Updated: May 21, 2021
Above my bed, I have the quote: “swimming is simply moving meditation.”
My mom meditates every morning. “It’s about clearing your mind,” she says. “The thoughts will come, of course. Observe them high above you, like clouds in the sky, and they will pass.”
My go-to strategy for anxiety management is filling a planner so every minute is accounted for, never leaving time for my thoughts to slip through. Whenever I try to meditate, my thoughts pile up on one another: accumulate, condensate, lightning-thunder-rain down until my brain clouds into a mess of static electricity, and I give up altogether.
I’m not good at sitting in stillness, but I am good at swimming. I’ve muddled through elementary-school leagues, raced for my team at high school championships, and slogged through three-day club invitationals, all the way to the deck at Swarthmore College.
I swim because I love being in the water. I was fortunate to have a pool in my neighborhood as a kid, where I’d spend hours each afternoon wriggling around underwater, emerging with pruney fingers and a grin on my face. I’ve never felt so centered and at peace.
My swimming career began on a summer-league team. Being a sensitive kid, I was spooked by the whistle-blowing and fast 50s, but I loved having an hour where I felt the sun on my back and water on my skin. However, I never swam seriously until I joined a club team in eighth grade.
When they’re young and new to a sport, swimmers can improve rapidly and consistently. I dropped time in every race. I had big dreams, but for the moment, I was a kid working hard and having fun along the way. I liked feeling wanted, important, part of a team.
As I entered high school, my anxiety, long bubbling under the surface, asserted itself as an integral part of my daily existence. My friends, slinging off the dresses of childhood, dove into the teenage social scene. When I couldn’t adapt, they left me behind, dropping proverbial bombs in their wake: Lighten up, this is fun! Why can’t you get over yourself? Getting through a school day without crying was a victory.
I never said the right thing, felt the right way, or made the right friends. I drifted through the school hallways, feeling aimless, unmoored. I viewed life from behind a foggy window, smudging the glass further when I tried to reach out. I learned that these feelings were diagnosable as clinical depression.
That year, swimming was the best thing in the world for me.
Before every practice, my coach would say, “Leave everything at the gate. On deck, your grades and social life don’t matter. You’re here to swim. That’s the most important thing.” In most of my life, I felt aimless, but in swimming, I had purpose. I stuck around after practice, asking for extra workouts and technique pointers. I watched videos detailing elite swimmers’ mindsets and modeled my behavior after theirs. If I hadn’t had that space, a bright spot isolated from everything else, I don’t know how I would have made it through that year. I also improved physically, winning a district team title and making the senior group.
Senior group was harder. When I failed to complete a set – a short practice workout with a specific focus – my new coach pulled me out of the water and told me I didn’t care, I would never be great, and I didn’t deserve to be there. I went home crying every day. Still, he knew more about swimming than anyone I knew, and he got results. He seemed hell-bent on making me a success story — a nobody rising from obscurity to make a state team, maybe college one day.
Soon, I made drastic improvements. After massive time drops in the distance events, my coach’s intensity again grew, and I was ready for it. What I put into swimming would be what I got out of it. It became a priority in a way that it had never been before. Then, suddenly, I stopped dropping time.
Growing up, I feel that I was fed the lies of meritocracy. Such is in swimming. Many young swimmers are told tales of those who succeed: age-group stars and first-time high school swimmers alike, rising from obscurity to Olympic glory in a few years. The latter example was drilled into my head to show me that anyone can be great if they choose to be.
It’s not easy. Getting anywhere in sports requires a huge amount of mental fortitude, willingness to make seemingly endless sacrifices, and high pain tolerance. But the message I heard was, “if you choose it, greatness will come for you.” Until, for so many, it doesn’t.
One of the most dreaded experiences in swimming is the plateau. Not because it's rare, but because it’s so devastating. One moment, you’re improving rapidly, and then all of a sudden, you hit the brakes. I was doing everything right, but it seemed to make me worse. I added more time with each race.
I came to expect bad results. I began each race thinking about how much time I’d add, how badly I’d get beaten, and what I’d say to my coach. When I saw someone pull ahead of me, I’d let them. Swimming, which had saved me mentally so many times, was becoming the source of my anxieties.
I was ready to reset. I arrived at Swarthmore with high hopes, but even higher anxieties. This was my chance to prove myself and contribute in the ways I wanted. I put pressure on myself to perform, in the water and out of it.
College training was different, and harder, than anything I’d done before. I’d watch my coach write seemingly endless sets up on the board, and I’d think “This is impossible. This hurts. How am I going to finish?”
My teammates didn’t feel similarly. Everyone arrived on deck early because they wanted to. Someone connected their phone to the pool’s speakers every day, and people sang along between sets. My teammates joked with the coaches, and the coaches joked back! It became clear there was a gap between our perspectives — I was missing their joy.
After my freshman season, I contemplated quitting. What brought me back was the water, heading down to the pool and swimming alone. Some days, I’d push myself, but others I’d flop around in the deep end, feeling the water. In taking the pressure off, I felt my love for the water flowing back into me, and with it, a new sense of clarity.
I’d had a bad few years, but there wasn’t much linked to my performance except my mindset. I wasn’t a great swimmer, and I might never be. I might never swim a "best time," a new personal record, again. Realizing that performance wasn’t the end-all-be-all in a performance-based sport seems contradictory, but it saved my career.
I recently heard Christen Press of the US Women’s National Team speak on her mindset (here), and how only in letting go of her national-team aspirations and embracing her love of soccer did they find their way back to her. I’d never heard an athlete talk like that, and her words really spoke to me.
I’d already swam badly, broken down, and missed a conference team. Yet, I was still lucky enough to do something I loved every day. So few get that opportunity, and I took it for granted. I had tied my anxieties and self-worth to athletic performance for so long, but was finally starting to realize that fifteen years down the road, I won’t remember my times, but the friends I swam with. I decided to make the most of it; to focus on the things that I could control —my own attitude, and being the best teammate possible.
It paid off in dividends. Instead of worrying about pushing myself as hard as I possibly could in practice, I focused on the endorphins I would feel after. I made it a goal to be as vocal as possible during practices, believing that the louder and more obnoxiously encouraging you are during practices, the happier you are. I watched out for the first-year students, knowing how hard my first year had been, and wanting to make it better for them.
Somewhere along the line, I learned to meditate in motion. Those long sets turned out to be the perfect physical distraction, freeing up my mental space to simply exist, focusing on my arms like a mantra, finding a flow. Every time I feel I've figured something out, I slip again, but I realize I might never fully materialize; instead, I’m endlessly becoming.
At the end of the season, getting best times was the icing on the cake. I’d come together with some of the most passionate, dedicated, badass women out there, been a part of something greater, and had the time of my life doing it.
I believe we make our own measures of success. We cannot control so much, but we can control what we do with what we’re given. Taking responsibility for that and letting go of the rest can make all the difference.
Zoe Myers-Bochner is a junior majoring in psychology and educational studies at Swarthmore College, where she's also on the varsity swim team. She's passionate about nature poetry, her progressive Jewish community, singing off-key, joy, the outdoors, and water in all its forms.