By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Wednesday, November 15, 2017
Swimming has its own world of “great moments.” Certain accomplishments that have nothing to do with Olympic gold or world record performances, moments that are far removed from podiums and placements, feelings that stay with a swimmer long after the last pair of goggles has been hung up in retirement.
These moments are the ones rarely talked about, never covered by NBC during those Olympic final profile videos, and yet, they are the moments we swimmers live for. They get us through those hard mornings, those long practices, those endless winter months, and years of time plateaus.
Just like there are unsung heroes in this world, here are Swimming’s Unsung Moments…
1. Finishing the first serious “holiday training” season
As a swimmer, you know it’s coming: Winter, the holidays, and, of course, holiday training. As a younger swimmer, I heard stories about it, whispers in the locker room from swimmers with hands over their faces, shaking their heads at the hardships. It must be said: “Holiday training” is scarier sounding than it is in reality. But still, with some certain swim teams, finishing that first serious season of holiday training is quite an accomplishment. For me, in the weeks and months that followed the difficult and challenging holiday training season, I could step onto the blocks and feel confident that I worked just as hard, or harder, than any other swimmer in that heat. It’s a great feeling, wrapping up holiday training. Sort of like turning a page and finding a new chapter waiting, a chapter that leads towards Championship Season.
2. The first time you warm-up for a finals.
Not every swimmer gets to warm-up for a finals session. But if and when you can, it’s quite a remarkable experience — and it doesn’t even matter what finals it is. There’s just something special about coming back, walking into that pool deck, and warming-up “under the lights.” It doesn’t matter if it’s the Olympic Trials or a country club summer meet: Warming-up for finals that first time is a great experience.
3. Finishing that first butterfly race.
The nerves experienced by younger swimmers in their first butterfly race are not to be underestimated. I remember my first butterfly race: I cried, cried, pouted, and cried. Then I swam the race, finished third, and thought, “Well that’s not so bad.” It never is. But that first time swimming butterfly is an accomplishment, a huge, gigantic leap towards becoming a well-rounded and real swimmer.
4. The first practice with “the senior group.”
When different age groups train in the same pool, the younger swimmers will get out of practice and often look towards the older training group still in the pool, doing sets they could only dream they could accomplish one day. Then, suddenly, you’re there, you’re one of them, you’re in the senior group and it’s Day One. It’s scary, it’s tough, and yet, once you do it and finish it, you realize you belong. Finishing that first practice with the older kids, those older swimmers you grew up idolizing, can be quite a reflective and motivating moment.
5. A swimmer’s last race.
On this list, there are many “firsts” — first butterfly swim, first holiday training season, first senior group practice. But there is no moment that means as much to a swimmer quite comparable to The Last Race. As someone who has experienced The Last Race a few times (I thought I was done, then I qualified for finals and swam The Last Race again), it’s quite a surreal, out-of-body experience. All your memories — all those age group meets, team cheers, parental high-fives, difficult practices — they all come back to you as you hover on the blocks, your fingertips touching the water, that last dive into the big blue calm pool. The Last Race can be very emotionally difficult, and yet, you still have to swim, and you still want it to be a good swim. A personal best. A win. Or just a good effort. Whatever happens, The Last Swim is a great moment no matter the result. It is a moment unlike any other in swimming.
And while there are so many more great, wonderful, relatively unsung moments in competitive swimming, these were the five that stayed with me well into adulthood. And beyond the victories, personal bests, and podium placements, these unsung moments have meant just as much.