By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Monday, August 5, 2019
Despite all of his pool success – a career that includes Olympic relay gold and numerous NCAA, short and long course butterfly titles and medals – Tom Shields surprisingly has always struggled to find his place in the sport of swimming.
Why? Lots of reasons – most of them internal demons he’s struggled to exorcise for years.
And despite these recurring personal feelings of not being worthy or good enough, Shields has carved out a highly successful career in the sport – and he’s not looking to cut it short any time soon.
This week in Lima, Peru, Shields takes another step toward swimming immortality at the Pan American Games by swimming both the 100 and 200 butterfly events, and he’s more eager than ever to compete in the pool.
“Outside of just simply becoming an adult physically or learning how to find more speed, I feel I’ve become more of an adult mentally (over the past decade),” he said. “I feel I have learned so much about how to operate within a group, or my own mindset.
“This quad has been very difficult to get any feeling on where I stand in my career, because as all of my best training has been since Rio, none of my impressive performances have. I’m just trying to swim fast and have fun this summer though, and pay less attention to whether or not I’m a ‘star’ or a ‘darling’ because that’s not why I got into this and not what’s going to keep me here or get me back. I really, really just want to go fast.”
A 2013 University of California-Berkeley graduate and multiple NCAA champion, Shields continues to live and train in Berkeley in the same apartment he had in college.
He said if he has “any talent,” it lies in his ability to push, so it’s great to have the deep, fast Berkeley post-grad group to train with every day.
And while he said he’s in the midst of a four-year plateau – despite finding enough speed to make his first Olympic team in 2016 – he knows how important it is to have the right people around him mixed with the right mindset.
“I couldn’t love the dudes I am training with more; someone’s always getting better so those of us who are struggling somewhat can live off someone else’s good energy until we figure out what’s been going on,” Shields said.
“To be honest, I don’t think the level of success I’ve set goals to attain would be possible without that growing experience. I’m really good at working hard, but that’s a double-edged sword. I don’t relax well. I put too much pressure on myself, and have struggled with certain hurtful negative self-thoughts, or neural pathways, or whatever.”
Shields said part of his problem lies in the fact that, for a good bit of his career, he’s struggled with a “broken mindset.”
At 2012 Trials, where he finished fourth in the 100 fly, Shields said he didn’t feel “disappointment” despite coming within two spots of making the Olympic team.
He had just won an NCAA team title earlier that spring and was named Swimmer of the Meet, and all he really wanted to do was go home, surf and, see my friends, but it was a “Trials year” so he felt pressure to keep training.
A friend committed suicide a few weeks before Trials, and for these reasons, he said nothing inside of him wanted to go to London.
“This isn’t some hindsight ‘well, I didn’t make it, so I’ll just say I didn’t want to go,’” he said. “I said multiple times in the lead up, I was going to Trials to do my part on the Cal team, but was never really into the Olympic movement or liking long course or anything like that.
“I took summers off the last two years of high school (after 08 Trials anyway) and hated WUGs in ’11 –as an experience — so much I almost quit swimming. I just felt the system is too broken, too boring.”
Shields said struggles with his mental health came to a significant head with his performance at the Rio Olympics (finalist in the 100 fly and 20th in the 200) and after missing the Pan Pacific Championship team last summer.
He’s currently working with a mental health professional to figure things out, and he also is working with USA Swimming to expand mental health services for the U.S. National Team.
“I keep tricking people into thinking ‘I’m good at this’ – it’s something I say to myself way too often,” he said. “It’s hard for me to accept the success I’ve had, I guess. I never got to go in person to see me on the Kellogg’s box in stores, I just couldn’t handle looking at them or going down the aisle. I don’t know why.
“I have long felt my only value to the world is swimming, as it’s really the only thing I’ve ever gotten paid to do. This has made me feel trapped by my career at certain points, which always makes me laugh and remember something I read once: ‘have an opportunity to get paid to do what you love?’ Talk to me in a year.”
Despite whatever doubts or self-deprecating feelings he may be working through, the fact remains that Shields, who will be 29 next year shortly after Olympic Trials, remains among the best butterfly swimmers in the world and opportunities like Pan Ams continue to come his way.
And as the elder butterfly swimmer in the states, Shields knows the potential for faster swims and future wins is still within his reach as age is just a number.
“(Roque) Santos set a world record in his late 30s, both Phelps and (Laszlo) Cseh had 200 fly’s that I would argue were career performances in their 30s,” he said. “(Matt) Grevers, (Jason) Lezak, (Anthony) Ervin, (David) Plummer (and others) also had some of their fastest swims later in their careers.
“I remind myself of these weekly – that people’s typical expectations/storylines for a career are just that... stories. I will continue to take my career year by year, doing my best to destroy the quad and ‘Olympic worship’ that, in my opinion, plagues our sport. I have always and will continue to put all of my effort into building the sport into what I think it can/should be until I’m not having fun doing so.”
One of these ways Shields intends to accomplish this is through the upcoming International Swimming League (ISL), which he said he is very excited about and ready to promote and compete in.
In fact, in some ways, Shields feels some creative ownership for the league even though that’s not really the case.
“A roommate I had at (2011) WUGs, a coach and I designed what we thought would be a great spectator version of the sport, which is very similar to the format of the ISL,” he said. “We landed on a dual-meet tournament-style-system. We thought 12-man teams, short course, and in nice, intimate venues would create the coolest environment for swimming.
“Without my direct involvement in planning or designing the league, the ISL recently landed on the exact same idea that we did. So, watch the International Swim League this fall. It is going to be so exciting and something I think about a lot more than anything else in this sport.”