Sprint to the Finish Line


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Sometimes I’m emailed a question that I think will help other people in a similar situation. I’m not a doctor or a swim coach, so take my advice with a grain of salt. But I have been through the gauntlets of swimming (I was an NCAA swimmer), and I’ve seen a lot of the sport from the competitive angle, teaching angle, and media angle. If you have any questions, email me @ swimmingstories@gmail.com.


So I was just reading your response to the kid who is having a hard time with high school senioritis as he/she heads into college. And I was thinking, "Hey wait a minute, I'm having senioritis, too!" But for a totally different reason.

Basically I'm having all those mixed emotions of ending my swimming career. I don't know what kind of goals to set and how do I cope with never being able to try them again next year? I love swimming, but I hate it. I can't wait to be done, but I don't want to stop. It's been a part of my life forever. And now it's almost done?!? I'm approaching the season of lasts and the season of ends and I'm freaking out. My body is ready to be done but my mind is not. At least not now.

-Senior Swimmer

Dear Senior Swimmer:

Every swimmer has a love/hate relationship with swimming. Especially when you're at the end of the road, climbing up the mountain, almost to the apex of your career. You're tired of your shoes, your backpack, your climb, carrying your water and tent and food, and all you want to do is relax. But you've been climbing for 10, 15 years now. So you can't imagine what will happen when you're done climbing. All you know is you want it to be over. You're tired.

As an old man who has climbed his own personal mountain, and often looked back in reflection and pondered, here's my advice:

Your senior season -- the final one of your life -- go for it. Just do it. What I mean is, from Day One, give 110%, every single practice, every single day. And make that your goal. Every practice, every meet, every race: See what happens if you just go for it.

I was just like you throughout my NCAA career. I loved it and simultaneously hated it. I loved the teammates, the coaches, the practices (sometimes), but I hated not achieving my goals, the pressures, the practices (sometimes), the early mornings, the holiday workouts. Heading into my senior year -- my last season of full-out competitive swimming -- I thought I wouldn't be ready for it to end, but at the same time, I just wanted to get to the end already. After all, like you said, when you've been doing something your entire life, it's very difficult to say goodbye, but at the same time, you know you're ready to say goodbye soon.

There are two options: You can float through this final year, finish somewhat strong, and say goodbye, or you can really SAY GOODBYE in the best and most fulfilling way. Personally, I think, as long as you know you're going to be doing this anyway, why not give 110%? Why not give it all you've got? I know, it's a cliché. It's an over-used saying. But what does "giving it all you've got" really mean?

What does 110% really entail?

It means being the first one in the water. It means eating no more sugar or processed crap. It means limiting partying. It means being positive, cheering for teammates. It means hitting each workout with a goal. It means doing extra dryland. It means stretching after practices. It means going above-and-beyond. It means positive thinking, and yes, positive self-talk. It means ALL those cliché sayings and inspirational quotes you've ever read coming together in a perfect fusion of five months of perfection. Whatever you think it means, it's much, much more, and then some.

Because that's it.

Five months. And then it's over.

When I entered my senior year, I made this experimental game with myself: What would happen if I really, truly did everything I was supposed to do in practice and meets? Meaning, what would happen if I was "that guy" who jumped into practice every morning, first person in the water? What would happen if I stopped eating white flour and processed sugars and pizza and drinking bad things? What would happen if I gave up Doritos and marathons of reality TV crap? What would happen if, for five quick months, I just gave everything--absolutely everything--I could, chasing five great months of training?

Turns out, I dropped a lot of time. I accomplished a goal, which was scoring points at the Big Ten Championships, something I had never done before. I'm not saying this to brag. I'm just saying that's what happened.

But more than that, I realized the difference between doing something and going through the daily motions versus putting every ounce of your heart, soul, and emotion into one activity. I realized, very briefly for a few short months, what that all-out dedication actually meant. It was a fun, neat experience--one that I look back on fondly.

Was it easy? Hell, no. Was it rewarding? Absolutely. Did I know that I was done by the time I finished the Big Tens? Without a doubt. I was done. I was tired. I was spent. But it was a good kind of tired, a good kind of exhaustion.

I left everything on the table those last five months. I did everything I could. When it was over, sure, I realized I didn't try as hard as I could have my entire career, and I took long summer breaks and sometimes skipped morning practices during the summers and sometimes had bad attitudes going into 400 IMs and Christmas practices.

But every journey is how you finish. It's about perspective. If you finish a marathon sprinting towards the finish line, you'll smile. You'll feel good when you're done. You'll be exhausted, sure, but you'll at least know and remember that feeling of sprinting at the end.

Someone once told me that five months, in the grand scheme of life, is nothing. Five months is a blip. It's a little, tiny dent of time in the grand scheme of your life. It's a very brief part of your adulthood, and it happens so fast. But if you make the most of these next five months, you'll remember them fondly. Which is all you can ask for at the end of the day.

No matter what has happened in your swim career, or what times you've swum or haven't swum, or what places you've scored or not scored, put all that behind you. You're in the final mile of your career-long marathon. You've spent most your entire life doing swimming. Don't come this far only to crawl towards the finish.


I know that's not a "tangible" goal in terms of times. But if you do sprint towards the finish line, even if it's an internalized experiment, even if you have to convince yourself to do it, by the time you are finished, you will know what it is like to dedicate yourself fully to one activity. And that's a great thing to learn.

Here's the truth: Adult life is sometimes very, very boring. If you think you have a love/hate relationship with swimming, I can only begin to tell you about the love/hate relationships you'll have with mortgage payments, or working the late night shift, or grocery shopping for the same breakfast you've eaten every day for 10 years, or driving an hour in morning rush hour traffic to get to your job, or 4-hour long conference calls... You get the idea. There's a boredom that comes with much of adult life.

But if you just learn to love whatever it is you are doing in that moment, even if it is as mundane and simple as waiting in the grocery line, your life will be a lot easier. And happier.

So I'll tell you what I was told before my senior year: It's just five months. You owe it to yourself, and to all those morning practices and all those meets and all those swim seasons, to sprint to the finish line. This is your time to sprint. Don't crawl there. Don't end with a whimper. Memory is a fickle thing, and when you're as old as I am, you'll only really remember these last five months. Make 'em great. And the best way to do that is to give all you've got, love what you do (even if you have to convince yourself of it) and just realize that these five months, while it might SEEM like a very long time, is really just nothing. Then it's over. Five months, then that's it. Then you never have to worry about swimming ever again.

And when you finally reach the top of your mountain and look down and reflect on your decades-long swimming career, you'll feel good about these final five months, and you'll feel good about your swim career. You'll be able to say goodbye and never look back.

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