This Thanksgiving day, I decided to sit quietly and watch a movie. I got on iTunes and searched for something light, something inspiring. I came across a movie called Young @ Heart.
It’s a movie about a senior-citizen music group that sings contemporary rock songs. They started in the UK, and then toured the US. The story is fun, wonderful and, at so many places, oh so sad. When you’re dealing with performers in their 70s, 80s and 90s, the worry is not whether they’ll remember the words to the songs, it’s whether they’ll survive long enough for the performance.
Watching this movie, as well as watching my own children getting older, having the swimmer that I’ve coached enroll at the University of Florida, and working with the midshipmen at the Navel Academy, who have to deal with so many issues other than swimming fast, has made me realize how fortunate I was as a youth. So many opportunities were presented to me, and I was lucky enough to be able to take advantage of them. All of these things make me want to remind young athletes of the fleeting opportunity they have.
Far too often, young athletes worry about the things they’re missing. They stress about having no time to socialize with friends, about lack of sleep and lack of time to study. They stress about the pain they endure. What is the thing that is most consistent in all our lives that we can never get back? Time. Taking advantage of things when they are presented to us should be of the utmost importance, not trying to grow up so quickly.
Let’s look at things that have definite time limits. Let’s start not quite at the beginning, but at a point we can all understand, age-group swimming. Let’s take, for example, the time constraints on the 12-13 age group. This is certainly a limited time frame, and one that has such huge emotional impact on the future of a swimmer. Some athletes have begun to mature at this point, and are very often at the top of the podium, while others, late bloomers, can be very discouraged at their progress because to win something is what’s important. Both types of athletes need to take advantage of their situation to prepare them for what’s to come. The winning athlete needs to stay a bit aware that winning at this level could be a result of their maturation advantage, and they need to continue to improve their skill to stay on top. Far too many athletes in this situation are lulled into a false sense of accomplishment and become the discouraged swimmers once the late bloomers scrape and claw the only way they know to catch up… improve technique. As their technique improves, and they begin to mature, they will certainly end up passing the athlete who was content to win, but paid little attention to technique.
High-school swimming certainly has a time limit: four years and, in some cases with junior highs, only three years of involvement. Knowing that the time limit is so narrow, every high-school swimmer should be encouraged to seize the opportunity. A sense of panic to get it all in, to be the best, to excel for the school is a GOOD thing. Because, before you know it, you’ll be swimming in your "senior meet," with Mom and Dad handing you flowers and the team thanking you for your efforts.
College swimming careers seem even shorter than high school. With so many more things begging for your attention, it’s over so quickly, it’s like a blur. While classes are shorter in the day compared to high school, your grades are more dependent on YOU doing the work, rather than the teacher assigning homework, and checking it the next day. Do it or fail (in which case you have to do it again). Balancing this with the newfound freedom from Mom and Dad telling you when to go to bed, what to eat, whom to hang out with, etc., becomes the REAL fight of being an athlete.
Unless you’re an international athlete, an Olympian, or prospective Olympian, that’s really all the time you have as an athlete who swims. While there are other sports in which athletes peak after college, once you’re done with college swimming, that’s about it. While there’s always Masters swimming (I’m a Masters swimmer myself and very much enjoy it), the intensity of the “life” isn’t the same. My joy in Masters swimming is seeing my friends, making new ones, and trying to stay in good enough shape to live longer. While I’d like to win, the racing becomes incidental… it’s only a part of the event.
The point I’m trying to make with this is to reach out to the young athletes, as someone who’s been there… not just a cranky old guy. To plead with them as an outsider, because I’m sure you’ve heard this from your parents, from your coaches. Time is the only thing we can’t get back. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. You’ll make mistakes and unfortunate choices in your life that eventually can be overcome, corrected, or forgiven. Time never comes back.
In watching the movie Young @ Heart, it really struck a chord of thanks in me for my situation as a young athlete. To have such great parents and brothers who taught me and inspired me to stay in the sport, and to place the importance of performance above socializing, partying, and doing the things that any kid could do.
While this may strike many kids as being “uncool," I can tell you now, at 47, that I have all the time I want to “party," to spend time with friends, to have fun. And I don’t for one minute regret the time I didn’t have for these things thirty years ago, when I was in the heat of my training for age-group swimming, high school swimming, college swimming and, along the way, Olympic training. Instead, I’m thankful that I made the choice to spend my time doing things others didn’t want to do, instead of doing things anybody could do. Now I can sit back, relaxed in the solace of athletic achievement that can never be taken away.