Mike's Mailbag: Does Swimming Matter?


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday I answer swimmers’ questions from around the country. If you have a question, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com. As always, take this advice with a grain of salt.

Dear Mike,
This is probably going to be rather long and depressing, but hopefully thought-provoking. Basically, the moral is that distance sets leave you too much time to think.

I don't remember the set, but I do remember that I came to the realization that I spend countless hours of my life swimming circles in a giant puddle of chlorinated, germy water. I drive myself insane over numbers and yardage and places and times, and watch the people around me do the same. This is my normal. This is the normal of a whole, worldwide community of people. Does nobody question it?

Yes, there are definitely perks. There are the Olympics, the pride of being the sport that won the medals needed to propel our country to victory. There is the whole society of people who understand the things you do because you share this similar sport.

But why am I spending so much time swimming in these existentially fraught circles around a pool? Why am I stressing myself out about places and times? Why? What's the point? I think this is what you'd call an "existential crisis".

But seriously, what is the point? What's the point of the endless miles of chlorinated water in my wake? What's the point of these numbers and the stress and the pain and the hundreds of sustained injuries? What's the point?

And this whole mentality applies to the rest of life outside swimming. What's the point in people sitting for hours at computers and pressing keys and taking calls?

Their reward is a slip of paper with numbers on it that can be used to trade for things. So what? What's the point in learning trigonomic functions and geometric proofs that I'll never use later on in life? What's the point in brand names and societal status? What's the point of a government that can't decide on anything? And what is the point in me asking any if this?

What am I supposed to do? I've been stuck in this cycle of thoughts for a while now, endless questions and no answers.

Not that this applies to swimming all that much, but you seem to have your life pretty put together, and I thought you might have some, if not all the answers.

If you read this all the way through, thanks.

-Existentially Fraught Swimmer

Hello Existentially Fraught Swimmer,

When I was 18, I didn’t see much of the point of anything. Swimming seemed a ridiculous waste of time. And a waste of personal resources. It seemed greedy. Like there were billions of people in this world who need help, and, while I certainly could not help billions, I could help at least one person. But there I was, slogging around in a concrete block on my own, chasing after times that, when you really think about it, don’t matter that much in the greater and grand scheme of world events.

I hear you.

I wanted to quit swimming and college and join the Peace Corps, and doing anything else with my time seemed narcissistic. I didn’t see much behind the point of swimming, or learning things in school I’d later forget, or acquiring a job so I could pay the bills that only increased as life continued. It seemed cyclical and a waste of time.

I didn’t quit, though. I went back to school and finished swimming and got a degree. Then I moved to LA, then to New York, then to Ann Arbor. I have switched careers probably as many times as Michael Phelps has hinted at a comeback. I have lived in a different residence every single year since 2001. In other words: Every time I think I have my life figured out, another thing happens, another career change, another move, another deviation in the path. And I’m still trying to figure everything out, just like you.

What is the point with all of this?

Certainly there are better people in this world to answer this question in more concise and clarified ways than I can in an 800-word column on a swimming website.

The best advice I can give you:

1. So many times in our lives, we have what I like to call “Feet Eyes.” We’re walking down a path, and it’s at night, and we’re only looking at our feet. We can only see what’s in front of our feet, which is usually some rocks, a few twigs. We can’t see down the path, we can’t see what’s coming. Maybe the flashlight is too weak. Maybe it’s foggy that night. Whatever the case, we have Feet Eyes. We’re just staring at our feet, unable to see down the path or what’s at the end. Well, eventually, if you stay on that path long enough, the sun will come up, birds will chirp, the fog and nighttime blanket will lift, and you’ll be able to see again.

I know this is a cheesy metaphor, but go with me. When we’re young, our path just seems so much smaller than what it really is. We can’t see what’s ahead. We can’t see where we’ve been. My advice, first of all, is to just keep walking. Just keep walking down that path. In my (also short and naïve) experience with life, when I’m walking down a path, staring at my feet, unable to see ahead, I’ll stick it out, and continue to walk. One minute, I have Feet Eyes. And the next minute, suddenly, the sun rises – briefly – and I realize I’m standing on the edge of a hill, overlooking a beautiful mountain valley, with a stream and all sorts of other beautiful, mushy, gushy, wonderful things. Then it goes away, and it’s night again. But at least I remember that one vision of all that beautifulness, even if it was just a millisecond long – and that keeps me going. My point (sorry this is so cliché) is that we don’t know where we’re walking until we know where we are, and “knowing where we are” sometimes takes a while to see.

2. Consider talking to someone. Not your family, and not your friends. But a doctor, if you can afford it. Or a school counselor. You sound like a smart person, and you’re going to have a great future ahead. But you’re also dealing with questions that 99% of us also quietly ponder, and when you bottle these things up, they’re poison. They will erode you from the inside out. I’ve felt hopeless at various times of my life, and talking to someone, or writing about it, has always made me feel better.

The thing is, swimming really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of world events. It doesn’t solve the world’s problems. It can’t end war. It won’t stop the next terrorist attack.

But, to some people, it is one chance to feel alive in this world. I’m not talking about Olympians or the Olympics – the Olympics are not the point of our sport. The point of our sport is the people who fully invest themselves in it, who immerse themselves in it, because it makes them feel strong, or better, or healthier. I’ve always found that the people who “don’t care” about swimming, or “don’t care” about any activity in general, are also the people who haven’t fully invested themselves into that activity. Not fully. They haven’t felt the pain involved with failure after putting their entire soul into a pursuit, only to lose. You could walk up to someone really passionate about swimming and say, “This doesn’t matter,” and that person could turn around and say, “Actually, when my parents died, swimming saved my life.”

I’ve had an up and down relationships with “why swimming matters” just like I’ve had up and down relationships with “why life matters.” Ultimately, when I found myself truly investing my heart and soul into swimming – really going after goals, enjoying the process, embracing this fleeting opportunity to mesh mind, body, and soul in common pursuit of a goal – that’s when I have believed swimming does matter.

Because, to me, it does. It didn’t always, but it does now. Swimming taught me how to keep a great attitude. How to overcome injury. It’s taught me that pain exists in the mind. Swimming taught me that no obstacle is a real obstacle. It’s taught me that effort is more valuable than success. And so on.

I don’t want to sound like a Swimming Homer to you. I’m not here to be a USA Swimming spokesperson. I’m just telling you my own experience with this sport. Swimming didn’t give me end-all be-all euphoria or enlightenment, but it has taught me a few things about myself, and it’s only taught me those things because I didn’t quit, and because, over time, I invested myself fully into the activity. It’s made me feel strong, even for just a few, short, fleeting moments in my life – moments I return to during times of hardship, when I think to myself, “If I can survive 10x 400 IMs, I can survive this.”

But that’s me. You’re different. Swimming might not teach you these things. And that’s OK, too.

The meaning of life is up to us. And it’s dictated by our actions. Life is so short and so fleeting, we have a limited opportunity to do things with our lives. If you decide to continue to swim, my advice to you is to pour your entire self and soul into it. That’s the only way to see how it can matter. Or, if you decide to take calculus, no matter how trivial or boring, pour yourself into it. If you decide to take a walk, pour your entire being into that walk. If you decide to clean the table, clean it. It sounds ridiculous and silly, but really clean that table. Embrace where you are, the things around you, and be in the moment, whatever that moment may be. There are Buddhist monks who seek enlightenment by sweeping rocks. To you or me, sweeping rocks seems to be about as boring as it sounds – it’s just sweeping rocks. But to them, sweeping rocks is a way towards spiritual enlightenment.

Everyone is different. Different things matter to different people. When you give your soul to an activity, you’re activity saying, “This matters.” Giving 100% to something is the only way to really learn what matters.

If you haven’t found that thing to give 100%, keep walking down your path. You’re experiencing Feet Eyes. Talk to someone about it. Write about it. Speak about it. Then keep going. One step forward, then the next. It might take a few months, years, or decades. But, even if you can’t see the other end of that path, simply knowing that there is one can make all the difference.

Ultimately, Existentially Fraught Swimmer, to me, this is what it comes down to:

A pool can be anything.

Some people see a pool as a giant puddle of germy, chlorinated water. Another person may see a blue, infinite, diving well of dreams.

In the end, it’s just a pool. The rest is up to you.

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