Despite what you may guess from the title, this post isn’t about superannuation. It’s just about a swimmer’s retirement from competitions and his eventual coming back years later. I just wanted to write a couple of words on how and why I decided to go back to swimming, although on a different level of committment compared to the past. I was inspired by reading this article written by Julie Tullber for The Conversation. The author makes an analysis of what made possible Grant Hackett’s (temporarily successful) return to high level swimming years after his retirement from races. I don’t pretend to compare myself to Grant, we come from two different planets (and that mean to be still too close). I don’t even know whether I can call myself a swimmer in front of him. However, I was inspired by Hackett because he was my swimming hero when he was the king of 15 hundreds despite being just one year older than me. I still remember watching him in awe on TV during the 1998 Perth Swimming World Championships. Then, his return to high level competitions after training for just 6 months is amazing. This is undeniable. But this post is not about Grant, it’s about some motivational factors that push somebody back to water, after he has even forgotten whether he still has a swimsuit or not.
Let’s go back some years. It’s 2001. I make one of the choices of my life: I decide to go to a university (relatively) far from home. But I don’t want to give up swimming, it is a huge part of my life, it helps me shaping my own identity. So I decide to sign up for a local swimming club. The first year everything is perfect and smooth: training is great, PBs crumble, lots of fun and also top marks at school. However the second semester of the second year I have a crazy class schedule: I cannot train with the same load/frequency I used to, and that I need in order to be competitive (for my standards at least). I have to make a choice: swimming or university? Together with my coach I decide to reduce my weekly training sessions for some months, waiting for a better tomorrow. Which doesn’t arrive. At the end the reason for slowing down first and eventually retiring is just a matter of consideration about the future.
A 20 years old male swimmer knows if potentially he can make it to the olympics or if he can just reach the final of an open national championship, maybe without making it neither to the national team. Sad but true. Dreams are fine, but when reality arrives, it may hurt. At this point logic reasoning tells you that a future in competitive swimming is short. By graduating instead one never knows, you may open yourself to endless possibilities. However I don’t decide to stop competitive swimming overnight. It happens slowly, and maybe it’s better. When I do my last competition, luckily I don’t know that day it’s going to be game over.
12 years later. In the meanwhile I move from one continent to another, I complete my post-graduate studies, I gain 30 kg, I start strength training, I lose 28 kg, I get a job, I change workplace, I move to another continent again. I am happy with my job, my family and my morning strength training routine. Then on a “cold” August Sunday morning (we are downunder here) my wife, who doesn’t even swim, suggests to go to the swimming pool. But not to any swimming pool. To the swimming pool, that of the 1991 and 1998 Swimming World Championship, that of Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett. I think about it a while, then I consider it an opportunity to do some cardio, so I start checking if I still have a swimsuit and my old Swedish goggles somewhere. The following Sunday I go again. And then again. And then also on a mid-week day. Then mid-week days become two. Then…I am back. I think to sign up for some competition, I look for a masters swimming club. I commit to training and eventually I start doing swimming races.
I set goals. I am hooked again. I am extremely far from what I used to be and how I used to swim, but after less than 5 months of training I am doing better than I had ever imagined, and this is enough motivating for me. What made all this possible?
Past preparation for the 15 hundreds. This has been accounted for Hackett’s return, so somewhat may apply to me too. Simply, if you swam a lot, your body will never forget it. A retired swimmer is always a swimmer. You just need time to oil your joints, clean up your cardiovascular system, and get muscles running again. How long does it takes to do this? And to which level can you be back? Maybe it depends on your age, but for sure your body can be back if your mind wants it. One of my old coaches once said that if you stop for 6 months, you can call yourself an ex-swimmer. He was wrong. Once you are a swimmer, it’s forever.
Taekwondo for 3 years, followed by 4 years of strength training. Even if I have been training for less than 5 months, I did taekwondo and I am still religiously sticking to strength training. This somewhat helped me with mobility, flexibility and strength development. And also it kept my musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems working. I just need to do heaps of laps to grease the groove.
I make time for swimming. I committed to training because I manage to make time for it. Swimming is not clashing with other aspects of my life, which was one of the reason I quitted when I was 20~21 years old. Of course, I wake up at 4:20am to make it fits into my schedule, but this is exactly what “making time” means.
The need to redefine myself in a new place. Who experienced moving to another country already knows: if you live abroad, you often need to create a new identity for yourself. Swimming is contributing to this; it’s helping me in redefining myself with an identity in harmony with where I am living now (by meeting new people and by making me feeling part of a community).
That primordial desire for competition. This highly depends on each of us, but I always enjoyed competitions. They make me feel alive, just like the taste of challenges. Competing, struggling during the race, sometimes (few) winning while other (many more) loosing…all this strengthen incredibly body and mind.
The masters swimming environment. In masters swimming you can create pressure for yourself if you want, but you really need to want it. The environment is not creating pressure upon you. You are independent. It’s your responsibility to be ready for a meeting, but at least you participate only if and when you want it.
There is no single reason why I am back to the pool and to swimming races. I don’t know whether this is going to last in the future (I hope) or coming again to a (temporary) stop, but I enjoying being a swimmer again.