I stretch my fingers towards the slick wall of the pool. As soon as they touch, I flip, exhaling as I steadily release the pressure from my nose. Planting my feet hip-width apart, I push off the wall, into a streamline position. In a few seconds, I resurface to the jarring sound of whistles. Just as my arms break their tight position, my coach yells for me to speed up, her shrill voice piercing the air like bullets. For a few seconds, I am all arms and legs. Before I know it, the race is over. I remove my goggles and cap as I look at the scoreboard.
My worst time yet. A month ago, I would’ve been devastated, but now, I don’t even care. This is my last race.
As my feet carry me inside the room, I can feel sweat beading from my eyebrows, warming my already perspiring body. My limp tongue tastes shriveled in my mouth. I suck in a shallow breath, attempting to calm my electric nerves.
“I wan- want to quit,” I stutter, studiously avoiding my coach’s solid brown eyes. I open my mouth to elaborate, but she interrupts me.
“I’m not surprised,” she says quietly, meeting my eyes with an unwavering gaze. “You know, the only problem you’ll have is when it comes to college applications.”
I gawk at her, open-mouthed. I had just quit her team, which I had been on for two years, and the lack of emotion on her face was appalling. She seemed more passionate about college applications than me, her own swimmer.
The unfortunate truth I witness every day is that teenagers continue with sports they aren’t passionate about just for the golden emblem of admission from an Ivy-League u
I didn’t want to fall into that trap.
Swimming had been an integral part of my life, ever since I was eight, when I made the team. It was paradise for years, like most people imagine. It required minimal effort, and my strokes were aimless and languid. That is, until I switched to a more prestigious team of hand-picked swimmers. My new coach, a nationally ranked swimmer, made my first few days on the team a nightmare. Her yelling was incessant and her coaching wasn’t any less harsh. In the water, my body would barely inch forward no matter how strong my kicks were. My arms were weak and flabby. I would be lapped by nine-year-olds while my body felt inert in the icy water.
A couple of weeks later, I had settled into a routine, although my improvement was minimal. I was willing to work hard and push myself to be better. I swam until my tendons ached and my arms vibrated after countless chin-ups. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I spent three mind-numbing hours at practice. Two for swimming and one for dryland. I survived the rest of that year through sheer grit. It wasn’t easy, but I kept swimming for two hours a day while balancing my homework and other extracurricular activities.
As I came to know soon, that routine wasn’t sustainable. As seventh period approached in school, I could feel my mood become weary and my footsteps become slower. My usual ebullient mood was replaced by a ticking bomb of anxiety. When I walked onto the pool deck, I was consumed by an unexplainable sadness. I could feel myself glancing at the clock every couple minutes, as if I was desperate to leave.
I had never really considered leaving the sport because I thought people would see me as a loser. Quitting was truly unthinkable for me, until Covid-19. The pool was shut down, and all I had was dryland on Zoom, three times a week. Over that period of time, I realized that I’d been defining myself as a swimmer. If I quit, I would be losing my identity. At age 13, most people are building their personal brand, not reforming it.
I kept procrastinating on saying the words “I quit swimming” because it just was too difficult. Swimming was quite literally my life, the one thing that was constant as my beliefs, personality and friends changed. I had gotten so caught up in being perfect and steady that I forgot that there was a way out of swimming. My mind had become so one-tracked that I couldn’t imagine life without swimming.
When I finally detached my self-worth from swimming, against the seemingly prudent voices in my head, I told my coach I was quitting.It was the greatest relief I have felt in my entire life. The weights had been lifted off my shoulders, making me feel taller and more relaxed.
I’ve learned that quitting isn’t giving up. It’s choosing to focus your attention on something more important.
Shreya Prabhu is in the eighth grade at Eastern Middle School. Her work has appeared in The Hartford Courant, Teen Ink, GEN-ZINE and YR Media.