Mike's Mailbag: Quitting


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday I answer questions from swimmers around the country. While I urge everyone to take this advice with a grain of salt, I’ve been an NCAA swimmer, a coach, an instructor, and a journalist in the sport of swimming for my entire life. If you have any questions, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com. I will try to respond to all questions, regardless of posting online here, so please be patient.


Hey Mike, I've really been wondering about this for quite some time. Is sacrificing my nights out and good times in the prime of my life for swimming really worth it? I'm a sophomore in high school, I only have so long before I leave my friends and family for a new life, and I want to enjoy it all while I can, but morning practices, meets, and taper all seem to interfere with this. Of course it all comes together when I get a best time or a cut, but how long does that sensation of accomplishment last before I'm back in the water hungry for more and missing out on more opportunities to enjoy my life? After all, I'm most likely going to end up spending much time on academics in college and I'm not sure if swimming will be a priority for me like it has been for me as a young boy. In the end, I just want to look back on these golden years and think "I have lived these years to the fullest and have no regrets." With swimming, I'm not sure if I'll be able to do that with full confidence. I'm feeling like I'm putting more into the sport than getting out of it. Don't get me wrong, I love the sport but I'm not sure how much longer I will. I don't want to feel like I've wasted my time in the water. Sorry for the lengthy email, but I'm just trying to clear my conscience.

"Golden Age Swimmer"

Hey Golden Age Swimmer,


After my sophomore year in college, I quit swimming. It wasn’t an announced thing – I just stopped doing it. I was just like you. I felt like I was missing out on “the rest of my life.” Swimming, especially morning practices and long weekend away meets, took so much time out of my day, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough outside-the-pool activities. I was in college, and yet, I was tired all the time, wasn’t socializing as much, wasn’t doing that great in school, and wasn’t happy.


When I decided to stop swimming, I justified it by saying to people, “This will allow me to have more time to do other things – things I want to be doing.” Swimming in a concrete box didn’t seem like an appropriate way to spend, using your words, “my golden years.” I’d wake up at 5am and see other college kids still out, still having fun, big smiles on their faces, and I’d always think to myself, “I’m missing out.”


It was that fear of missing out that stopped me from going to practice and stopped my swimming. And those first few days after I quit, those days of not swimming, were glorious. Sleeping in? Awesome. Staying out? Great. Not having that huge chunk of time devoted to practice, not feeling tired all the time, not smelling like chlorine? It was the best.


And that feeling lasted about three weeks.


Then, I started noticing things. When I began the journey of not-swimming saying to people, “Oh this will really make me study more,” but after quitting swimming, was I studying more? No. I actually started to do worse in classes. I told people that my social life would improve, but after quitting swimming, did I live an extravagantly more awesome life than I did while I was swimming? Not really. Actually, I began to miss my teammates, miss my coaches, and miss that daily interaction on the pool deck. (Contrary to popular belief, swimming is a very, very social sport. It’s just that most of the socializing comes between practices, not during.)


The thing is, Golden Age Swimmer, after I quit swimming, my lifestyle really didn’t change that much. I’m not saying this to get you to stay in swimming. Honestly. And you might quit swimming and begin studying and getting As and going out all the time and living the life of a “free man.” But I know that when I quit, instead of taking advantage of all that free time, I just sort of slept in and watched more TV. \


That was it. That was the big lifestyle change.


What I realized was that instead of changing my lifestyle, I needed to change my attitude. I was miserable not because I hated swimming, but because I chose to be miserable. Sometimes being miserable isn’t a choice – it’s being depressed, or something bad happening in life. But nothing inherently “bad” was happening in my life. I was just choosing to be a miserable person, and I projected that misery onto swimming, and I blamed my misery on morning practices. So when I eliminated morning practices, I thought my misery would be eliminated, too.


Instead, I just became more and more miserable.


When I came back to swimming, I decided to have a different attitude. I stopped blaming swimming for preventing me from doing things I wanted to do. I went to swim practice, and I got As. I went to swim practice, and then I went out with my friends. I went to swim practice, and then I wrote screenplays and novels and plays. I saw what my life was like without swimming, and there wasn’t that much of a difference. So I came back and tried things such as getting to practice sooner, adjusting my attitude, smiling before jumping into the pool (and I jumped into the pool for morning practice, and believe me, even how you get into the pool can affect your mood…). I committed more.


I realized that the entire first two years of college I was thinking how much better my life would be without swimming. I was obsessed with quitting. Obsessed with that “greener grass syndrome.” I just thought, “Man, if only I wasn’t swimming…!”


Here’s the Truth: When you think like that, you’ll hate swimming.


Golden Age Swimmer, if you’re like me and you’re always wondering what life would be like without swimming, try it out. Seriously. This might get me in trouble here, but life is much too fleeting to be doing something just because your parents want you to or you feel pressure from coaches or teammates. I know plenty of people who quit swimming and became doctors. The world needs more doctors, not more swimmers.


But my experience was that I was even more miserable without swimming, and I realized that my misery was self-inflicted. When I quit, I was without structure, I wasn’t exercising, I wasn’t around my teammates, and I ended up just sleeping until noon and watching a lot of bad reality TV. I didn’t get all As, I didn’t live a social life like Kanye West, and I didn’t magically become a happier person. I thought I would. I didn’t.


When I came back to swimming, I stopped thinking about it in terms of, “What would life be without swimming?” because I knew what that life entailed. And, for me, that lifestyle just didn’t make me happy.


Once, I was sitting around with an adult whom I shall refer to as Old Wise Man. And as I was lamenting some of my frustrations with lack of time and swimming and how I should be enjoying my Golden Age more, the Old Wise Man told me, “There’s no such thing as a Golden Age. Every phase in life is a Golden Age. I have lived my life and enjoyed every single phase, even the phase I am in now, when I can’t run and jump and throw. Every phase in life has its ups, and every phase in life has its downs.”


He didn’t mean that I was living my life badly. He meant that every phase in life is to be enjoyed for different reasons. When you’re a teenager, it’s great to be in school and make friends and chase dreams. But when you’re older and adult, you’re still going to be working and making friends and chasing dreams. If you follow your heart, do what’s right, don’t think of yourself as the center of the Universe, and tell the truth, you will always enjoy every phase of your life, no matter how old you are. This summer I opened a business and bought a home. When I was in my 20s I was broke, working the night shift, living in an apartment in Hollywood. Both of these phases have their share of responsibilities and hardships, and yet, they are/were both really, really fun.


Find fun in every phase, Golden Age Swimmer, and understand there is no such thing as a “Golden Age.” Every phase in life has its ups and downs, and if you’re not enjoying it, make a change. You may feel pressure that this is the only time of your life where you will have fun, but that’s simply not true. If you do it right, every phase will be a Golden Age.


And you know what else? It’s OK to stop swimming, even just to see what your life would be without it.


For me, I saw that non-swimming life. I lived it. I existed in what had always seemed like that “greener grass” of not swimming.


And a few months later, I was back in the pool, chasing dreams once more.


I hope this helps.