it. I can’t help but wonder where my name, next to the American flag, would be amidst the final scores and best in the world. It makes me sick. It makes me feel like I have failed.
That’s the biggest problem right there. I haven’t failed; but my first instinct is to compare my lifetimes, to say: “I could be in Budapest right now, swimming that routine, feeling those feelings, wearing this country’s name. And what am I doing? Stepping away from part of my job here at home because it’s too much for me, I’m overworked.” Overworked? Overworked? I used to train 12 hours a day and here I am, barely able to do what is asked of me. I tell myself that I could have been this amazing figure for little girls across our country. I could have worked and pushed and driven myself into the ground to try and bring the U.S. back to the Olympic Podium. I could have been this successful, beautiful, inspirational thing. The epitome of perseverance. But instead I’m home, 15 pounds heavier, going to school, living a life of simplicity.
That’s what I tell myself when an Olympic article is put in front of me or a picture shows up on my feed. I dig myself a hole and bury my dreams in it, thinking it’s what I deserve. Thinking that I had this great, amazing talent once, and I just wasn’t strong enough to handle the pressure. I wasn’t determined enough or motivated enough or emotionally enough. I simply wasn’t enough.
And one of the biggest leaps I ever took was to realize that there’s something wrong with that thought process.
My second thought is a lot different than the first. My second stream of thoughts stop me in my tracks, tell me that I’m right, my body wasn’t strong enough to handle the pressures and expectations at the level I was at- my mind was worked too thin. I had to finally listen to my body and hang up my nose clip. I had the option to continue my healing process simultaneously with my training, and I chose not to. I, ultimately, picked up my pride and made my own decision to step away from the sport that raised my name to something great. My second stream of thoughts tell me that this is okay. Those thoughts come when I pause and take a reality check, listen to my body and identify what I feel. It’s in that state that I realize time and time again that I will never be Olivia, the synchronized swimmer, again. That girl will always be inside of me, shaping me, reminding me how much I’ve learned. But I will never become that girl again, and it’s time to recreate myself; to find a new identity; to continue down the long dark road of rediscovery.
The road of rediscovery isn’t something anyone is prepared for. In a debriefing meeting after World Championships in 2015, one of my coaches said, “People leave the sport expecting to fit into everyday life, expecting to be normal. But the thing is, we’re not meant to leave, we’re not normal people. We were not made to fit in with the rest of society, we were not built for average.” So when I left the National Team and moved home, I tended to my sick body and worked hard to recover both emotionally and physically. I simultaneously make quick recovery and fast regression. While I learned to care for my symptoms and thoughts, I made myself small- physically and spiritually, trying so hard to fit in with the rest of society. It was noticeable. I had the worst posture. I was physically trying to disappear, to shrink into the norm around me, desperate for acceptance amidst my new life of “normal.” But, my coach was right. We were not built for average, I was not ever meant to fit in. I had lost all the confidence I had when I walked out on the World Stage, and I lost all the self worth I had when I swam, when I manipulated my crafted body through my art. I was an artist, and I lost it. I lost me in a sea of imperfection and misperception.
So after a year and a half of my mom telling me to stand up straight, something finally clicked. I did. And I lit a candle for rediscovery. I made it a point that every time I felt small, imperfect, and unworthy, I would throw my shoulders back in a desperate attempt to stay tall, big, confident, independent. That lit a second candle. Then I finally found a hobby, a real hobby, for probably the first time in my life. That lit a third candle. Then I simplified- started saying “no” to the things I didn’t need, things I didn’t need to do, and people I didn’t need to please. That lit a fourth candle.
That’s about where I’m at right now. Four candles. I can’t watch my teammates swim without tears in my eyes, but I have lit four candles of my rediscovery process. I am more independent, more confident, more me than I have ever been in my life- and I’ve got the best dang posture I’ve ever had. I’m healthy, I’m learning, and I’m constantly growing. I am continuously discovering that it’s okay to not have it all figured out, and it’s okay to not know who we are or where we’re going, but it’s always necessary to trust that that knowledge will come as we apply our faith and look forward. I’m so imperfect, but my dreams of inspiration and perseverance live on within my life of simplicity. Those candles will grow and multiply exponentially with time, leading my life to a more illuminated future. A simple one- anything but average.
I may not be in Budapest, but my body hasn’t shook from anxiety in eight weeks. Success does not have to be elaborate.