Life After Swimming


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

“Is there life after swimming?”
-A question I’m emailed daily from swimmers wrapping careers soon.


I woke up feeling invincible. It was 7:30am. The sun peaked behind leaves, the spring morning just warming up. It was the first day of Swim Retirement -- the first full day away from swimming, away from meets and morning practices, and I was ready to tackle this new, exciting world of No-Swimming.

I was 22. A day earlier, I had warmed down that final, last time at the Big Ten Championships and I was ready to figure out how I’d spend this additional free time. I woke up that morning early, a daily habit after spending 10 years waking before dawn and trekking to the pool.

Full of energy with nothing to do, I noticed my apartment was a mess, so I cleaned it. My clothes needed laundering, so I washed them. The dishes were dirty, so I cleaned those. It wasn’t even 9am yet. All this free time! All this energy! So I mopped the floors. Swept the porch. Studied. Went to class. Made dinner. Jogged. I partied with my friends, woke up the next day, and repeated the process.

“This retired life is great!” I thought.

And it was. My outside-the-pool life had never been so put-back-together. I no longer fell asleep during class. My grades improved. I slept in more. I had energy! To do things! Like walk up stairs without having uncontrolled heart palpitations! I hung out with non-swimming friends! I wore pants other than the sweatpant variety! I wore jackets other than swim parkas! My “goggle eyes” turned into… regular eyes!

Three or four weeks later, though, I got that urge. It was beckoning me, like an addict, an urge to swim, to stay competitive. I got bored. I went to the pool for twenty minutes, and that urge subsided. A month later, though, that urge came again, that feeling like I was feeling tense and bored again, and so I swam. And that urge came and went. With time, I repeated this process quite a few times. It was hard. I’d wake up some mornings truly missing the sport, and then other mornings, I’d wake up and do other things in my life (like study or clean my apartment) and be genuinely happy to have the free time again.

But, like an addict, I couldn’t go cold-turkey off swimming. I slowly let go, going down from an occasional 4,000 yard workout, to 3,000, to 2,000…

Still though, in those days and weeks after swimming ended, I realized I’d have to replace this passion I had reserved for swimming throughout my entire life. It was a strange, surreal feeling. Since I was 8, I swam. Swimming was my identity. “Oh, you’re that swimmer guy!” people said at school. That’s how I was known among family and friends – as “The Swimmer.” For fifteen years, swimming consumed my free time. When other kids wrote down history or biology notes, I wrote down split times. When other kids daydreamed, I dreamed about races. I breathed swimming, woke up thinking about swimming, swam all day, practiced all afternoon, competed all weekend. And suddenly, I woke up one day without swim practice. In one day, I gained four hours of free time in my daily existence, and subsequently, an entirely new life.

It sounds fun.

It’s also hard.

Out of boredom and a need to find something to replace swimming, I tried martial arts. My roommate and I signed up for aikido, which has similarities to water. (Of course.) My roommate loved it, but it wasn’t for me. So I joined a band. I played guitar, and so we formed a band and practiced, but that never went anywhere. I graduated and moved to Los Angeles and poured myself into writing, which was great, but lacked the physicality swimming provided. With each activity, it wasn’t quite the same as competitive swimming. One thing lacked the stamina, another thing lacked swimming’s isolation and meditation, another just didn’t have the physicality or required determination.

I couldn’t quite replace swimming.

And after a year or two, I realized maybe I never would.

I get so many emails from kids wrapping up their swimming career. They write:


“Mike, my last meet is coming up soon and I’m wondering what am I going to do when swimming is over? I mean, I know that I’ll enjoy sleeping in and having my life back, but part of me thinks that I’ll never be able to fill this passion.”

When you leave a job somewhere, you have what Human Resources calls an “exit interview.” In this exit interview, you’re asked about your experience working for that company -- what you liked, what you didn’t like, etc.. Some people use this as a time to vent, others just say goodbye. The exit interview gives both employees and the company closure, as well as taking care of final details.

There’s no “exit interview” in swimming. You hit the wall for the last time, glance at the clock, and then, like that, it’s over.

That transition can be tough, but the thing is, you will find something else to be passionate about, and it could take time. Weeks, months, maybe years. My advice? To those kids wrapping up their careers, be patient, and just enjoy these final days, weeks, and months. Enjoy the final races, the final team cheers, the last high-fives. Sure, it may be tough to replace “swim passion,” but at least you know you have passion. Breaking up with swimming is like breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend. It’s hard to do. But at least you found something to give that passion to, and, though it may take time, and though you may stumble and try activities you don’t like and wander a bit, you will find something to pursue with even more passion than you had with swimming. Just know that you have passion, and simply knowing that can help you when faced with a blank post-swimming slate and a suddenly open schedule.

There is life after swimming. And just because you finished swimming competitively for a club team doesn’t mean you can’t still swim. There are Masters teams, club teams, workout groups, empty lap pools, rivers, lakes, and ocean coastlines with your name on them

And, like it did for me, stepping away from the sport may lead you back, years later, in ways you never expected.