Indiana Daily Student

OPINION: In sports, the ending you want is not always the one you get

<p>Then-freshmen Ryley Ober and Katrina Somner hug Feb. 21, 2020, during the Big Ten Championship at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center in Iowa City, IA. </p>

Then-freshmen Ryley Ober and Katrina Somner hug Feb. 21, 2020, during the Big Ten Championship at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center in Iowa City, IA.

I was 20 minutes into swim practice when the pain came roaring back.

The athletic trainers told me to stay away from any equipment that puts stress on my back, but I was feeling better that day. Always one to push the envelope, I strapped on my parachute. How much damage could a piece of red fabric floating behind me do?

Big mistake. The extra resistance sent pain shooting through my upper back — a sensation I’d become all too accustomed to. With a sigh, I got out of the water.

I looked across the pool at my teammates still swimming. Tears started falling down my face. After months of confusion, it suddenly became clear.

It was time.

I took a deep breath. It felt as if I was moving in slow motion as I packed my bag and took my exit. As the door slammed behind me, I knew I had worn the Indiana swim cap for the last time.

***

My affinity for the water began as a pudgy, blonde-haired toddler, obsessed with water. At 3 years old, I was diving 7 ½ feet to the bottom of my family’s pool in Florida. Whether it was a chlorinated pool or saltwater off the coast of Anna Maria Island, my mom couldn’t keep me on dry land.

By age 10, my brothers and I joined a swim team, which led to my first meet. New competitions led to winning my first Florida age group title, which led to my first top five finish at USA Swimming Junior Nationals. My life became more and more encircled by swimming.

Everything about student-athlete life is fast-paced. If you aren’t training, you’re studying. If you aren’t studying, you’re recruiting. If you aren’t helping recruit, you're sleeping. Life is all in, all the time, for the team. 

When college coaches started recruiting me, I jumped at the chance to move 1,018 miles away from home to join the IU Swim and Dive team, a program that’s produced multiple Olympic gold medal winners. I viewed Bloomington like the promised land. 

My obsession as a toddler turned into a collegiate career. 

Swimming was so ingrained in my life, I didn't know who I was without it. So when one of my ribs displaced from its joint last year, I refused to retire. The pain was easier than quitting.

The sport provided a direction and regimen for my life. I don’t know if it was dedication or fear that kept me holding on.

I knew hard work. I did not know how to give up part of who I was.

***

Four weeks into my freshman year, I was swimming through morning practice at 5:15 a.m. like any other day. I had just experienced my most successful summer, having qualified for the 2020 Olympic Trials in the 200- and 400-yard freestyles. I was confident in my potential for the first time. 

“You have no fucking idea how good you can be,” Mike Westphal, former IU associate head coach, told me after I qualified for Trials.

I was completing the same training sessions as IU’s current Olympians, often in the same lane. How far away could I be?

Suddenly, during my morning swim, a tension started building in my upper back, like an elastic band getting pulled tight. Then, a pop.

A pain like I never felt rang through my body. My heart started racing. I was in the middle of the pool. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t take a deep breath.

Mustering my strength, I bit down on my lip, crawled to the side of the pool and waved down our athletic trainer. I didn’t know it yet, but 15 trips to the chiropractor and consultations with six different doctors over the next two years would leave us with more questions than answers. The working diagnosis is currently a rib displacement with extreme muscle spasming.

***

Should pain strike, my coaches told me to put on fins and kick on my back with my arms at my sides. If the pain came soon after I started swimming, that could mean as much as 6,000 to 8,000 yards of only kicking. We practice ten times a week. As I lay there in the water — rigid except for my legs — I started to question what kept me coming back.

“In my 30-something years of coaching, I have never seen a swimmer push through an injury like your daughter has,” Ray Looze, our head coach, once told my parents on a phone call.

There is a certain addicting feeling swimmers get. It’s what psychologists call a “flow state.” Your mind is blank. The water glides over your body. The incredibly hard task feels easy, painless. You are flying.

I’ve experienced moments like this a handful of times. Staring at the walls of the Student Recreational Sports Center, my arms lifeless at my sides and the blisters swelling on my feet from overusing fins, I would look at the banners representing accolades of the past. I memorized the Olympian’s faces. I counted the years that marked NCAA champions. I wondered if I would ever fly again.

***

The countless hours spent motionlessly kicking flashed through my head that Tuesday morning when the pain came back. I had taken six months off to rest and undergo a series of injections to heal, yet the sheer intensity of training was too much for my ribs. I pushed myself as far as my body would allow. That day, I stood up in front of my team and announced my medical retirement.

In the following weeks, I frequently cried and pounded on the wheel of my Hyundai Santa Fe. I fell into depression and self-loathing. All my life, swimming provided a way to measure greatness. Either you are training well, or you aren’t. Either you swim fast, or you don’t. The clock is the judge.

As time passes, I’m learning to accept the loss of the future I envisioned. I still wrestle with the thoughts that left me banging on my steering wheel, but they are starting to quiet.

Life is slower. Some days, that torments me. But other days, I watch a cardinal visit my bird feeder in the mornings. I walk across campus, not in a rush, not smelling like chlorine. Sometimes I’m early for class and sit cross-legged outside Franklin Hall, close my eyes and feel the sun on my face. I continue to remind myself that life is not a race — or at least not one I have to win.

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