By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, January 30, 2020
Growing up, Micha (Burden) Shaw always wanted to be a mermaid.
It’s one of the reasons she stayed with swimming when she was young despite not being very good and finishing last in her first race.
It’s also one of the reasons that, after retiring from pool swimming in 2004, she returned to the water and became one of the world’s best open water swimmers.
“I have always loved being in the water, especially outside of the pool,” said Shaw, who lives and owns her own business in Laguna Beach, Calif., with her firefighter husband, Logan, son, Zane, 9, and daughter, Reny, 6.
“There is a certain freedom and excitement involved with open water that just suited me better. Swimming open water prolonged my career many years longer than I ever imagined.”
Her open water career took her to several National Championships, and her title in the 10k in 2007 took her to World Championships, where she expected to make the following year’s Olympic team.
When that didn’t happen, she took a year off from training and competing to pursue other endeavors and opportunities, but Logan convinced her she still loved swimming and should get back in and give it another attempt.
Several months before 2011 Open Water Nationals, where she would have competed to earn a spot on the Worlds team, she decided in October 2010 that she had given it all she had and it was time for her to move on, start a family and chase other dreams.
Another monumental event also played an indirect role into her decision to end her competitive swim career.
“Three days after I walked away from the pool and made the decision to retire, Fran (Crippen) died and that changed my world significantly,” said Shaw, who called Alaska, South Africa, Washington and England home as a youngster. “We were really good friends, and I hadn’t even had a chance to speak with him about my decision when he was in Dubai. After that, I felt conflicted about retiring, but I knew it was the right decision.
“I had switched training teams, and it just wasn’t fun for me anymore. Swimming was a chore. It felt like a job that I really started hating going to every day. My last day, I got out of the pool and burst into tears because I knew I needed to make a change. I spoke with my husband, and just as he had convinced me a few years earlier to pursue open water, he helped me decide it was time to retire.”
Within a month or so of retiring, Shaw discovered she was pregnant with her first child and knew right away she had made the best decision for her.
Since then, she’s had two children, earned two yoga teaching certifications and created a business where she uses her own personal breakthroughs with mindfulness and meditation to help young athletes “find their best selves.”
She has given presentations to swim clubs and high schools about the value of focusing through meditation and being mindful of their surroundings and what’s happening at various moments in their lives.
It’s all about visualization – something that Shaw used when she was a competitive swimmer, especially during her competitive open water days.
She also spoke at the recent Open Water Select Camp and said she feels she is able to make a positive impact each time she speaks to groups because she makes connections.
“Mindfulness is something I’m extremely passionate about because it’s made a huge impact upon my personal and professional lives and has helped me help athletes reach their full potential, their best selves,” she said.
“In this time of mental health discussion and awareness and the pressure associated with competing at the highest levels, mindfulness helps these athletes be present in the moment on purpose and be non-judgmentally aware of their experiences. I just help guide them through the process – to focus during practice, during meets, in the classroom, wherever.”
A noted daydreamer herself, Shaw said she would lose focus in the pool (and other places) because she found herself narrating her experiences – telling an ongoing story about something that happened in the past – rather than focusing on the present, in that moment.
She said there are a plethora of misconceptions about meditation, and when people aren’t immediately successful, they give up, even though each step is a way of strengthening muscle concentration and muscle memory – this being the muscle of the mind rather than elsewhere in the body.
“This is huge for athletes because it helps them recover from distractions, which is inevitable,” said Shaw, who earned her degree in international business while swimming at Cal-Berkley in the early 2000s. “You can’t turn off your mind, but by strengthening it, you can bring yourself back to the breath rep and focus. This is invaluable to athletes who find their minds wandering during training and/or meets.
“Then, they are able the channel all their energy to whatever they are doing – practicing, competing, etc. There really is no right or wrong way to do this either. Athletes find whatever works for them.”
And just like she did as a young swimmer, Shaw said her work with athletes helps them hone their own personal dreams.
Her dream was to one day be an Olympian, and even though that never happened, having something like that to hold onto provides great motivation and even better focus.
“I don’t claim to be a psychologist or anyone who practices mental health at that level; but I think there is great value in being mindful of the present and focusing on what’s happening now,” said Shaw, who swam the 200 and 500 freestyle events in college and rarely competed in the distance swims.
“I know, for me, there were numerous meets when I was so focused on hitting a time or a finish that I didn’t take any time to stop and reflect, make memories and enjoy the moment. I find that my best memories of past meets are the ones where I did take time to ‘smell the roses’ and be present.”
Shaw added that, in addition to having learned to focus during his training and competing, swimming has given her many valuable every-day skills – especially the mantra that hard work reaps rewards and few things that come easy are worth having.
“Consistency and dedication are important parts of my every day work and professional lives, and those came directly from swimming,” she said. “I don’t swim any more, but I’m training for my second marathon now, and being consistent and dedicated to training have made me better and more focused as a competitor.
“We’re so focused on ‘having to be better’ that we don’t give ourselves any time to experience and enjoy success. Swimming has taught me that not everything is going to be successful, but it’s important to enjoy the experience and learn from it. Enjoying the accomplishment and being proud of yourself is equally as important as knowing you hit that goal and moving onto the next one.”